Arizona County Gets Tough about Turf

Water rules in Pima County ban ornamental grasses for businesses.

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December 8, 2006

Forget the old "Keep off the grass" signs: In Pima County, if you can't walk on it, you can't plant it.

The county has banned ornamental turf in new commercial developments, taking the stance that lawns add value as parks or playgrounds, but as decoration they waste water. The say-no-to-grass rule, tougher than almost anything on the books in Phoenix, reflects Pima County's tighter water supply and underscores the differences in how the state's two largest metropolitan areas manage resources.

The new rules try to build conservation into new development. Most of the measures do not specifically limit the amount of water a property owner can use. Instead they hard-wire limited use into zoning laws, restricting grass to small usable areas, shrinking the size of allowable water features and requiring rain sensors on irrigation timers.

In a dry state struggling through an 11-year drought, officials liken the aggressive approach to preventive medicine.

"Part of it is promoting the ethic that we're a water-conscious community," said Kathleen Chavez, Pima County's water-policy manager. "People also feel frustrated that they're being asked to conserve water but there's all this growth going on. So we're trying to put rules on new construction that save water."

Pima County decided about a year ago to update its water-use laws and assigned Chavez and a group of public and private interests to consider a range of ideas and return with recommendations. The measures apply only to unincorporated areas of Pima County, or slightly more than one-third of the county's population.

Regulating conservation
Pima County and Tucson have long set themselves apart from the Phoenix area when it comes to water, claiming a more desert-friendly conservation ethic. Tucson used aggressive water-rate structures to discourage lawns and encourage landscape methods that use water more efficiently and stand up better to drought.

As a result, Tucson residents use less water at home than their neighbors to the north, about 107 gallons daily per person compared with about 140 gallons daily per person in Phoenix.

But necessity fuels the water consciousness as much as the need to feel green: Tucson relies more heavily on groundwater than Phoenix and draws on one renewable source: Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project. Salt River Project supplies a second renewable source for Valley cities, reducing the demand on groundwater.

Tucson can continue to grow on its existing supplies, according to a study by the University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center, which concluded that the area could support the 1.5 million people projected to live there by 2030. The county surpassed 1 million people this year.

But the study said growth will depend on careful water-management choices. Chavez said the county's conservation measures should help with those choices.

In the past year, the county:

  • Targeted water wasters, spelling out penalties for letting water run into the street, for example, or failing to fix leaks. The ordinance bars businesses from using water to clean driveways or parking lots.
  • Closed a loophole that let some golf courses use groundwater. Courses now must use either effluent or CAP water.
  • Added the water-saving elements to its zoning and commercial land-use ordinances. The new limits do not apply to residential property.

The county built its new measures using a set of "ideals" written by the Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona, or Water CASA. The group promotes water conservation in communities and homes and has helped Tucson, Marana and other communities develop water ordinances.

"We try not to tell them what they should do," said Val Little, the group's director. "We want them to work through what appeals to them, what they can manage."

One of Water CASA's central ideals is "no lawn just for looks." Pima officials used that to ban ornamental turf, unusable strips of grass around an office or shopping center.

Voluntary measures
Little and other Pima County water managers also view the drought differently than their counterparts in Maricopa County.

Valley officials take great care to separate temporary drought conditions from long-term conservation measures, arguing that people should conserve water as a lifestyle and not in response to crisis.

"We look at it as an opportunity," Little said. "We can use the drought to ratchet up ordinances that will stay in place whether we have a wet year or dry year. It's a community decision, a community ethic, and we have not had any negative feedback. They know water is only going to become more scarce and more costly, whether we have a couple of wet years or not."

Valley cities say they take a longer view of water use and claim success. Scottsdale installed an effluent delivery system to irrigate golf courses and now requires most new courses to bring their own source of water before they can build.

Mesa, Gilbert, Tempe, Glendale and other cities have a campaign aimed at homeowners associations. Working with the cities, various HOAs have voluntarily installed more-efficient irrigation systems, switched to non-potable water sources and agreed to let summer lawns lie dormant.

"We've taken a holistic approach to our long-range planning," said Steve Rossi, Phoenix's chief water resources planner. "Our overall water use has not risen substantially, and our per capita rate has gone down over the last 15 years."

'Lifestyle decision'
Unlike most cities, Phoenix eschews rebate programs that pay homeowners to take lawns out or install water-saving devices. The city has focused some of its work on construction, with limits on high-water landscaping and requirements to install low-water toilets and faucets.

State conservation laws require construction to include low-water plumbing fixtures and limit water-intensive landscaping. Valley cities enforce those rules, and officials say new neighborhoods consume significantly less water than older areas.

"We're going to be promoting drought-tolerant landscaping," Rossi said. "There are things that people can do now to save water in the long haul and reduce impact of drought. But conservation is a lifestyle decision, and we're trying to reflect what the community wants."

Pima County recently adopted a comprehensive drought response plan that also tests the waters of water limits. In a serious drought situation, for example, a home seller would have to ensure that all of a property's plumbing fixtures fit low-flow standards.

"I think there's more we could do," the county's Chavez said. The new ordinances are "a good place to start." "We're already fairly water conscious, but we need to ask whether we can do better. We can't just say, 'Our per-capita water use is lower than Phoenix's,' and then sit back and relax."