Up close Water & the West

Water restrictions close in, sporadically, on the West’s most populous areas

As drought tightens its grip on the West, states are taking different approaches to encouraging water conservation.

Turf rollback In the Riverside County city of Corona, California Conservation Corps volunteers removed lawns at an elementary school in 2014 to replace them with drought-tolerant landscaping.   Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

By Felicity Barringer

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We explore the issues, personalities, and trends that people are talking about around the West.

Around the West, a persistent drought – in its third year in some regions and nearing its 20th year in others – has led to expanding restrictions on water use. Now these are  spreading from agricultural fields to urban lawns. But in most of the West, the new curbs are curiously modest, given the dire future experts forecast: a coming era of relentless aridity, foreshadowed by the unprecedented decline of Colorado River reservoirs.

In urban areas from California to the Mountain West, conservation efforts focus on lawns and landscaping, which form an outsize portion of domestic water use.  Some municipalities regulate who can water when; others avoid mandates providing conservation incentives instead. In places like Spokane, Washington, officials pushing mandates to save water are butting heads with those arguing that conservation needs don’t justify government interference in people’s lives.

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Houseboats sit in a narrow section of water in a depleted Lake Oroville in Oroville, California.   Getty Images

California moves aggressively on conservation – with local exceptions

California has been in the forefront of urban water conservation with new watering limits imposed by both the state’s major water utility and smaller water districts. In the greater Los Angeles area, nearly 6 million people must adhere to outdoor watering restrictions since the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s April call  for a 35 percent reduction in water use by the municipalities it serves. As of June 1, customers of these systems can water outdoors no more than once weekly.

The initial impact was eye-popping – water use in the Los Angeles area declined nine percent in June from the same month in 2021. In previous months, water use in the region had been increasing.

Southern California’s restrictions are fueling new water-conservation businesses. As the Los Angeles Times noted, “Obtaining water, conserving water and, in some cases, stealing water have become pillars of the drought microeconomy. It is a vast and quickly expanding marketplace that includes products [like] artificial turf … and services such as security firms hired to patrol neighborhoods looking for signs of water waste … and companies that will paint your brown grass green…”

 When it comes to conservation, the advantages of greater Los Angeles – the dominance of a single utility and a population accustomed to top-down regulations – are not shared by other regions. 

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A Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) water conservation specialist inspected a sprinkler system.   Getty Images

In May, the South Coast hydrologic region of California, which largely overlaps with the service area of the Metropolitan Water District, cut its per-capita daily water use to 83 gallons, down from 90 in April. To the east, in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, which  are part of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and the Colorado River hydrologic region’s daily water use the same month was 195 gallons per capita. 

Conservation efforts there aren’t evident;  the most recent state data shows that in May, per capita water use in California’s Colorado River hydrologic region is 20 gallons per day higher  than during the same month in six of the past seven years. 

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A water conservation sign in Marin County   Getty Images

Nevada dials back further

Nearby Las Vegas, Nevada, which sits in the heart of the Mojave Desert, has long been ahead on water conservation; with less water available, it had to be. For almost two decades, residents have been encouraged to abandon lawns and use xeriscaping with rocks and drought-resistant plants. Rules now forbid new homeowners from having front-yard lawns; any lawns cannot cover more than 50 percent of the yard. This summer, until August 31, landscape irrigation is prohibited between 11 A.M. and 7 P.M.

Southern Nevada Water Authority via Twitter

The website of the Las Vegas Valley Water District boasts that “The community used 26 billion gallons less water in 2021 than in 2002, despite a population increase of about 750,000 residents during that time. This represents a 48 percent decline in the community’s per capita water use since 2002.” Still, city residents use 222 gallons per capita daily.

Moving beyond lawns, officials of surrounding Clark County just capped the size of homeowners’ new swimming pool surfaces to 600 square feet, about the size of a three-car garage. Homeowners build 1,300 new pools in the county annually. 

