Utah Water Savers incentivizes homeowners to create waterwise landscapesSep 11, 2023 02:59PM ● By Genevieve Vahl
We’ve all seen the waste of water. A sprinkler gushes water onto the concrete. The delicate rays of water to be dispersed evenly across the grass jumbled into a mass of unfettered drench reaching nothing but the hot concrete to evaporate into thin air. In arid Utah, that’s a problem.
“Approximately two-thirds of drinking water in Utah is used to water lawns and landscapes,” according to Utah State University’s extension Center for Water-Efficient Landscaping. “Much of this water is being applied inefficiently, either due to sprinkler system design flaws or because sprinklers are running too long.”
A unified approach to saving water
In May of this year, a program called Utah Water Savers, the nation’s first statewide landscape incentive program, rolled out, working to eliminate wasteful moments exactly like this. The Division of Water Resources has partnered with Central Utah, Jordan Valley, Washington County and Weber Basin Water Conservancy Districts to develop the program that gives rebates to qualified homeowners in municipalities that have adopted water efficiency standards, of up to $3 per square foot when they replace their grass with water efficient, or waterwise, landscaping.
The most recent legislative session allocated a one-time $5 million and an ongoing $3 million to the program, on top of the $5 million one-time allocation in 2022. “This means that the amount of money available to help homeowners reduce (they don’t have to entirely eliminate all lawn) have increased threefold,” said Cynthia Bee, the public information officer for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District and one of the creators of the localscapes method.
These state funds are available to those living in municipalities that have adopted water efficiency standards for new construction—52 cities have already done so—and will be matched in areas served by Central Utah, Jordan Valley, Washington County and Weber Basin water conservancy districts. Cities will be added as landscape ordinances are updated to meet state requirements. “New construction will operate within some limits on how much lawn area they can have and how water is applied,” Bee said. “The incentives are intended to help those with existing landscapes who choose to convert them to the new standards, to do so more affordably.”
“I think having our new growth come in as waterwise as possible is going to make a significant difference because the water and the landscape decisions we make today impact our water use decisions for decades to come,” said Candace Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
“Every planning decision, every land use decision, is a water use decision,” Bee said.
The team concocting the program involved experts from across the spectrum of industries, including horticulturists, maintenance staff, landscape construction, water experts, collaborating to create tangible, efficient solutions to the ongoing reckoning with drought, water shortages and rising populations in the West. “The last couple of years of drought has shown us that we need to do better and that we’re willing to do better,” Hasenyager said.
“Rather than trying to go through each funding source and municipality separately and make it really awkward, we built all of that calculating into the Utah Water Savers site,” Bee said. “Instead of each individual agency doing their own thing in their own program, we’ve all banned together in one unified approach.”
The localscapes method
Current homeowners can “flip their strip” or convert their yard entirely using the Utah Water Savers Program localscapes method, created specifically for Utah.
“Localscapes is an approach to landscaping that shows how to get landscapes that fit, rather than fight, our climate,” Bee said. They include waterwise plants, trees and shrubs local to Utah with different creative landscaping solutions to fill yards with purposeful activities and zones, ultimately looking to remove nonfunctional grass. “There are parts of your landscape where the only time you’re there is when you’re pushing the lawn mower,” Bee said. Localscaping promotes looking at those nonfunctional turf areas and reevaluating what it could be used for.
“In places where there’s an active purpose for it, we want to be able to keep it, which means you can keep up to 35% lawn,” Bee said.
But where there is no active recreation point—the kids outgrew the playset, the park strip is not walked on—and with a minimum of 200 square feet, localscapes can “integrate water and land use planning,” to better serve the climate and the homeowner. “Changing out these different specialty zones becomes really easy over time and it makes the yard far simpler to manage,” Bee said.
“We want water efficient plants, but water efficient plants are only a plant with potential if you don't change how you're delivering water to that plant,” Bee said. Also no water is saved if the sprinkler system is inefficient. “In a localscape, we control that water, only providing water to the plants that we’re intentionally planting. We’re disadvantaging the weeds and you’re seeing fewer of them,” Bee said.
To realistically get homeowners to convert their lawns into thriving localscapes, Utah Water Savers requires free classes, both in person or online, to teach how to apply localscapes correctly, within the water efficiency standards, giving tools on how to do it yourself. Hired out landscapers can also be used, depending on the homeowners’ budget. “We’re trying to provide a full slate of tools to help them accomplish the outcome,” Bee said.
