By Rusty Bradshaw
Like the summer temperatures, the debate over grass or desert landscaped yards is heating up.
Some Sun Cities condo association officials and individual homeowners are considering or actually switching their grass yards to desert landscaping. Others, however, want to keep their grass, or make the conversion to grass.
But desert landscaping could become more of the norm if water rates continue to climb or the water availability issue gets worse for Arizona.
“People don’t realize what trouble we’re in,” said Sun City resident Jerry Walczak, Condo Owners Association of Sun City co-president. “California and Nevada are already regulating toilets and Nevada is paying people to remove grass.”
According to the California Plumbing Code that became effective July 1, 2018, all residential construction projects must have kitchen faucets that do not exceed 1.8 gallons per minute and toilet flush volume may not exceed 1.28 gallons per flush.
The water and wastewater companies across the state are experiencing large cost overruns for a multitude of reasons, according to Sun City resident Greg Eisert, former Sun City Home Owners Association Governmental Affairs Committee chairman. Future costs will more than likely increase at an exponential rate, he added.
“With the Valley’s growth rate, our water issues will certainly not diminish but could realistically see a system of rationing, concerning watering the grass,” he stated in an email.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a drought contingency plan in January, six hours ahead of the deadline set by Brenda Burman, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner. She warned if states did not come up with their own plans, she would begin the process of developing a plan for them. State officials believed that would likely give Arizona even less river water than the deal the state ratified.
Existing water agreements stipulate when Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level automatic reductions are triggered in how much water can be taken out of the Colorado River. The lake is projected to drop below that point next year.
Officials from Mexico and the six other states that have rights to Colorado River water have all agreed to make cuts in what they draw to restore the lake back to close to 1,090 feet. Nevada and California officials agreed not to draw some of the water they are entitled to take right now, before the lake hits 1,075 feet.
While Sun Cities officials did not have an exact count of how many associations or individual homeowners converted from grass to desert landscaping, they agree more are talking about it than have been in the past.
“There have been several associations that have done it in Sun City West in previous years,” Tona Carruthers, Organization of HOAs office manager stated in an email. “The payout is a long time coming.”
Marcy Cowan, Colby Management president, said about half the associations her management company, which represents 404 associations, including the majority of the ones in the Sun Cities, has as clients have talked about it.
“One of the factors to consider is the cost of conversion,” she said. “Another is whether any costs savings would be worth it.”
She said some people believe once grass is gone and there’s no need to water or mow it, the costs will go down. However, they are not considering the need to blow off leaves and other debris.
“You still have to do those things to keep it looking good,” she said.
No Sun Cities residents who favored grass yards responded to the Independent’s request for comment on the topic. However, Ms. Cowan believes those who favor grass do so because that is what they had, and may still have, at their homes outside of Arizona.
Some residents and association officials believe a full conversion from grass is not necessary. Sun City resident Carol Engberg and her husband this year converted the front yard of their home in a condo association from grass to gravel and willow trees.
“We will continue to have grass and fruit trees in our back yards — association common areas,” she stated in an email. “Our members truly believe this will cut down water use and save money. “
Ms. Cowan said some of the associations managed by Colby are starting with small conversions.
“They are converting small strips between the units,” she said.
Some cities, like Glendale and Peoria, use grants to offer associations stipends for specified volumes of land converted from grass. But Sun Cities residents do not have that because the communities are in unincorporated Maricopa County area, and county officials do not offer the reimbursements, according to Ms. Cowan.
A precious resource
Sun City resident Joan Adair believes residents and associations who insist on grass are wasting a precious resource.
“Definitely we who live in a desert environment with a limited water supply, so we must consider eliminating our grass lawns, etc. and go to desert landscaping,” she stated in an email. “Frankly, as I drive around Sun City where I live I am appalled with the many condos and homes with grass landscaping. I’m further appalled when I notice sprinklers that are on and water is flooding out to the streets!”
The condo association where she lives decided some years ago to eliminate all grass and go with a desert landscaping.
“We are saving with our water expenses and preserving Arizona’s water supply,” she stated. “And if I do say so myself our landscaping is quite beautiful.”
Sun City resident Barb Chait said residents can have a little of both. Her backyard is a rock collection that changes as desert-tolerant plants take root and grow there.
“It changes as things take root and grow such as aloe, cactus,” she stated in an email. “We even found a cactus in a rain gutter. Whoever thought there was so much life in the desert. We have no grass but many trees, bushes. it is very eye pleasing and a good home for native birds.”
Mr. Walczak, a firm believer in desert landscaping, conducts an annual workshop on the subject. This year’s workshop is scheduled in August, he said.
“The first one, we had 150 people there and the second one, in a smaller room, we had 60,” Mr. Walczak explained. “We pack the house every time.”
His own association converted to desert landscaping and Mr. Walczak estimates members are seeing a 45% reduction in water costs. He said there is some increase in ground heat with desert landscaping, but not enough to be detrimental.