Improving efficiency mitigates rapid growth in Arizona

In Arizona, where the Sonoran Desert surrounds the cities of Phoenix and Tucson, residents use 146 gallons of water daily. Tucson and Scottsdale are reducing government water use, but it has no rules for residents like those in Los Angeles or Las Vegas  Nor does Phoenix. Phoenix residents’ daily per capita water use has dropped 29 percent since 1990; but still exceeds 150 gallons

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The sun sets over Lake Mead.   Getty Images

Utahns slow to adopt conservation as Great Salt Lake dries

Further north, in Utah, the state’s water use per capita is the second highest in the country. The most recent data shows people used 167 gallons per day in 2015. Its signature geographic feature, the Great Salt Lake, is steadily evaporating.

A Salt Lake Tribune article showed some experts blame the way homeowners pay for water: part of the cost is paid through property taxes. Utah utility water rates are among the lowest in the country, giving homeowners less incentive to conserve.

But this year, ProPublica reported, Utah’s legislature approved 15 water conservation measures, including “legislation [to] allow farmers to earn money by sending their water downstream to shrinking lakes, [to] require water meters for landscaping, [to] appropriate $40 million to protect the Great Salt Lake….”

Salt Lake City Utilities via Twitter

Still, most Utah lawns remain largely off-limits, although landscaping accounts for two-thirds of homeowners’ water use. While the city of Ogden has adopted residential restrictions, including a ban on outdoor irrigation between 10 A.M. and 6 P.M. and a two-day limit on watering each week, the small town of Saratoga Spring went in the opposite direction. It moved against a landowner who installed artificial turf, after his homeowners’ association approved the move.  A new state law bars municipalities from fining residents using artificial turf.

Laissez-faire Idaho explores incentives

Idaho residents use more water – 168 gallons per capita per day —  than those of  any other state. Restrictions are rare, the encouragement of alternatives to lawns does occur. Boise, the largest city, explicitly allows xeriscaping. Unincorporated areas of surrounding Ada County are being rezoned, prohibitions against lawns are unlikely, but xeriscaping incentives are more likely. 

In Coeur d’Alene, official opposition to government conservation mandates is explicit, even though summertime water use is sixfold greater than in springtime.  “During last summer’s heatwave, the city produced a peak of 43 million gallons of water a day,” reported the Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press.

“There is a considerable cost to meet that demand,” said the city’s water director. The city paid $1.5 million for its newest, 11th well; all but three of these are used just three months a year.

Coeur d’Alene officials intend to avoid what just happened in neighboring Spokane, Washington. There, average daily water use is 235 gallons per capita, more than double the statewide average of 111 gallons.

In June, Spokane’s city council passed an ordinance taking effect next year. In summer, residents may water only every other day, from 10 6 P.M. Should a sharply reduced flow of the Spokane River prompt a drought declaration, residents can do outdoor watering no more than two days a week. 

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward vetoed the measure, saying “I think if you want to change people’s behavior, the best way to do that is through incentives, not penalties.…I don’t want to create a community where our neighbors are snitching on other neighbors….”  The city council quickly overrode the veto.

Around the West

Denver’s utility, Denver Water, notes that  homeowners’ outdoor watering represents 20 percent of annual demand. Its rules forbid summertime watering more than three days a week, and forbid it between the hours of 10 A.M. and 6 P.M. 

Examples of similar conservation mandates around the arid West can be found in Cheyenne, Wyoming,  Bozeman, Montana, and the town of Aguilar, Colorado. 

Overall, the prolonged drought has led to little more than patchwork controls on domestic water use outside metropolitan areas. No lawnless future awaits, except perhaps in Las Vegas. But it is clear that the more populated an area, the more likely utilities or local authorities will curb water use. 

Still, in a part of the country where resistance to official control over individuals is a birthright, officials trying to mandate residents’ water use are swimming upstream.


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Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and MORE »

Xavier Martinez

Xavier Martinez

Editorial Assistant

Xavier graduated from Stanford in 2023 with a degree in economics and is currently a master’s student in Stanford’s journalism program. He has written about the high phone call costs faced by U.S. inmates, temporary Mexican workers’ interactions with the labor market and the efficacy of government healthcare assistance programs. A lifelong lover of charts and maps, he enjoys combining data journalism with narrative-style reporting. 

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

Bruce E. Cain

Faculty Director

Kate Gibson

Associate Director

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