This Utah county will buy your lawn to save water

As part of this effort the new Chief Toquer Reservoir is under construction 20 miles northeast of St. George. The $75 million project, slated for completion in 2025, includes a 20-mile underground pipeline intended to hold up to 3,500 acre-feet of water currently lost to seepage in nearby Ash Creek Reservoir.

Meanwhile, a controversial proposal for a distance of 233 miles The Lake Powell Pipeline, which would import 86,000 acre-feet of water to Washington County, has not made progress despite ongoing efforts to maintain water levels in the reservoir. Previously considered the savior of Washington County’s water problems, the hamstrung project has prompted the region to look to conservation instead. Despite above-average precipitation last winter, precipitation is falling in the Colorado River More Mead And Lake Powell – the country’s largest reservoirs – are at only 36 and 31 percent of their capacity, respectively.

The Narrows in Zion Canyon.The Narrows in Zion Canyon.
The North Fork of the Virgin River is responsible for carving out the iconic Zion Canyon. Credit: Stephen Moehle/Shutterstock

The Colorado River provides water to 40 million people throughout its basin. The Virgin, a tributary of the Colorado, flows from a cave hidden high in the pink cliffs of the Markagunt Plateau, before flowing through Zion National Park on its way to a 500-million-year-old gorge. During its descent, it enters seven reservoirs that distribute water across Washington County. One hundred miles from the source, the remaining water arrives at Lake Mead in the northern Mojave Desert.

High demand and drought have reduced flows in the Colorado River system, including the Virgin. Utah is one of seven states (along with Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming) that must reduce consumption of the Colorado River and create a new drought management plan by 2026. While states have yet to agree on the best approach, there is one water conservation effort they all agree on: reducing non-functional grass by 30 percent.

IN In 2023, the Utah Legislature passed a water efficient landscaping program as part of the state target to reduce per capita water use by 25 percent by 2025. Utah implements landscape parameters that limit lawns to no more than 50 percent of a landscaped area in new residential areas (still much higher than Washington County’s eight percent.) Three other water conservation districts in Utah have implemented a green provision regulation, but they are not as comprehensive as what is in Washington County’s program. “State funding may not be used for parks or golf courses, but Washington County’s program does include them,” Bennett noted. “We also offer discounts on the renovation of man-made water features, such as swimming pools, ponds and ornamental streams.” The province also created its own country customer engagement process, which Bennett points to as one of the reasons participation is higher here than in the other districts: “It makes it a little easier for customers to interact with our program and understand the status of their project.”

While removing turf can make a big difference in residential water use, it alone cannot carry the burden of reducing water use. Most of the water in Washington County is used for irrigation; Statewide, as much as 68 percent of diverted water is used to grow alfalfa for the beef and dairy industries. This is even higher than other Colorado River states, which use an average of 46 percent of the water diverted from the river to grow alfalfa and other forage crops. A recent study shows that reducing demand for these products can lead to the greatest water savings for citizens.

And while turf buyback programs and other water conservation measures are designed to ensure an adequate water supply for a growing population, it is also important to consider a more fundamental need: keeping water flowing in the Virgin River. The river forms the iconic landscape of Zion National Park, which attracts five million visitors a year, and supports wildlife habitat in the park and beyond. Six native fish call the Virgin River home, two of which are endangered.

The Nature Conservancy's Sheep Bridge Nature Preserve supports two miles of the Virgin River corridor. The Nature Conservancy's Sheep Bridge Nature Preserve supports two miles of the Virgin River corridor.
The Nature Conservancy’s Sheep Bridge Nature Preserve supports two miles of the Virgin River corridor. Credit: Stuart Ruckman

“There is a tremendous need for water on (this) small river,” explains Elaine York, West Desert Rregional Ddirector for Wildlife Conservation in Utah. York says a significant portion of the river between Zion and St. George has been preserved owned and managed by organizations or government agencies to maintain a relatively natural state and function as part of a healthy river system. This includes two parcels purchased by The Nature Conservancy, with which it is collaborating TThe Virgin River Program – a joint effort of local, state and federal partners – focused on efforts to balance human water use with the conservation and protection of the Virgin River ecosystem indigenous (and some threatened) kind. On these projects, The Nature Conservancy is partnering with Hurricane, a small town near Zion National Park fund and redesign a more efficient water delivery system that reduces water loss during transportation.

While grass buyback programs alone won’t save the Virgin or the Colorado River, they are an effective way for citizens to reduce their daily water use – and a clear demonstration of how successful and lasting water use changes can begin with government-led guided stimulus measures that encourage broader cultural shifts. For now, Bennett is encouraged by Washington County’s buy-in to rip up the turf. “Southern Utah residents have been very receptive to water conservation measures,” he says. “The projects we are seeing are proof that we can maintain an even higher quality of life while leaving a smaller footprint on our watersheds.”