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Washington County's new water conservation boss looks to tackle turf

Posted at 2:27 PM, May 12, 2023

The Washington County Water Conservancy District has made a big hire that could lead to some significant conservation changes for southwestern Utah.

Doug Bennett, who previously oversaw conservation measures for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, will now lead efforts in one of Utah's driest regions.

"Washington County is on the threshold of doing some really amazing things," Bennett said in a recent interview with FOX 13 News.

During his decades at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Las Vegas metro area became a model of water conservation measures. The Great Salt Lake Collaborative (of which FOX 13 News is a member) documented in a series of reports the measures the Las Vegas area has taken that include water reuse, nonfunctional turf bans and increased incentives to get people to switch to water-saving measures.

Asked if he would like to import some of those ideas to the St. George area, Bennett said "all of those policy measures could be considered."

READ: Diverted water helping Great Salt Lake, reducing flood concerns

"Where Washington County wants to go with those measures is largely going to be up to the stakeholders of the community," he said.

Immediately, Bennett said the Washington County Water Conservancy District shares a goal of state leaders in getting rid of more nonfunctional turf. That's grass that is largely ornamental and uses a lot of water. Last week, Governor Spencer Cox launched a new round of turf buyback incentives across Utah.

Many cities in southwestern Utah have already ripped out a lot of turf and imposed ordinances restricting where it can go in the future. But Bennett said there's still more to be done.

"There’s an awful lot of nonfunctional turf grass in Washington County. Getting people to realize that is important," he said. "Showing them a way that we’re not looking to create barren landscapes, but we have hundreds of species of plants that use a fraction of the water."

Bennett's hire is being praised by at least one environmental group. The Great Basin Water Network, which does work in both Nevada and Utah, said it is a a good move by Washington County's water agency.

"The money from the legislature, a big hire like this, it's a really great signal and we hope it ultimately amounts to a really positive one," said Kyle Roerink, the group's executive director.

Roerink said southern Nevada has implemented good water conservation practices that southern Utah could do as well. He said the Utah State Legislature has taken positive steps in funding water conservation, particularly in southern Utah.

"I think Doug is coming in at a really exciting time for southern Utah, the legislature in this session, lawmakers made huge investments [for conservation]," Roerink said. "You're going to have more than $100 million coming down to southern Utah to help really build the foundational institutions for the future."

The St. George area is booming, which brings with it increased demands for water. Bennett said he wants to see conservation goals adopted and community members buy in to help achieve them.

"We’re not saying not to use water," Bennett said. "We’re saying can we find better ways to use water? Can we be more efficient?"

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.