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Landscapers suffer as drought lingers

Throughout the West, where verdant lawns are almost considered a basic right, landscapers are coming to terms with a years-long drought that has hammered their businesses.
A green sits amidst the desert soil at the Red Rock Country Club in Las Vegas. Landscape contractor Scott Walker planted native drough-tolerant flora along the course as the city, like many Western communities,  has cracked down on water use.Joe Cavaretta / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lush, eye-pleasing lawns are shrinking in parts of the West. Ornamental fountains are restricted in Las Vegas while gardening with outdoor pots is gaining a new following.

As homes and businesses curb water use amid a multiyear drought, the landscaping industry has fallen on hard times, prompting some businesses to lay off workers or close. Others are surviving by offering water conservation designs or diversifying their businesses.

"I'm very concerned for the future," Las Vegas landscaper Scott Walker said. "Everybody wants a spot of grass in their yard for their kids to play on or for their dogs. It's hard to tell your kids to go out and play on a pile of rocks."

Extreme drought conditions range from Montana to Arizona and are expected to persist, according to the Drought Monitor at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.

In Colorado, the drought hit hard about two years ago, forcing many cities to restrict water use and impose surcharges on those residents and businesses who use excess amounts. Some also banned new lawns. Many cities have imposed restrictions and surcharges again this year.

About 2,000 landscaping jobs in Colorado were lost between 2002 and 2003, according to a Colorado State University study of the $1.67 billion industry, which includes landscaping, nurseries, garden centers and commercial florists.

Revenues dropped $60 million last year, study author Dawn Thilmany said.

'Differently and better'
When the effects of the drought became evident, Todd Williams of American Civil Constructors in suburban Denver decided to increase his business in artificial turf and change landscape designs by using drought-tolerant plants and grouping plants by water requirements.

"We've seen a very positive response from our customers," he said.

Other landscapers expanded into services such as maintenance and snow removal. Many emphasize designs that offer more efficient irrigation systems, said Sharon Harris of Green Industries of Colorado, a trade group.

"So many people have gotten lean and are looking at doing things differently and better," she said.

At Tagawa Nursery in suburban Aurora, customers are offered classes in drought management, reshaping gardens and what's known as Xeriscaping, landscaping with plants that require little water. Sales of gardens in containers and drought-tolerant plants like Russian sage are soaring.

"Customers as well as our industry have really tried to adjust," manager Beth Zwinak said. "I think it's probably hurt parts of our industry more than others. When there is lawn planting or sod bans, that was devastating."

It is difficult to track the drought's effect on the industry, but landscapers in areas across the country that are experiencing water shortages have taken similar steps, said Bob Dolibois, executive vice president of the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

"For long-standing companies that are well-capitalized, that have long-standing customer relationships, this is less of an issue," he said. "There is no question that startup companies and undercapitalized to deal with a couple of down years are being affected."

A squeeze on water
Aside from the drought, there is the issue of an adequate supply of water in high-demand areas. "The reality is that is going to be an increasing problem in this industry as well as any other industry that is water-dependent," Dolibois said.

"What we're seeing in fast-growing areas around the country are selected water crises occurring more fundamentally as an issue of shortcomings of city planning in dealing with water consumption. That has a far more detrimental effect on the industry than obviously does a periodic drought," Dolibois said.

Phoenix is asking residents to voluntarily decrease water use by 5 percent, but has not imposed mandatory restrictions. Officials in Las Vegas, which depends largely on water in a severely drawn-down Lake Mead, are worried about the impact drought could have on its explosive growth.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has already banned sod planting in new residential front yards, limited grass to 50 percent in back yards and imposed restrictions and price surcharges on the use of residential and commercial ornamental fountains. It also is offering a $1 per square foot rebate to property owners who tear up turf from front and back yards.

Canals stay filled at the Venetian casino and fountains including the Bellagio's "Dancing Waters" on the Las Vegas Strip are allowed to run because they use recycled water and have separate wells.

Walker, the Las Vegas landscaper, said he has obtained a contractor's license in California in case he is forced to relocate.

"The only way we're going to solve this problem is water conservation," he said.