ST. GEORGE — A year ago the Washington County Water Conservancy District rolled out a program incentivizing the replacement of ornamental, water-guzzling turf with water-wise landscaping. With a rebate of $2 for every square foot of grass removed, the district has paid out $1.8 million with over one million square feet of turf replaced as of December 2023.

In this file photo, Doug Bennett speaks about his role as the conservation manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George, Utah, April 19, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

It is estimated by water managers that the conversion of the 1 million square feet of grass to more desert-friendly landscaping through the water district’s Water Efficient Landscape Program will save approximately 45 million gallons of water every year.

That 45 million gallons is also considered perpetual moving forward as property owners signed an agreement with the water district to protect the landscape conversion in perpetuity.

The water district is marking this milestone with the launch of a “million thanks” campaign to express appreciation to the 776 applicants who completed landscape conversions. The campaign is also designed to increase program awareness and participation among other county residents.

“We truly have a million reasons to be thankful — we had a remarkable inaugural year,” Doug Bennett, conservation manager for the district, said in a press release. “Washington County is only 6% of Utah’s population but we accounted for more than a quarter of the grass replaced statewide.”

Bennett joined the district in May 2022 after managing the nation’s largest landscape conversion program in Las Vegas. During his leadership, Las Vegas residents converted more than 215 million square feet of grass.

When St. George News met with Bennett at the water district’s building in St. George, he said the amount of grass replaced through the rebate program means “that on a per capita basis, Washington County is by far the leader in the state of Utah for landscape conversions.”

In this file photo, examples of xeriscaping at the Red Cliffs Desert Garden, St. George, Utah, Feb. 15, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

For an idea of how much 1 million square feet of grass covers, Bennett said it equates to three city blocks in downtown St. George or approximately 17 football fields. He went further and said that if that grass was made into a roll of sod, it would run 126 miles from St. George to Las Vegas.

“If you hired a guy to push a lawnmower on that 126 mile piece of sod, he would spend 44 hours a week continuously mowing that piece of grass,” Bennett said. “So about 2,300 hours worth of lawn mowing labor per year, and about 800 gallons of fuel to mow that strip of sod.”

The latter point was made to highlight an additional benefit of the landscape conversion — that much less time and money spent on maintaining water-wise landscaping, also known as xeriscape, than on grass that is considered “nonfunctional” or “ornamental” to make a property look aesthetically pleasing.

Both water managers and conservationists have said the conversion of lawns and grass-covered areas from green grass to more water-friendly landscaping is considered one of the prime ways people can help conserve and extend the life of the local water supply.

It has also been estimated in recent years that Utahns tend to use up to 60% of their drinking-quality (or culinary) water for outdoor watering. The turf-replacement rebate program, along with other measures, is aimed at bringing that percentage down and helping local water users become more responsible in their overall water use.

In this file photo, grass along Brigham Road in St. George. The Washington County Water Conservancy District is offering cash rebates to people who replace their decorative, non-functional grass with water-efficient landscaping, St. George, Utah, Dec. 12, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler. St. George News

Over the next 20 years, the water district hopes to see over 50 million square feet of grass replaced with water-efficient landscaping with the possible pay out for that being around $200 million in today’s dollar amount.

“Even though that’s a huge number, it is still the most cost effective portion of our water resource plan,” Bennett said, speaking of the water district’s 20 year water conservation plan.

Landscape conversions and other water-saving efforts over the next 20 years are estimated to provide around 11,400 acre feet of water for Washington County. Of all those programs, the landscape conversions are “going to play a pretty big role,” Bennett said.

As for the $1.8 million paid out to property owners over this last year, that covers around 40% of the overall conservation costs. While promoting water efficiency, the program is also providing an economic impact to the local landscapers.

“That means that 4. 2 million dollars of economic activity came out of this program over the past year,” Bennett added. “I just had a call with a landscaper this morning, and he said he’s very excited about the program. It’s driving a significant amount of business to his company and those are always local jobs.”

In this file photo, an example of water-wise plants at the St. Gorge Regional Hospital (Dixie Regional Medical Center at the time of this photo), date unspecified | Photo courtesy Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George News

Rebates are available for property owners within the seven municipalities that the water district serves, as well as the unincorporated parts of Washington County were applicable.

Washington County’s cities were the first in Utah to prohibit non-functional grass in new commercial, industrial and institutional developments via revision to code governing new construction. Grass is also limited in new residential development, with restrictions on installations in areas less than 8 feet wide or on slopes.

Visit the water district’s website for information on the district and its Water Efficient Landscape Program.

In a previous exchange with Karry Rathje, the water district’s communications and government affairs manager, she provided clarifying responses to some of the most commonly asked questions about the district’s lawn replacement program:

Program funding is available.

A home with water conservation features near the golf course in Hurricane, Utah, Nov. 2, 2023 | Photo by Haven Scott, St. George News

The program is compatible to households with children and pets. About 1/3 of all program participants to date are dog owners.

The program does not require the removal of all lawn. Participants can simply reduce the size of their lawn, leaving active play areas.
The preservation of existing trees and/or the planting of new trees are encouraged. Trees help mitigate the impacts of heat island effects by providing shade, deflecting radiation from the sun and releasing moisture into the atmosphere.
This is not an artificial turf program. Artificial turf is allowed in landscape conversions as a mulch between planted areas in lieu of traditional mulches, but artificial turf is not required.
District representatives are required to do a site visit to take photos and measurements prior to landscape alteration.
For clarification on the easement:

Almost all property has existing easements, mostly for utilities and sidewalks.
The district’s easement is just an assurance that we won’t pay for the same project multiple times.
Property owners can do whatever they want with the property except putting grass, sprinklers or a water features on it.
They can build on it. They can modify the landscape or change the plants as they see fit.
The easement only applies to the specific area where grass was converted, not the whole property.
The easement is revocable.
If the property owners sell their home, they are not responsible if future owners violate the easement.

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