Cow skulls, wagon wheels and water: Las Vegas knows better

Cow skulls, wagon wheels and water: Las Vegas knows better

Las Vegas is greening up its act by making it possible for residents to throw away a lot of green – grass, that is – and conserve precious water.

Since its start in 1999, the Water Smart turf rebate program from the Southern Nevada Water Authority has helped the region save enough water to fill the Empire State Building 33 times.

We see again in our latest Eco Pulse™ that water is an invisible resource for most Americans – even in the West – so how has this program resulted in 8,000 property owners in Las Vegas alone changing their landscaping habits to conserve it?

Severe drought in the early 2000s was a water wake-up call for Las Vegans. The majority of residents, according to SNWA spokesman J.C. Davis, wanted to do the right thing – but 1 in 2 were likely unaware they weren’t already helping the problem.

“Ask 100 people what they do to save water in their home,” Davis says, “more than 50 will respond, ‘Turn off the water when I brush my teeth.’ While a nice thought, it does nothing to solve the problem.”

The turf rebate program, using some powerful drivers, presented Las Vegans with a well-defined, effective option for conservation: grassless, water-efficient landscapes.

The program basics

SNWA pays $1.50 per square foot of grass torn up and replaced with water-conserving landscaping. SNWA makes the conversion process as easy as possible, providing numerous resources for planning, finding a contractor who’s undergone SNWA Smart Water Landscape training, planting and maintaining.

Landowners will also save in utility and maintenance costs over time.

But Americans in every region of the country tend to covet lush green lawns. There’s more convincing to be done before many landowners will tear up their turf.

It’s either a few tons of gravel and a cow skull, or grass, right?

“Over the first few years,” SNWA’s Kristen Howey says, “we showed people lots of pictures of beautiful yards – not just rocks, cacti and a wagon wheel. It can still be green, still be beautiful.

“We were getting people used to the idea that water smart doesn’t equal barren.”

“To overcome the fear factor associated with converting the landscape,” Davis says, “we enlisted professional landscape designers to develop templates that were based upon the typical footprint of a tract home. People could either show their landscaper what they wanted or do it themselves.”

SNWA continues to cement the normalization of grassless landscapes through demonstration gardens, community events and water smart landscape contests. Winners get a placard for their yards announcing their victory, along with bragging rights.

And, of course, SNWA reminds residents that water smart landscapes don’t require mowing in 112-degree weather – something anyone would want to avoid!

Behavior change takeaways

The Water Smart turf rebate’s success leverages principles that other utilities, cities and businesses can bank on:

  1. Awareness doesn’t automatically translate into effective action. When a problem’s too big, like a water shortage, help people define the place (literally or figuratively) where their actions are going to matter. Your best target audience may include “responsible unawares” – people who are trying to help the situation, but don’t realize their actions are ineffective.
  2. Before you change how people act, you have to change how they think. We’ve found it’s the path to lasting behavior change – and to changing group sustainability culture from the inside out.
  3. Remove barriers so behavior change is possible: Make it as easy and convenient as possible, and don’t let lack of imagination get in the way of change.
  4. Our Utility Pulse™ study supports the use of contests and other social nudges to encourage behavior change.

Posted on

July 3, 2013

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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