The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maybe luscious green grass doesn’t belong in a drought-stricken Arizona


Six years ago, I traded a house with a big grassy yard for one landscaped with gravel and cactuses. I’ve held on to the memories of tea time on the lawn with my daughter and our barefoot games of chase on the prickly turf, cool even on the hottest days in Phoenix.

But whenever I feel nostalgic, I think about a monthly water bill that could push $400. I also think about the waste.

Growing grass in the parched Southwest is an act of defiance — against nature and common sense. In Arizona alone, landscaping accounts for as much as 70 percent of residential water use, more than twice the national average. Millions of gallons more go to keeping the grass green for athletic fields, parks, resort hotels and golf courses. Water is the premium gas fueling the state’s supercharged tourism economy.

Then, there’s agriculture, a $23 billion industry that consumes about three-quarters of the available water supply in Arizona. How else but through prodigious irrigation could we have transformed Yuma County, a barren expanse bordering Mexico and California, into the nation’s main producer of leafy greens in the winter?

Much of the Southwest has been locked into varying stages of drought at least since weekly drought monitoring began two decades ago. Scientists have a term to describe what’s going on here: aridification. It communicates the permanency of the Southwestern climatic extremes, where higher temperatures, drier soils, severe wildfires and less water are our not-so-new normal.

Yet there may be a dangerous disconnect between what we must do and what we’re willing to do to adapt.

Early next year, Arizona farmers will have to significantly cut the amount of water they take from the Colorado River after the federal government declared a first-ever water shortage for Lake Mead, the river’s main reservoir. This year, the Republican-led legislature blocked, for the second time, attempts to regulate groundwater pumping in certain rural areas in the state, even if the dwindling Colorado River flow can no longer replenish aquifers.

Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has talked about promoting a “culture of conservation” as Arizona confronts the likelihood of more cuts to the Colorado River water supply. But some golf course managers are pushing back against a state proposal to reduce their share of groundwater, touting the money that golf brings to Arizona as justification for getting a pass.

Dave White, director of the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at Arizona State University, advocates for efficiency. “We shouldn’t be just talking about cutting the total amount of water use,” he told me. “We need to find ways to produce experiences, goods and services that reach the same result without using as much water.”

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, a regulatory agency, told me about creative conservation projects Arizona has joined, including a possible joint U.S.-Mexico desalination plant in the Sea of Cortez between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican mainland. He noted that Arizona already uses recycled household water — the stuff that drains from washing machines, sinks and toilets — to cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, restore riparian preserves and water a small number of golf courses.

Golf is unquestionably an important symbol of Arizona tourism. It contributes more than $4.6 billion to the state’s economy. But then there’s this: The 219 golf courses in Arizona draw about half of their water from the aquifer and another 15 percent from the depleted Colorado River, for a daily average use of 450,000 gallons per course, according to an analysis of state records by the Arizona Republic. In other words, each course uses enough water daily to supply the needs of about 3,100 state residents.

But the issue isn’t only the amount of water used for golf courses, which wouldn’t be enough to solve Arizona’s water crisis. It’s also — and maybe primarily — the optics: Try persuading homeowners to conserve water when they see giant sprinklers watering acres of pristine grass.

That’s what I see every weekday morning, driving my daughter to school, as I pass by the edge of a tony golf course. I shake my head. Before long, we may be forced to quit pretending we don’t live in the desert.

Do I miss having a lawn? A little. But the cactuses in my yard have taught me so much about adaptability, resiliency, survival and beauty, even in death.

Some months ago, a tall, spear-like stalk rose from the heart of a big agave outside my front door. Hundreds of tiny white flowers bloomed from the stalk. Then, the agave’s long, spiky leaves shriveled. The stalk stooped. The agave died.

A bloom stalk marks the end of an agave’s life, and while I mourned losing the plant, the loss also filled me with hope. Its tiny flowers had seeds that fell to the ground, where someday another agave may rise, even if I don’t water it.