Las Vegas Sun

November 16, 2018

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Budget woes put surveillance plane water-use data out of the picture

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COURTESY of SOUTHERN NEVADA WATER AUTHORITY

An aerial infrared photograph of a Las Vegas Valley neighborhood is highlighted to show front lawns in yellow and back lawns in green. The photograph shows turf and trees in red, and the pools are blue. For the past four years, photographs such as this were snapped from a plane through a program of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which has run out of money to analyze the data the photos provide.

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The secret weapon that has triggered a dramatic reduction in water use in the Las Vegas Valley hasn’t been the water cops patrolling city streets or bean counters examining water records.

For the past four years, the credit has been going to the annual flight of a lone airplane, crisscrossing the skies above the valley and snapping detailed photographs of our green lawns and blue pools, liberal landscaping along city streets and the lush fairways of our golf courses.

These images are fed into a computer program at the Southern Nevada Water Authority that layers the images over municipal parcel maps and highlights the vegetation. Water authority analysts pore over the resulting map, flagging the properties with the lushest, wettest landscaping and send the owners of those properties pitch letters: We’ll pay you cash to rip up your grass and replace it with desert-efficient landscaping sustained by smart, water-saving drip systems.

The cash-for-turf program been successful enough to give Las Vegas and the water authority a national reputation for water conservation. About 130 million square feet of turf at valley homes, along sidewalks and on golf courses has been converted to water-smart landscaping since 2003.

And after the spy plane was launched in 2006, the conversion program has grown by 300 percent, says Judith Brandt, a water authority analyst who examines the surveillance photos to identify big water users who can be targeted for the conservation campaign.

Since then, the surveillance photos have shown a 29 percent increase in tree cover — that’s a good thing — and a 12 percent reduction in water-guzzling turf. (The water authority isn’t sure how much of the turf reduction is in the form of dead lawns at homes of cash-strapped families or which have been foreclosed.)

But that aerial spy program has now stalled.

The plane was sent skyward on schedule this spring, but the authority has run out of money to run the software and analyze the data, Brandt says.

Blame it, of course, on the recession.

The program is funded under the Water Smart Landscape program, the outdoor water conservation program funded by new water-connection fees. But construction all but stopped with the recession and that money, well, dried up.

There are other funding sources, but given the water authority’s various demands, there are more important ways to spend money than monitoring lawns, officials decided.

So the data sit in a computer, waiting for the day when the budget is less tight.

For the record, the spy plane’s data can be tapped by Henderson, North Las Vegas and Clark County code enforcement officials who might be interested in enforcing municipal conservation codes. All three have landscape restrictions on new homes, bans on front lawns of homes built since the early 1990s and requirements that lawns can’t make up more than half the back and side yards.

The surveillance aircraft’s pictures are integrated with parcel maps so the agency, or a city, could use the software program to seek out illegal landscaping.

But representatives of each of the three jurisdictions say they don’t use water authority surveillance to seek out offenders.

They rely on old-fashioned sources of information — neighbors and homeowners associations.

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