Cushman: Xeriscape Public Buildings to Save Water


Brooklyn Critchley

The Water Conservation section at Red Butte Garden displays a variety of plants that thrive in Utah’s dry climate on Friday, July 2, 2021 (Photo by Brooklyn Critchley | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer


If you walked through Salt Lake City, you’d still see green lawns for every building all around despite the current drought plaguing Utah.

In the U.S., 30-60% of urban water use goes toward keeping lawns green. In Utah, outdoor watering is responsible for 60% of residential water use. This desire for beautiful green lawns pushes Utahns to waste water during a serious drought.

Xeriscaping, landscaping designed to minimize water use, offers a solution to the problem grass presents for dry states like Utah. Our state, county and city buildings should shift to xeriscaped lawns to preserve water and act as an example to Utah residents.

A Solution to Our Drought Problem

Governor Cox stated that this year’s drought could be the “worst drought year on record.”

While 100% of the state is in drought, 90% of the state faces extreme drought conditions. Simply knowing about the severity of our drought condition fails to illustrate what that looks like until you visit our state’s dams.

Over half of our 42 largest reservoirs fell below 55% available capacity on June 1, which is incredibly low for this time of year.

I saw this firsthand after visiting the reservoir I grew up next to and saw the water already reaching late fall levels in the beginning of summer. This lack of water has devastating consequences for our state. It will negatively impact Utah’s farmers, put our ecosystems in danger and harm our economy.

Utah’s drought conditions will only become worse as climate change progresses and creates warmer temperatures in the western United States.

Drought does and will continue to severely affect Utah, so our state must start making changes to address it. Like many of our houses, even Utah’s state capitol building has a grass yard around it, as well as other county and city buildings.

The landscaping of our public buildings should reflect the needs and resources of our state. If we favored xeriscaped lawns for Utah public buildings, it would conserve water and send a clear message that our state prioritizes responsible water use.

An Opportunity to Teach

Simply put, Americans love grass lawns. Today, our lawns take up 30-40 million acres of land nationwide. But maintaining pristine grass lawns comes at a price. Lawnmowers alone account for more than 5% of our air pollution, though this is mostly in urban areas. And obviously, watering them also causes issues.

When grass lawns first became popular, they were expensive. Nonetheless, the growing popularity of green lawns quickly became a status symbol.

Despite their ubiquity today, they still serve as a sign of wealth. My boyfriend and I long for the day that we can afford to move from our apartment to a house with our own lawn. To me, the ability to afford a home — grass yard and all — will mean that I’ve “made it.” The universality of lawns — that every proper home has one and even that we grow up playing on grass yards — makes them a financial goal for those without them.

Making the change to xeriscaped landscapes on public buildings will show Utahns the beauty of xeriscaped space and that grass doesn’t have to be the only yard option. Seeing Utah’s beautiful state capitol surrounded by drought-tolerant vegetation could inspire and teach Utahns about drought-friendly landscaping options.

Because grass decorates nearly every lawn we see, many people don’t know there are other equally pleasing alternatives that require less water and other resources. Utah and its municipalities have an opportunity to teach Utahns unique ways to conserve water on their own lawns and potentially replace their grass with a xeriscaped yard.

A Republican Solution

Despite the severity of drought conditions, few drought restrictions have been placed on Utah residents this summer. Some municipalities have enacted firework bans or water use restrictions.

However, statewide action has been limited to state facilities. The state likely won’t issue statewide water mandates unless the situation grows even direr.

Our state government and some municipalities have shown hesitancy toward placing restrictions on Utah residents. They simply ask residents to use less water, but our water shortage needs tangible solutions.

Xeriscaping public buildings offers a way to reduce water use in our state and inform residents on landscaping alternatives, without restricting Utahns in any way. While Utahns should use water responsibly, our state and the municipalities should lead by example, making responsible watering choices at their own facilities.

In her piece about Utah’s drought, writer for The Daily Utah Chronicle Theadora Soter argues that Utah needs to make drastic changes in response to our water crisis.

Our severe circumstances call for severe action. We will not solve our water crisis only through prayer, limiting watering at state facilities to only a few times a week or simply asking Utahns to “slow the flow.”

Instead, our state must create a comprehensive plan for this year’s drought and future droughts. Xeriscaping public buildings will not solve Utah’s drought but will be a good step in the right direction towards conserving water in our state.


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