Why water experts want Utahns to be “the lonely lunatics” when it comes to xeriscaping

Cynthia Bee said it sometimes pays to be “the lonely lunatic” in a neighborhood to ditch the lawn-based park stripe, the patch of grass that typically exists between a street and the sidewalk in front of homes, businesses and government buildings.

It turns out it only takes one person to inspire others, especially in a neighborhood.

“I swear we find in every neighborhood that everyone is waiting and watching, and when they see someone doing it and having a beautiful result… that’s what counts,” said Bee, landscape architect and public relations coordinator at Jordan Valley district water management. “We see that again and again. If someone does it well, it just replicates.”

Therefore, there is suddenly a strong focus on parking strips with grass. Getting rid of the grass here is essentially the easiest way to reduce water use with no real impact, which is important if Utah remains in severe and extreme drought categories early in the watering season.

Utah Water Savers reports that the average turf-based park strip uses 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of water each year, although they are purely aesthetic. The amount of water they use together quickly adds up, as there are over 400,000 housing units in Salt Lake County alone, according to a 2019 estimate by the US Census Bureau.

Utah lawmakers hit hard on the sod park strip earlier this year, passing legislation to create the country’s first statewide sod buyback program that can compensate homeowners for the sod they rip up and replace with water-oriented landscaping. They also passed a requirement that general city and county plans incorporate land use planning with water as a consideration.

Lawmakers also lifted the ban on xeriscaping, a species that requires little or no irrigation water. Most of the state’s new laws go into effect on Wednesday.

The turf-based park strip was also the focus of Salt Lake County Council’s fourth and final “Water Summit” on Tuesday, where Bee and other water conservation experts discussed the impact of turf-based park strips on water use and presented plans to reduce their impact.

What Bee told the council is that she’s found that some are willing to test a possible solution right away, while others want to wait and see a good design before trying it themselves. She said hundreds of residents have already signed up for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District’s Park Strip program.

That small change, she adds, ultimately helps residents save thousands of gallons of water each year.

(Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District) This chart shows the number of applications for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District’s Flip Your Strip program since 2018. Last year there was a record 463 applications.

In fact, they received a record 463 applications for the program last year and are already on the way to more applications this year, indicating interest in xeriscaping is growing.

Salt Lake County City Councilman Richard Snelgrove said he’s heard the interest in everyday conservation efforts. Something a friend told him the other day stuck in his mind as the council tries to reduce water use. Most of the water not used by residents ends up in the contested Great Salt Lake.

“He said I was willing to let my lawn die so the Great Salt Lake could live,” he said. “That stuck with me.”

The best xeriscaping, Bee says, has about 50% plant coverage with small plants less than 2 feet tall. Native plants are encouraged as they are generally more drought tolerant and require less water than non-native plants.

She adds that sprinklers also need to be converted to a drip irrigation system, which only helps plants that need it. The sprinkler replacement is the great water saver while only focusing on the plants that need water and reducing weeds that often grow unintentionally from overwatering.

(Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District) An example of xeriscaping in a residential neighborhood in Salt Lake County.

A pedestrian walkway, a small walkway in the parking lane, is another option people can use to reduce damage from people walking in the parking lane.

Michael Shea, the district’s sustainability director, said that on average, Xeriscape costs about $8 per square foot. Some rebates, such as the Utah Water Savers’ “Flip Your Strip” program, offer up to $1.25 per square foot for eligible residents to replace their lawn parking strips with more water-efficient designs.

Bee says that just xeriscaping park strips has prompted others to do the same, but she’s found it’s been a gateway to other conservation projects as well. It’s something that might not work for everyone, but it plays a role in an ongoing drought.

“Take control of the parts you can,” she said, noting online battles over who is responsible for water use in the state. “Ultimately, we all use water and we have an obligation to be as efficient as possible. It’s really beneficial for (a) homeowner to have a garden that is resilient, because otherwise every time we have a drought they risk their investment in the landscape – that’s pretty common at the moment.”

Meanwhile, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson is ready to be the weirdo Bee describes.

After Bee finished her presentation to the county council, Wilson’s staffers Tuesday unveiled a $2 million proposal for the county to demolish 132 existing parking strips outside of 39 different county buildings and replace them with xeriscaping or localscaping. The measure is estimated to save more than 5.2 million gallons of water annually.

“The drought has heightened our awareness of the urgency of water conservation, but that need has already existed with Salt Lake County’s growing population,” Wilson said in a statement. “Last year we made a commitment to reduce water use and we have done so. This is one of many long-lasting conservation solutions that will help protect the quality of life for our residents, our watershed, and the future of the Great Salt Lake.”

Shea explained that the buildings selected for the project were determined through a thorough process that began by looking for the landscapes of all the county’s unused facilities, particularly those with grass.

They narrowed down the options by looking for the largest parking lanes and parking islands with grass in them. What started with more than 2,000 options eventually grew to 132 options totaling about three soccer fields in a combined area in about 15 different communities.

Funding for the project could come from American Rescue Plan Act monies, according to Wilson’s office.

Ultimately, it is up to Salt Lake County Council to approve the motion; But Shea argues that it’s important for governments to take action to protect water, especially when they’re asking residents for help. He claims it can deter residents from xeriscaping or localscaping when they look down the street and see a strip of grass outside a library or park that is constantly watered.

“It’s a huge encouragement. We have to walk the path and encourage residents,” he said. “I think that’s probably the most impactful[aspect]of what we do. … We hope that the biggest takeaway from this is: Yes, we save water, but we also encourage the residents and businesses in the district to take the step, because we are doing it too.”

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

This article is published by the Great Salt Lake Collaborativea solutions journalism initiative that brings together news, education and media organizations to educate people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it’s too late. Why water experts want Utahns to be “the lonely lunatics” when it comes to xeriscaping

Joel McCord

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