Lawn time ago: Tucson saves water with desert landscaping, synthetic grass

The Pima County Master Gardeners maintain demonstration gardens in Tucson to showcase a wide variety of desert plants and planting, irrigation and composting methods. The gardens are open to the public. (Vanessa Barchfield/Arizona Public Media)

TUCSON – This used to be a city of lawns. Patches of Bermuda grass lined residential neighborhoods, kept green — even in blazing summer months — with diligent watering. Over the decades, that has changed. Most Tucson residents eschew lush lawns in favor of landscaping more in tune with the city’s desert setting — although that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no green at all.

On a recent Friday morning, Hector Mendoza and his crew from the Artificial Grass Superstore, unfurled a patch of synthetic lawn on the driveway of a house in Oro Valley, a suburb of Tucson.

It was a little before 8 a.m., but they’d been at it for a few hours already.

“We like to start as early as possible,” Mendoza said. “Today’s going to be 109 (degrees), so we try to beat the heat as best we can.”

Over the next eight hours, his team would transform the backyard of this house from a dirt lot into an artificial oasis of green.

Business these days is good, Mendoza said. Most of his customers come to him for one reason.

“Just the cost of the water and (lawn) maintenance,” he said. “We don’t foresee any cost on water going down.”

Since the 1980s, Tucson residents have replaced their green lawns with decomposed granite and opted for such plants as paloverde trees and cactuses that can endure long periods of drought and extreme heat. (Vanessa Barchfield/Arizona Public Media)

Whether or not they go the artificial route, Tucson residents have been ripping out their grass for the past four decades.

“It starts in the ’40s and ’50s, when we had a growth in Tucson, but not a lot of investment was made in infrastructure,” said Fernando Molina, a public information officer for Tucson Water.

During the 1970s, people who moved here from other parts of the country felt water stress for the first time.

“People were coming home at 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock, turning on their irrigation systems, probably doing their laundry as well,” Molina said. “Putting a big burden on the distribution system. And we simply couldn’t pump the water fast enough and deliver it to areas and meet these high demands.”

Tucson Water responded by launching a public information campaign called Beat the Peak, complete with television ads and jingles aimed at persuading residents to water their lawns less and at different points in the day.

“The original slogan was ‘Never Water Between Four and Eight,'” Molina said.

The City Council entered the fray in the late ’70s, adopting a new rate structure for water use: As people used more water, the unit cost would go up. That move proved so unpopular all council members who voted for it were recalled, but the rate structure remains in effect today. Molina called it instrumental in nudging residents to change their landscaping.

“The desert-landscaping ethic has really taken hold here,” he said. “We are 10 years ahead of most communities in Arizona in terms of even thinking about that and 20 years ahead in terms of doing something about it.”

And that has driven down Tucson’s per capita water use from about 160 gallons per day in 1980 to just more than 120 gallons per day in 2017 — a 25 percent drop.

Pima County Master Gardeners, part of the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension service, is one of several organizations that promote low water-use landscaping and xeriscaping.

“The seven principles of xeriscape are common-sense things like design, using desert adapted plants, having an efficient watering system,” the program’s Eric Johnson said. “Those kinds of things that are no-brainers to longtime Tucsonans and really help to have a beautiful garden and help save a great deal of water.”

Johnson stressed that xeriscaping does not mean zero-scaping. And the Pima County Master Gardeners exists to teach residents about the desert’s rich landscaping options.

Even with no grass on the ground, landscape architect Steve Grede’s home garden is an oasis of green in downtown Tucson. (Vanessa Barchfield/Arizona Public Media)

“One of the most visible ways we do that is with our demonstration garden that we have out here,” he said. “We like to think that it’s the biggest master-gardener demonstration garden in the Southwest.”

Visitors to the garden get ideas for their own yards.

“One is hesitant to be the only one on their street to take out a lawn and put in a rock and very different form of landscape,” said Steve Grede, a Tucson landscape architect.

“But in Tucson, it really took hold and it took hold in a major way. So much of landscape is based on fashion.”

Although he’s an expert on desert landscaping, Grede said he “did have a very small lawn area that I stopped planting over a year ago, and I’ve just let it go totally dormant.”

His motivation for losing his lawn is closely linked to the water-rate structure implemented in the late-’70s.

“I am eager to bring my water bill down,” he said, but his reasoning went beyond his wallet. “It’s my sense of responsibility living in a desert environment. I would like to be a little bit more in harmony with this desert environment.”

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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