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Five years of drought force Las Vegas to tear up its grass

The bulldozer roars, and bites into a patch of green grass in Las Vegas, the city once hailed for making the desert bloom.

It is ripping up five acres of football pitches, formerly the pride of the gambling city's Ed Fountain Park, because a five-year drought has left the grass of parks and gardens parched.

Out in the sprawling suburbs of America's fastest-growing city, Jerry Edgerton is one of hundreds of householders who have accepted an unusual offer from the water authority: $1 (56p) for every square foot of turf they dig up.

Instead of a lush front lawn he now looks out on to a brown, manicured version of the desert.

It is the end of what was once the suburban dream. City councils across America's arid western states are being forced to introduce "desert landscaping" around their buildings.

Swimming pools are banned from new housing estates, and in Las Vegas only the big, glittery casinos of the "Strip" are still allowed to keep their fountains gushing.

The water authority has budgeted $30 million this year to pay people like Mr Edgerton - enough to dig up the equivalent of almost a football pitch each day.

The Ed Fountain Park playing fields are now surfaced in a scratchy plastic turf called Progreen Xtreme.

"Grass has got to go. It has to be replaced by desert landscaping, artificial turf, or simply by concrete," said Clair Lewis, the city's landscape architect.

The dream of a green and leafy Las Vegas is the latest casualty of the "water wars" of the American West, which have raged since cowboys pitted themselves against the architects of the Los Angeles boom early in the 20th century.

The recent drought has combined with record growth in the south-western "sun belt" to produce a crisis for the region's reservoirs.

Patricia Mulroy, director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said: "Time is running out, and conservation - even pulling up all the turf - is just tinkering at the edges."

For several winters running there has been below-average snowfall in the Rocky Mountains, producing only half the water "run off" on which the modern West depends.

In Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Southern California, 30 million people depend on water from the Colorado River.

"There is no more water. The drought that couldn't happen is here." said Ms Mulroy.

Water has always been fought over in the West, from the early pioneers who drove Indians and Mexicans from the river banks to cowboys who feuded over watering holes on the high plains.

In the 1930s, Americans built the Hoover Dam, an engineering wonder of the age, to control the Colorado's flow and help the desert bloom.

Two vast reservoirs, each more than 100 miles long, were created to supply the region's growing cities: Lake Mead in Nevada, and Lake Powell in Arizona. Where travellers once died of thirst, families now race in speedboats.

This summer, however, Lake Powell is only 40 per cent full, and Lake Mead is down to 60 per cent.

A dirty white ring of newly-exposed shoreline is evidence of the 100ft fall in the water level. Soon the dam's hydro-electricity turbines will be out of commission, and Lake Powell will drain almost dry.

Bob Gripentog, 53, owner of a boat harbour on Lake Mead, said: "When I was born, there were 50,000 people in the Las Vegas valley. Now there are 1.6 million, and we issue 6,000 new driving licences a month. I fear we have forgotten that we are living in a desert."

Hasty efforts are under way to educate newcomers in water use. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the city council has promised to build a new recreation centre in whichever neighbourhood removes most lawns.

In Nevada and Arizona, golf courses are being redesigned with grass limited to the greens.

"People are being forced to forget the old sylvan, green ideal of beauty," said Oscar Goodman, the Las Vegas mayor.

"Long term, we have to keep growing, but it is going to be a different growth. To put it bluntly, in this town we are going to drink what we flush."

Ms Mulroy warns that even the best conservation plans in the cities will not be enough, and she and Mayor Goodman expect a new round of "water wars" - among the competing states which draw on the Colorado River, and between cities and farmers.

Farmers too will have to use less water, which may mean paying them not to plant crops.

Like Ms Mulroy, Mayor Goodman is a member of the Colorado River Commission, which decides how water should be apportioned.

"We are hoping for water peace," he said with a Las Vegas poker player's smile. "But you have to understand that water is water, and peace may be elusive."

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