Is the Non-Functional Turf Ban Coming to Northern Nevada

Throughout the Reno/Sparks region, potable water is sprayed onto chemically-dependent, decorative turf. Runoff from lawns is laden with pollutants from fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Polluted water returns to the Truckee River through storm drains, untreated - photo: Kyle Roerink

Opinion

The 2021 legislative session is an anomaly. Notwithstanding COVID, the bad water bills died early and the good ones pressed on. That is not the norm. But it appears that more folks are beginning to believe these are not normal times. 

Indeed, this year is different. Long-time foes are singing kumbaya in praise of AB356

The legislation, which passed both chambers, saves 10 billion gallons of water annually in Southern Nevada –– defending the dwindling supply of Colorado River water by mandating the removal of all non-functional turf by 2027 in Southern Nevada. 

However, entities like the Truckee Meadows Water Authority are sitting on the sidelines along with other municipal providers in Western Nevada as it relates to water conservation. Reno, Carson City, Minden, Gardnerville and other communities may not be in the Mojave Desert. But they are in the Great Basin Desert. It is time that they follow the lead of Las Vegas. 

Water officials in Northern Nevada must start advocating for similar residential conservation programs. We may not think we need them today. But we do.

This week, TMWA made an anemic overture to the abnormal conditions, prohibiting lawn watering between 11 AM and 7 PM and promising to hire more “water watchers.” 

Half measures like these are not fully recognizing that the 21-year drought is not a drought. It is aridification. 

In California, towns are banning car washes and asking the community to limit use by 10 percent. Farmers are not getting their full allocations of water rights from rivers and reservoirs. Threatened fish species in the Klamath River are headed toward extinction

Rivers like the Truckee and the Carson need our help. Let’s think about the cui-ui at Pyramid Lake, agricultural operations in Yerington, and recreation activities like Kayaking. Every drop wasted on a green lawn is one not benefitting something else. Across the west, about 60 percent of residential water is consumed outdoors. Throughout the region it is common to see sprinklers watering sidewalks and burned lawns in August – along with other midwestern aesthetics in the high desert. It’s time for a change. East coast grass doesn’t belong west of the Mississippi River. However, TMWA still has a page advising on how to plant green lawns

Grass is low hanging fruit in the west because residents usually over-water what is inherently thirsty and easily singed in the heat of the summer. 

To be fair, AB356 only targets non-functional turf, which is basically what we see at business parks and on roadway medians in neighborhoods. It does not mean backyards or community greenspaces in Southern Nevada. It is not perfect, but it is a good place to start. 

This bill does not cost the state a cent. The Southern Nevada Water Authority pays entities to remove the grass via funds from bonds and federal grants. The SNWA’s existing turf removal program is one of the most successful water conservation efforts in the West – having already removed enough blades of grass to measure the width of the world. AB356 bolsters that work. 

The need for AB356 is vital for the future of Las Vegas. Fortunately, lawmakers recognized that. The need for something like it in Reno is long overdue – especially considering the explosive growth in the region and the likelihood of at least 14 to 17 percent demand increases in the next 15 years.

Water usage increased by more than nine percent in Southern Nevada during the last two years. There’s plenty of reason to believe that could happen in Western Nevada. And as our river flows shrink, there is plenty of concern about water importation and over development. 

A hedge fund in Winnemucca wants to export groundwater to the Truckee Meadows to bloom more subdivisions, warehouses and shopping malls in the desert. Blockchains wants to export groundwater to the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center to build a city in Storey County. This is the most expensive way to get water. Conservation is the cheapest.  

For Vegas, less water in the Colorado River could mean that it will once again look to rural Nevada for groundwater supplies too. AB356 will deter that from happening soon. But it is a question of how long. This summer Lake Mead will go below elevation 1075’, triggering a first-ever shortage declaration at the famed reservoir. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the reservoirs of the Colorado River, has grim outlooks beyond this year. It is likely that Lake Mead will drop to elevation 1050’ in 2023 – with drops continuing in the following years. When water sinks below these elevation benchmarks, the Colorado River’s current management framework activates cuts to the water supply of Nevada, Arizona and eventually California. 

AB356 will recoup the losses Nevada will endure on the Colorado River in the coming years. 

That is smart planning. 

The principles behind AB356 are well suited for places like Reno. The Colorado River is not a disconnected waterway from residents of Northern Nevada. It is a barometer for other waterways in the west. 

With annually decreasing snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, drier soils, and increased demand, it is time to consider how northern Nevada uses its precious water supply. 

In Nevada and much of the west, residential water usage accounts for the majority of consumptive uses. Yes, take shorter showers. But rip up your lawn. Get a watering timer for your plants. And encourage TMWA to mandate the removal of non-functional turf. It’s cheaper and smarter than water exportation. 


Kyle Roerink writes columns on natural resource issues throughout Nevada and the West. Kyle is the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. He lives in Reno. Support his writing.


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.