WEST VALLEY CITY — Water to drink? Or water for the lawn? That was the ominous message from Utah leaders earlier this summer as the state battled an extreme drought.
It was a plea West Valley City resident Jason McHann took seriously.
"We stopped watering the grass," said McHann. "We kept the garden alive, because that's where all our food sources are coming from, and the bees are coming to it. So, we kept putting water on that because that's actually productive and serves a purpose."
McHann didn't think the city would mind. After all, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson told citizens earlier this year "yellow is the new green" and to "embrace yellow lawns, everyone, and do your part."
Gov. Spencer Cox urged Utahns to cut back on watering to twice a week to help curb the exceptional drought that engulfed most of the state.
McHann was therefore surprised when he received a courtesy notice in the mail from West Valley City code enforcement, which said, "all landscaping must be green and growing, weed free, and properly maintained. It doesn't have to look like a golf course, just show some effort and maintenance. Yours is completely dead."
McHann was frustrated. He believes enforcing city code in drought conditions and triple-digit heat should be more relaxed.
"We would have to be watering 45 minutes a day to keep it nice and green in this kind of weather," he said about his grass.
The notice from the city also stated, "Properties not in compliance are subject to further action, including fines," with a follow-up date three weeks after the date of the notice.
"I'm pretty frustrated because we're doing what we should be doing to be responsible citizens (in this drought)," said McHann.
Through a public records request, the KSL Investigators found McHann was not alone.
West Valley code enforcement issued 176 actions for landscaping and parkway maintenance violations in 2021. According to city code, this could be anything from weeds too high to no ground cover on the property.
Most of these cases were closed, with the homeowner presumably correcting the violation.
Twenty were active "notice of violations," which is the second step in the enforcement process after the courtesy notice. The city can fine homeowners $25 per day until the violation is resolved.
Fifty of the enforcement actions were courtesy notices, like the one McHann received. They are something Layne Morris, director of community preservation for West Valley City, said is meant to educate residents.
"We're all trying to reach or find that middle ground where we can water our lawns as little as possible, but still keep them alive," Morris explained.
Morris told KSL TV that West Valley City residents have demanded the city enforce the rules to keep neighborhoods looking nice and property values up. Dead lawns bring down property values, even in dry times, and can be expensive to replace if the lawn doesn't come back in the spring.
"It doesn't do anyone any good to kill their lawn," said Morris. "It's going to cost thousands of dollars in the coming years to replace that. So long as lawn is appropriate in Utah, and as long as municipalities pass ordinances requiring lawns, we're going to require that they keep a certain minimum amount of water to keep that lawn alive."
Morris said they're not expecting residents to keep a green lawn, but to adhere to state watering guidelines. "Water two times a week," he explained. "You've got to keep that lawn alive."
As for McHann, he plans on returning his lawn to its lustrous color, but not by watering.
"We're probably going to dye it green," he said. "You can buy green paint to spray on it. But I relish the idea of taking it directly to the city council and telling them that they're being fools about this and they need to pay some attention to environmental conservation."