To apply, go to utahwatersavers.com, enter your water provider or register for an account and you can see what type of rebates you qualify for in your municipality. For example, the process of submitting a landscape plan to be approved, completing the project within one year and maintaining the new landscape for a minimum of three years are common parameters.
“The key is you need to apply before you start,” Bee said. “We do not rebate retroactively, so don’t tear out anything until you’re approved in the program.”
In the months since its launch, some homeowners talked about what is working and not working.
Draper homeowner Nancy Bromfield and her husband flipped their strip, side yards and front and backyards, removing 7,500 square feet of grass across the whole property. Because of their flagstone walkway in the back, they did not qualify for the rebate back there. “But we didn’t care. We still did it because we knew we wanted to save water and we knew it was the right thing to do,” she said.
Now between the front and back, their property has 2,500 square feet of grass. “We overseeded our water hogging grass with white Dutch clover,” a localscapes plant type, Bromfield said. They also added 40 tons of rock around their property amongst the waterwise plants. “Having these beautiful pollinator friendly, waterwise plants have brought us different varieties of bumble bees and hummingbirds and moths. It’s just amazing.”
When they bought their home in July 2013, the previous owners were using 115,000 gallons of water a month, making a bill of $147, with a winter consumption of 60,000 gallons. After implementing their localscape via Utah Water Savers in July of 2023 they have gotten their water consumption down to 13,000 gallons, over a 100,000 gallon difference. In addition to the water cuts, their lawn care efforts have been cut drastically too. “It used to take us 46 minutes to cut the grass, now it takes seven minutes, front and back,” Bromfield said.
They were once quoted $20,000 to $30,000 to redo their yard because of its sheer size. But with the localscape approach, their project cost about $4,000 with a rebate check of just over $1,000. “The rebate was about 25% of what we spent, but only 40% of what we did was rebate eligible,” Bromfield said.
To help find the right waterwise plants for her full-sun-all-day property, Bromfield attended localscape university classes, the required classes in person—which she found especially helpful—visited ConservationGardenPark.org/plants, as well as used the localscapes YouTube channel.
For others like Elizabeth Sweat and her husband, who are a part of a homeowners association in Draper, the online classes proved trivial, but they found visiting the Jordan Valley Water’s Conservation Garden Park much more helpful in their project vision. “They had all different stations and you could learn and look at examples and I grabbed brochures. That was more educational than anything,” Sweat said. Although the couple did the work themselves, they found the process more expensive than expected. “Once manufacturers and rock companies saw that the state was paying, they jacked up their prices,” Sweat said.
They also had to make several runs to the county dump to dispose of their 90 square feet of sod they removed per project requirements, tacking on unexpected expenses. Bromfield left her ripped up sod out for free for the taking, and about three quarters of it was gone by the end of the day. The rest they had to take to the dump. “Unfortunately,” she said.
Both homeowners did most of the work themselves and both found it difficult to get an initial inspection because of increased demand. But once someone did finally make it to their properties, it was a five to 10 minute review.
Ultimately, both homeowners would recommend the program to others. “I would recommend it if you want to flip your strip, but if you’re trying to make some money on it, it won’t,” Sweat said.
“I would definitely recommend it. It’s really weird how I didn’t like gardening and now I have my plants and I really enjoy taking care of them,” Bromfield said. “It’s really cool the world that it opened up for me that I had no idea of.”
Time for a change
“Doing a small project is a great place to start. You don’t have to commit your whole landscape. Commit your park strip, your side yard,” Bee said. “Test everything out that we’re teaching and verify for yourself before you obligate yourself to do more.”
Since the launch, there have been over 2,500 applications across the state and another 460 flip your strip applications. “That’s almost 3,000 applications, which is pretty amazing,” Hasenyager said. In Washington County alone, just over 600,000 square feet of grass has already been removed, according to Hasenyager.
“We’re in a change window, we have to change, that’s non-negotiable,” Bee said. “What we’re figuring out is how do we do it in a way that is the most orderly and accomplishable for people.”
“Not only is there more water in our reservoirs and groundwater, less is evaporated that completely leaves the system. There’s more that goes into our lakes and streams including the Great Salt Lake,” Hasenyager said. “I think there’s a really good incentive for people to do it. Not only for those that are here today and making our current water supply more resilient, but also those that might be here tomorrow.”λ