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Science and Innovations

City of Flagstaff Encourages Residents To Reject the Lawn

Melissa Sevigny

Household water use has declined in the United States for the last two decades, mainly due to updated plumbing codes and more efficient toilets and dishwashers. But trading in a green lawn isn’t so easy. That’s why a lot of western cities are offering money for people to get rid of their grass.  KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports on Flagstaff’s revamped incentive program.

When Josie and Matt Devlin bought their dream retirement home in Flagstaff, one of the first things they did was take out the front lawn. Now, a river of stone winds around clumps of bright native flowers. “It’s still brand new,” Josie says. “We love the rain, we can watch our little river fill up.”

Credit Matt Devlin

The Devlins moved here from Phoenix in the spring. They’re the first family in Flagstaff to go through a newly revamped city program that pays people to rip out their lawns. The city offers 25 cents per square foot of grass removed, and gives advice on how to replace the lawn with water-savvy native plants.

Josie says she doesn’t miss the lawn: “After being in Phoenix for so long, and you see all the golf courses and the green lawns and the water wasted and the water running down the streets…”

Matt adds, “Our water bill in the valley was always over 100 dollars and sometimes closer to 200, so we didn’t want to repeat that, and plus it’s just the right thing to do.”

Flagstaff has had a lawn replacement program for years. But Tamara Lawless, the city’s water  conservation manager, says it wasn’t working. It offered a $500 rebate for removing grass and suggested homeowners try xeriscaping. Lawless worried people didn’t know how to do that.

“When we looked at the data, some people weren’t actually saving water,” Lawless says. “So we figured they needed maybe a little bit more guidance.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Native landscaping at the Arboretum

Lawless revised the program to include specific instructions about plants, ground cover, and irrigation. She teamed up with expert gardeners at the local Arboretum, who created plant lists tailored to every neighborhood in Flagstaff.

Lynne Nemeth, the Arboretum's executive director

Lawless says, “They’ve also been providing some site visits to help the customers try to figure out what they want put in in their yard. Instead of just having plants that might die and they get frustrated and put their lawn back, hopefully they’re going to put in some plants that look beautiful and they are really happy with.”  

The Arboretum’s director Lynne Nemeth says there’s been plenty of interest. On a tour through the grounds, she points out some drought-tolerant plants that attract buzzing bees and hummingbirds. “We have a penstemon over here, and one of my favorite plants in the world, the globemallow; who can’t love a plant with an orange blossom?” she says.

Nemeth says this is a very personal way people can act on the big problem of long-term drought and Colorado River water scarcity.  “If you start talking about how the Colorado River runoff is 42 percent of normal, that’s so abstract to many people. So making it about their backyards I think is very helpful.”

Lawns are a drop in the bucket compared to the water consumed by crop irrigation or electricity generation. But the program’s managers say this is about creating a culture that values water. For now, they can encourage conservation without making it mandatory. That’s not the case everywhere in Arizona. Four wells ran dry in Pine and Strawberry this summer, forcing water restrictions.

Pine resident Julie Pugel says, “We’ve had so little rain, so little moisture of any kind, that they’ve asked that we not water our outside plants.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Artificial turf in Pine, Arizona

She anticipated this moment long ago, which is why she tore the grass in front of her realty business and put in artificial turf. She captures her shower water in a bucket to carry outside, “because I do have a few plants that the elk haven’t gotten—just a few, so I’m able to water those.”

Pugel says she loves the look of green grass; but this is the right way to live in Arizona.

For more information about Flagstaff’s Low Water Use Landscaping Program, including plant lists for Flagstaff neighborhoods, visit

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.