Not easy to be green… in the desert |
We understand the appeal of the American Southwest. Shirt sleeves in February. Natural beauty under a big starry sky. But as water scarcity in the region approaches crisis levels, newcomers – and old-timers – may have to let go of the idea that the good life includes a lush green lawn.
Las Vegas isn’t Buffalo without the snow. Buffalo grass grows with minimal effort. This is not the case in Las Vegas, located in the Mojave Desert.
Grass needs a lot of water, and the area’s supplies are so tight that Las Vegas sends contractors to dig up “non-functioning turf.” The city defines “non-functional” as grass kept solely for its beauty – in practice, grass along streets or at commercial sites.
More than 40 million people depend on the stressed Colorado River for water. Water levels in the river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are at historic lows. Meanwhile, the other source that has always provided water, the underground aquifers, is drying up. Climate change and population growth are exacerbating shortages.
As a result, Southwestern states face a harsh reality: Green lawns and gurgling fountains may be part of an unrealistic past.
Where water is scarcer, its distribution must be tightly controlled. Layers of federal and local agencies must make the tough decisions about who gets how much water and for what. They have no choice but to toughen the rules.
That’s why being rich and famous in the city of Calabasas, Southern California still doesn’t guarantee you a green lawn. Residents are now limited to watering just eight minutes one day a week.
There’s a reason golf was invented in Scotland. The weather here is cool and rainy, and that’s what makes the grass happy.
This is not the case in the Sonoran Desert, where Phoenix is located. Phoenix is hot, dry, and thriving with newcomers taking showers and flushing toilets.
So it makes sense to wonder why the Phoenix area has 165 golf courses. Having formed an alliance to defend their water allocations, the owners say year-round golf is important to the area’s economy. That may be true, but couldn’t they change the idea of what a golf course looks like?
Arizona farms use more than half of the available water. Now that they are getting less water than in previous years, they too have regrouped. Now may be the time for some of them to stop growing thirsty crops like cotton in the desert.
And what about the owners? Arizona’s cities and suburbs are still largely immune to drastic reductions in water use, but a green lawn may not be in the cards anymore.
The good news is that desert vegetation has its own charms. “This Old House” aired an interesting episode about front yard landscaping in Phoenix. The result was largely a harsh landscape of pavement and rock with patches of mesquite, lantana and, of course, cacti. One plant, the red yucca, provided spectacular blooms eight months of the year.
No, it wasn’t the opulent green carpets of Connecticut. On the other hand, you don’t get eight months of flowering in Connecticut.
A reduced Colorado River has raised new concerns not directly related to irrigation. Lake Powell has been a source of hydroelectricity. Its water level has fallen so low that it may soon be unable to generate electricity serving millions of Westerners. Lake Powell is now down to 27% capacity.
Mother Nature is disciplinary. If you want lots of rain, move to Hawaii, Louisiana, or Mississippi. Otherwise, learn to love the desert as the Creator did. Really, there is little choice in the matter.
– Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be contacted at [email protected] To learn more about Froma Harrop and read articles from other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.