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With a devastating drought wreaking havoc across the region, Nevada legislators took an unprecedented step last week when it comes to water conservation: banning non-functional turf within the city of Las Vegas. The new law will require municipalities to remove “ornamental grass” and replace it with desert landscaping.   

While other cities have implemented similar, but temporary restrictions during hard times, the Las Vegas law is the country’s first permanent ban on what is essentially decorative grass. It applies to grass that is never used or stepped on in places like office parks, in street medians, and at entrances to housing developments. Single-family homes, parks, and golf courses are excluded but homeowners have been urged and incentivized with rebates of up to $3 per square foot to rip up turf in their front yards—a conservation program that has been wildly successful. 

“It’s incumbent upon us for the next generation to be more conscious of conservation and our natural resources—water being particularly important,” said Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak in signing the legislation. 

The Southern Nevada Water Authority was among the agencies pushing for the ban which also had support from the Southern Nevada Homebuilders’ Association, who saw it as a necessary step for the city’s future growth. Developers were already prohibited from constructing new homes with grass in front yards. 

The water district estimates that the law will lead to the removal of about 5,000 acres of decorative grass and save more than 10% of the state’s Colorado River water allocation. 

The agency, along with the Las Vegas Valley Water District, has been preaching water conservation, with success, for well over a decade. And while removing small patches of turf seems like the proverbial drop in a bucket, it has a tremendous impact. Las Vegas water officials estimate they save 73 gallons per year for every square foot of grass removed. Some estimates claim that the region has removed about 50% of its grass over the last 15 years.

This is all thanks to rebate programs, pages of information on drought-tolerant landscaping found on water agency websites and advertisements run during local news broadcasts, one featuring popular Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Ryan Reeves.  

While previous efforts and the grass ban will continue to save water, relief from the extreme record drought isn’t likely to come soon. Water is scarce. Crops across the region are struggling. Wildfires are raging in tinder-dry forests and reservoirs are shrinking to critical levels.

On Thursday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, officially fell to its lowest level since it was first filled following the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1936. Lake Mead is defined as “full” when the water line reaches an elevation of 1,221.4 feet above sea level. It currently rests at 1,071.53 feet above sea level, at 36% capacity.

A general view of Lake Mead, a man-made lake that lies on the Colorado River, about 24 miles southeast of the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, in the states of Nevada and Arizona.Paul Rovere / Getty Images

The Colorado River dam, which sits on the border of Arizona and Nevada, provides drinking water, irrigation and generates electricity for millions of Americans living in the Southwest. 

Las Vegas receives about 90% of its water from the Colorado River, which is fed by snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. Below average snowfall for the past several years has decreased runoff into the Colorado River causing the water level to decrease in Lake Mead. For the lake level to rise, experts say the Rockies would need above-normal snowfall for several years.  

While rainfall in the city doesn’t account for much as a water resource, Las Vegas itself suffered through a dismal 2020, one of the warmest in 83 years. The city also went without measurable rain for 240 consecutive days—the previous record was 150, back in 1959. 

So with Lake Mead reaching critical levels water allocation for the states that depend on it will need to be rewritten. Talks between the states and corresponding water agencies are expected to ramp up in August as officials eye for the potential of a federally declared Level 1 Water Shortage as early as next year.

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