Pasco Water Waste
By Guadalupe Rios 
“During the years 2000-01 -- drought years you may recall --
the City of Pasco actually forced residents to rip out their native plants,
bark, gravel and other water efficient landscaping.”

When I moved to the Tri-Cities in 1993 from Los Angeles I was amazed at the lush green lawns.  Most people here use water with abandon.  Wayward sprinklers send water running down the street. People even wash their driveways!  That behavior would be unheard of in Southern California, and may even earn you a fine.   And LA gets more rain than we do!

In the early years of my residency here, whenever I saw a driveway washer I wanted to stop my car, jump out, and read that person the riot act.  “There’s not enough water for fish!  What the #@*& are you thinking!”

But my plea would have resulted in a blank stare.  “What do you mean there’s not enough water?   I see it in the Columbia River I cross every day on my way to and from work...”

Welcome to the Quad-Cities (formerly known as the Tri-Cities, until West Kennewick incorporated), where water is cheap, plentiful, and citizens are expected to keep their lawns green all year. Few people have xeriscaping, native plants, or landscape rock instead of turf.  

And here’s an even more embarrassing fact.  During the years 2000-01 - drought years you may recall - the City of Pasco actually forced residents to rip out their native plants, bark, gravel and other water efficient landscaping.

Yes you read that correctly. 

One Pasco resident, Carol Coker, lives in a neighborhood without curbs and gutters.  A strip between the sidewalk and asphalt road is intended to act as a “drainage swale” for the whopping 7-10 inches of precipitation we (might) get in a year.  She found this out in August 2000 when she received a notice of code violation.  The code cited (PMC 12.12.047) “all planting strips shall be maintained with lawns, trees, shrubs, living ground cover or combination thereof and ... not... dead or dying vegetation or exposed soil.” 

“I had native grasses, lavender and gravel,” Coker recalls, “but they said I had to install irrigation and ‘approved live groundcover’.”

So Coker fought back.  She and about eighty other Pasco residents spent a year fighting city hall. But they eventually lost.

Ina a final letter received from Pasco in October of 2001 Coker was informed that she had to “install an approved and permanent grass lawn sufficient to cover the entire drainage swale, and irrigate said grass lawn with water provided by an underground sprinkler system.”  She was given until May 1, 2002 and told she’d be fined $50/day after that if she failed to comply.

The City of Pasco - as part of the Quad-Cities water rights permit - claims to participate in a regional water supply plan that clearly outlined conservation practices.  The plan specifically calls out low water landscaping (called “xeriscaping”) as a practice.  Oddly though, those conservation incentives did not outline any expected water savings and said that no monitoring would be required!

So, where are we today?  The Quad-Cities has been the fastest growing area of the state for five years running.  We’ve surpassed Vancouver as the state’s fourth largest metropolitan area. Every new home (about three thousand of them) comes with underground sprinklers already installed in the front yards on all but the cheapest of properties!

Coker’s back yard is an oasis of shrub steppe in a sea of suburban sprawl, but her front yard - and those of her neighbors all have the required irrigated grassy swales. Richland doesn’t discourage low-water use landscaping and has even planted some attractive drought tolerant plants near several city gateways.  I'm tearing out my turf and replacing it with natives I've salvaged from all those new developments... but it's a slow process.  And I admit to worrying what the neighbors will think when my grass turns a little brown.

In W. Richland, one of my friends has an acre of turf!  It takes him four hours to mow it every week.  In retrospect, he’s bummed that he planted grass.  But now he doesn’t want to take the time or spend the money to tear it out and replace it - and the cost of irrigation is not really a concern.

The state continues to pay lip-service to conservation, but in Kennewick, Pasco, Richland and W. Richland, people continue to plant turf grass and use plenty of water.  

Neither Coker nor I, nor any of our friends in Kennewick or West Richland recall anything more than cursory mention of water conservation in our utility bills. No toilet dams, or low flow shower heads have been mailed to us. We have no “sleeping lawn” signs. No xeriscaping efforts.

Water conservation is simply not part of the Quad Cities culture.  There’s no peer pressure to conserve. And there is no regulatory enforcement of allegedly required conservation measures.

How sad.
  Center for
  Environmental Law & Policy
Carol Coker's low-water landscaping was held to be illegal by the City of Pasco for the parking strip swale and she was ordered to rip it out and plant grass.