Drought-stricken western U.S. finds ways to conserve water
LAS VEGAS -- Roy Rogers probably never rode on it, but now he's buried under it -- a lush carpet of fake grass.
At Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Apple Valley, Calif., converting the grass around the grave of the singing Hollywood cowboy to artificial turf is all about saving water in the drought-stricken West.
Life in the West is full of changes people hardly even notice anymore -- watering schedules, desert landscaping and limits on how often you can wash your car in the driveway.
Little things like not leaving the water running while brushing your teeth or not watering lawns by hand have become part of everyday life. Fund-raiser car washes are a rarity.
Richard Trujillo, utilities administrator for the other Las Vegas -- in New Mexico -- remembers how the West used to be.
"A lot of people used to own lawns. They were able to wash their car every day if they wanted. They were able to wash down their sidewalks instead of sweeping it. Flowers required a lot of water. A lot of that is really of the past now," Trujillo said.
Around Las Vegas the gambling mecca, outsiders may wonder where all the grass has gone. Since 2003, no new home has been allowed to have turf in the front yard. After all, this is a city that maybe gets 4 inches of rain a year.
For older houses, the Southern Nevada Water Authority offers rebates to homeowners who rip out grass and replace it with water-smart landscaping, which means a lot of rocks and usually some cactus. Other cities in the West do the same.
Some people find it hideous, but many Westerners have come to embrace it. It may take Rich Leskovac a few more years to come around.
"I love grass and I won't change to desert landscaping. It's just not eye appealing to me. To me, it's rock," said Leskovac, who moved to Las Vegas from Greenville, Pa., five years ago.
In 2003, with the West in the thick of the drought, the Southern Nevada Water Authority shut down all decorative water fountains, leading to unsightly empty tanks outside gas stations and business parks.
"Any visual use of water like that can undermine people's perception of water conservation. It gives you the impression that water's not valued in your community," said Doug Bennett, the authority's conservation manager.
Attractions such as the Mirage volcano and the Bellagio fountains on the Las Vegas Strip are still on, but only because they use low-quality ground water or recycled water.
In Southern California, a weekly watering index guides homeowners on how to use sprinklers more efficiently. It is based on a scientific formula that takes evaporation rates into account.
Water-saving suggestions for the city of Anaheim, Calif., include taking quick showers and refrigerating drinking water instead of running the faucet until the water turns cold.
Western life is full of schedules that tell when you may water your lawn.
Water cops here and in cities such as Albuquerque, N.M., Denver and Tucson, Ariz., enforce the rules. Deviate from the schedule or allow water to run down the street and you may find yourself with a ticket.
And in many cases, it's neighbors tattling on other neighbors.
In Las Vegas, N.M., Trujillo has gotten calls from homeowners in the middle of the night who report: "Mr. Trujillo if you come out here now, you'll catch them."
School baseball and football fields across the West have been converting to fake turf, golf courses are ripping out grass, and many cities offer rebates for low-flow toilets and water-efficient washing machines. Many restaurants do not serve customers water unless they ask.
"I visit my mom, who lives in Philadelphia. She's making dinner and she has the water running. People in Albuquerque really see that as a terrible thing," said Katherine Yuhas, water conservation officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility.
Water pressure can be low, something people from other parts of the country notice right away. (Ozzy Osbourne once complained to his wife on their MTV show "The Osbournes" about the low water pressure in the shower until she told him about the water-saving shower heads in California.)
Boaters and swimmers have grown accustomed to the bathtub rings around Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona and Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah that show where the water used to be, before drought brought the levels down. Similarly, tourists at Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas gawk and take pictures of the prominent white water line.
Sunset Hills Memorial Park owner Chet Hill has persuaded other cemeteries to try artificial turf, too.
The only problem?
"Sometimes it looks too good, too perfect," Hill said. "We actually put little lumps in it, throw some dirt underneath it."
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Angie Wagner is the AP's Western regional writer, based in Las Vegas.