Pinwheels replace posies in flint-dry Boulder

Lawn-watering bans, empty swimming pools, 'water cops' return as West faces worst drought in a century.

Stroll across a sloped expanse of lawn at Scott Carpenter Park, and you'll hear a crunch that sounds more like walking over crushed glass than vegetation.

This is the sound of the 2002 drought.

Not the click and hiss of sprinklers piercing the languid summer air, nor the splash of children playing in a swimming pool. Just the brittle staccato of feet falling on parched brown grass.

Park grass here in Boulder, Colo., is being watered only twice a week for 15 minutes. After a scorching month, that's enough to keep it alive but dormant.

While the "crunch" may not be as loud everywhere, the story is the same across the western interior – with parched ground serving as a stark reminder of the impact of drought on a naturally arid region. Over the past 100 years, dams and other government efforts have helped open this land – dubbed "the Great American Desert" by early explorers – to an influx of people and agricultural activity. But when the weather cycles run dry, water-management efforts are stretched to their limits.

The current drought, the worst in decades in many areas, is seen by some residents as a call to action.

"It just means we have to adjust our thinking, and come into better balance with the amount of water our arid landscape can provide," says Bart Miller, a lawyer for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. He says that, without sacrificing their quality of life, residents may need to adjust their ideals about what a front yard should look like. "It's a good place to start saving water."

Whether or not the drought causes long-term changes in water use, patterns of life are changed sharply this summer.

Last week, the US Agriculture Department released millions of acres of land across 18 states to provide emergency foraging for livestock. In addition to the West, affected states include much of the plains – where drought has devastated wheat crops – and a parched swath of the South from Georgia to Virginia.

Here in Colorado, in the midst of the state's worst drought in over a century, some 70 communities have adopted watering restrictions this summer. The stringent water-use limits mirror those being imposed by other cities around the baked-dry West – from Santa Fe, N.M., to Reno, Nev. – to conserve fast-diminishing water supplies.

Steps in Colorado cities illustrate the range of approaches bing tried:

• Lafayette has put a moratorium on new taps and doubled its water rates.

• In the western towns of Silt and Parachute, lawn-watering violators can face jail time and fines up to $1,000.

• Boulder hired six "water cops" to catch scofflaws, and it set up a phone line so residents can report violations. Since June, 209 violators have been cited.

Not stopping there, Boulder has planted no flowers at parks this year. Instead, it has stuck rows of plastic pinwheels in the ground. The city also has not opened its 1960s-vintage public swimming pool, which loses 13,000 gallons a day to evaporation and leaks.

In the interior West, rainfall averages only 15 inches annually. Boulder, like most Colorado cities, relies almost exclusively on mountain snowmelt to fill its reservoirs. Now, in a fourth straight year of minimal snowfall, reservoirs could be drained before next year's runoff.

With landscaping making up 75 percent of Denver's summer water use (two-thirds of that just for lawns), many see vegetation as the central issue in future conservation efforts.

The xeric gardens that surround Steve Miles's Boulder home are a case in point. A riot of color, texture, and form, his gardens demonstrate that living in a semidesert – even in a drought – doesn't mean resigning oneself to a brown lawn.

He waters for only 5 to 10 minutes, twice a week. "We're in the perfect climate for this kind of gardening," says Mr. Miles, whose great-grandfather came to Boulder in 1860. He says newcomers have to accept that they aren't living on the coast. "People need to start thinking differently. We're in a borderline desert."

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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