Water district offers to pay Washington County residents to replace grass, save water

ST. GEORGE — The Washington County Water Conservancy District is offering money to home and business owners to replace little-used grass with water-efficient landscaping.

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

“Right now we’re offering $2 rebate (per square foot) to encourage people to do a landscape conversion,” Zach Renstrom, general manager of the water district, said Monday.

“Go from grass and convert to that to desert-friendly landscaping,” he said. “We don’t want people just to rip out their grass – we really want them to replace their grass with, you know, trees and shrubs and other things that still keep the environment cool and have that cooling effect, but yet doesn’t use as much water.”

According to the water district, water-efficient landscapes use approximately 9 gallons of water per square foot annually compared to 37 gallons for grass.

While the water district announced the official launch of the program last Friday, it had a soft start over a month ago that has seen positive results thus far.

“It’s clear this is something our citizens have wanted for a very, very long time,” Renstrom said. “We’re excited to finally roll it out.”

The landscaping the district wants to see replaced is “non-functional grass,” which is turf that sees little use beyond being decorative and getting mowed. Water conservation ordinances passed in Washington County over the last year have banned the installation of non-functional grass for new commercial, institutional and industrial developments, as well as limiting how much grass new homes can have.

Now district officials are hoping to encourage the removal of preexisting, non-functional grass with xeriscaping, or more desert-friendly, water-efficient plants.

Examples of xeriscaping at the Red Cliffs Desert Garden, St. George, Utah, Feb. 15, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“We’re a rapidly growing desert community with one water source that is experiencing the same drought plaguing most of the southwest,” Renstrom said in a Friday press release announcing the program. “Incorporating more sustainable landscapes throughout our community is essential to extend our limited water supply.”

Following the unofficial launch of the rebated program and the official announcement of it over the weekend, Renstrom said the district has been “inundated with calls” about it.

The water district has a budget of $2 million starting out, though Renstrom hopes to gain an additional $1 million from the Legislature to help the program continue beyond that.

As for where people can learn more about xeriscaping, Renstrom said they can consult area landscaping and nurseries, yet highly recommended visits to the district’s Red Hill’s Desert Garden. The facility features native desert landscaping that can help save on water use and general landscaping maintenance.

“I think one of the best places is to come up to the desert garden,” he said. “Right now we have the Christmas lights out. And so it’s very popular right now.”

The plants at the desert garden have been carefully selected to handle both the cold and high heat temperatures common in Washington County, he said. The plants also feature cards that can be scanned by cellphones to provide information about the plant, so visitors know what to purchase.

“I would just encourage them to come up here walk around and see what they think is beautiful, and what would work well in their yard,” he said.

In this file photo, nearly 120,000 square feet of grass was replaced with water-wise landscaping in Washington County, including this street median in St. George, Utah, May 19, 2022 | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George News

The ultimate goal of applying more xeriscaping is to help prolong the county’s water supply in the midst of continuing growth. Washington County is considered one of Utah’s driest and hottest counties, as well as one of its fastest-growing areas. The population is projected to reach nearly 400,000 by 2050.

Earlier this year, the state launched a campaign prompting public and private entities to convert non-functional grass to xeriscaping. The trend also has found a place across the West as states that rely on the Colorado River during a continuing drought look for ways to decrease their water use.

Details and an application for the Water Efficient Landscape Rebate are available online under the conservation tab on the water district’s website. Participants will receive $2 per square foot for the first 5,000 square feet and $1 per square foot thereafter up to $50,000 on an annual per-property basis.

Projects must be pre-approved prior to the conversion and located within a city served by the Washington County Water Conservancy District that has adopted qualifying conservation ordinances.

Eligible cities currently include St. George, Washington, Santa Clara, Ivins and LaVerkin. Applications will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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