A megadrought has stricken the Southwest, taking a massive toll on ecosystems, drinking water, farms, and more in seven states. One of those states, Nevada, is taking a permanent step to protect dwindling water resources by cracking down on the scourge of useless lawns.
The legislation, Assembly Bill 356, specifically bans the use of “non-functional turf”—catchy!—or grass that has no real use. That includes the ornamental grass planted in street medians, traffic circles, office parks, between businesses, and in front of apartment complex entrances.
“I think that it’s incumbent upon us for the next generation to be more conscious of our conservation of our natural resources, water being particularly important,” Gov. Steve Sisolak told reporters last week before signing the bill.
The measure will go into effect in 2027 and apply only to areas covered by the Southern Nevada Water Authority. It will force officials and corporations to rip out some 40% of the grass in the Las Vegas area in an effort to conserve water. The region obtains around 90% of its water from the Colorado River, which has come under increasing duress from climate change and overuse.
“We are thrilled with the bill to ban non-functional turf, and we view it as a down payment on further water conservation measures on the Colorado River,” Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director of the environmental organization the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email. “There are some uses of the river that just aren’t appropriate, and this new bill is a recognition of that.
Lawmakers estimate the move will reduce annual water consumption by 15%, saving the 2.3 million people of the region about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person daily. Seems like a good move, considering no one was actually using this grass anyway.
State lawmakers from both parties supported the ban, as did a bipartisan coalition. One group that vocally supported it, Southern Nevada Homebuilders’ Association, isn’t particularly concerned about conservation—rather, it wants to ensure water is available for future development. Maybe they know they’re getting off with a good deal since Nevada hasn’t placed the same kinds of regulation on the cement and concrete production and use—which are highly water-intensive—that the builders association relies on.
The bill doesn’t apply to some major usages of decorative grass. Specifically, it excludes single-family homes’ lawns, golf courses, and parks. These seem like pretty glaring omissions, especially because as of 2017, golf alone accounted for roughly 7% of Las Vegas’ water use. Lawns in one of the driest places in the U.S. aren’t just egregious for the intensive water use required to maintain; ironically, they’re also ecological deserts.
Despite its imperfections, Donnelly said the law could lay the groundwork for even stronger legislation in the future. He expects future expansions will target golf and personal lawns.
“We’ve all seen the trajectory of the Colorado River,” he said, referring to research that shows the water body is drying up. “It’s hard to imagine this is the last belt-tightening southern Nevada will need to do in the future.”
Of course, if the Southwest is going to have water in the future, this legislation is far from sufficient. There are other sectors to crack down on in Nevada, from rich people’s private pools, hotels, and casinos in Las Vegas to animal agriculture across the state. And Nevada is just one state—it can’t go it alone.
“Now we need Southern California and Phoenix to step up to the plate and bring their use of this precious resource into the 21st century,” said Donnelly. “The climate is changing, and the way our cities use water needs to change with it.”