Friday, June 20, 2003 | 11:18 a.m.
Before residents beginning pulling out their lawns, Southern Nevada Water Authority officials emphasize that they have to call first to see if they can receive cash rebates. Not all artificial turfs are acceptable for landscaping, and the landscaping requirements don't permit a simple replacement of grass with artificial turf. For information or to schedule a conservation aide to come to your house, call the water authority at 258-SAVE.
Rudy Rodriguez, a retired longshoreman living in Sun City-Summerlin, takes obvious pride in the manicured landscaping surrounding his house. The small front lawn tucked in among the desert rock and foliage looks just about like similar plots along the street.
But look a little closer, and you'll notice it is a little greener, missing the burned-out splotches of yellow grass on the lawns of his neighbors. The reason: Rodriguez's lawn is plastic.
Once maligned as the tacky turf of the polyester knit set, artificial lawns are gaining new respect -- and perhaps nowhere as quickly as Las Vegas, where a bruising drought has people searching for grassy alternatives.
In some cases, water customers in the region are getting money back from the Southern Nevada Water Authority for removing their natural grass and replacing it with the durable plastic mats. Other customers are avoiding grass -- and, they hope, high water bills -- from the start, with artificial turf as their first lawn.
In either case, it's not only the rising price of water that prompts the new look at a product that has been around, in one form or another, for decades. The "fifth generation" of artificial turf is more realistic, durable and easier to work with than the Astroturf of a generation ago.
"My challenge is educating people that this is not the Astroturf of our parents," says Mike Carpenter, owner of Artificial Grass of Las Vegas, one of a handful of companies that will install -- not plant -- artificial turf for homes in Southern Nevada.
Carpenter's business focuses on residential uses. His product, ProGreen, comes from a company based in Denver, a city where lawns and golf courses have died because of the West's four-year drought.
The Southern Nevada supplier for ProGreen is Harry Jackson, who can deliver several kinds of product. Artificial turf comes for active areas, for landscaping, and for big institutional users such as arenas, football fields and golf courses.
Carpenter, Jackson and other sellers say interest in all kinds of uses for the product is soaring.
"It's being talked about all over," Jackson says. "It's indestructible. It's nonflammable. Pets can't hurt it."
The business received a boost several months ago when the Southern Nevada Water Authority decided some kinds of artificial turf can be considered "mulch" for regulation purposes. That makes reimbursements available to people who use the approved types of plastic grass as part of a conversion from natural turn lawns to desert landscaping, or xeriscaping. The water authority pays $1 per square-foot of grass removed for the low-water-use landscaping.
Doug Bennett, water authority conservation manager, points out that it is not a one-for-one rebate. Customers don't get $1 for every square foot of grass replaced with a square foot of artificial turf.
Rather, the manufactured turf can be combined with natural products to create landscaping that reduces water use, but still is kind to the environment.
"We don't see artificial turf as a substitute for living plants," Bennett says. "You don't want people to conserve water at the cost of the quality of life."
He said the water authority does not want to become the instrument of "paving over all of Las Vegas." The new stuff, however, is often little different from the crushed rocks or dried bark that is commonly used in desert landscaping.
The water authority does not automatically include all artificial turf in its rebate program -- dubbed "cash for grass" -- for homeowners. The turf has to be permeable -- water has to be able to soak through it to the sand and dirt beneath it.
Homeowners looking for a rebate as part of their landscaping work also must have at least 50 percent of their lawn area covered by natural foliage, such as the overhanging branches of a tree or desert shrubs.
The rebate program, water authority staffers say, is going well.
"So far this year, we've received nearly 1,700 applications for residential rebates," says Tracy Bowers, water authority spokeswoman, "compared to 280 applications for the same period last year."
Bowers said the authority is not tracking how many of those rebate applications are from people who include artificial turf in their plans, but she and other water authority staff say the number of calls on the issue are rising.
A big part of that difference is that the authority bumped up the cash-for-grass rebate from 40 cents to $1 a square foot, part of an urgent effort by Las Vegas water agencies to conserve water.
The agencies are facing a loss of about 10 percent of its annual draw from Lake Mead, the source of 90 percent of the region's drinking water, because of a complex legal issue affecting the Colorado River. An even bigger issue affecting the agencies and 1.5 million customers, plummeting water levels in the lake due to the drought are threatening the water supply.
"The people who are redoing their yards understand we are in a drought," Henderson City Councilwoman Amanda Cyphers said at Thursday's water authority board meeting. Cyphers and outgoing Boulder City Councilman Bryan Nix told the staff that artificial turf needs to be a continuing part of the cash-for-grass program.
"For the last 35 years that I lived here, I represented people who got cash for grass," quipped Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, a former defense attorney.
The joke provoked laughter, but for the water authority staff the program is a central part of the goal of reducing outdoor water use. Two-thirds of all residential use goes outside, and 65 percent of the water used in Las Vegas is by residential consumers.
Artificial turf has become one more tool that staffers can use to entice residents to cut back. Carrie Lee, conservation services administrator, says the water authority's conservation aides now are carrying samples of artificial turf with them.
The rebate helps but does not cover the cost of the artificial turf. Natural lawn can cost about $1 a square foot to install. Carpenter said his lawns cost $6 a square foot -- a considerable difference for lawns that can be 1,000 square feet or more.
But artificial turf companies say their products provide long-term savings. Thirsty lawns can drink $100 or more of water every month, especially in the summer. Maintaining a natural lawn can easily double that cost, Jackson said.
Carpenter says his products carry an eight-year warranty, but the lifespan of the artificial turf can be 15 to 25 years.
Other products have similar costs, warranties and lifespans. Dick Olivas, president of Sierra Winds Tuff Turf in Reno, says his artificial turf costs the same as ProGreen's product, will last 20 to 25 years and has an eight-year warranty.
He estimates that a typical homeowner will save $12,000 over that eight-year period. That's one of the reasons why his company is increasingly coming south to install the product locally.
The representatives of the companies readily admit that artificial turf isn't for everybody and that the cost of the product often makes large residential jobs cost-prohibitive.
"There's going to be a certain number of people out there who are going to do it," Carpenter says. He adds that natural features are an important part of the overall landscaping.
"It makes our grass look better."
Sun City-Summerlin's Rodriguez didn't need to be persuaded to convert from natural turf to the artificial product. His front lawn was exclusively rock landscaping, and he wanted to add some green.
He considered the drought, pending water restrictions and increasing prices for residential water use.
"I was going to put in some grass. The other houses looked nice with greenery," he says. "I wanted grass but I wanted to save water."