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New Mexico Homeowners in Water Tiff

January 29, 1998

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ For years, people moving to Albuquerque from the East have been bringing a little bit of home with them, planting lush green lawns where there were once rocks, cactus and bones bleached by the desert sun.

With water becoming scarce, however, the city is restricting the cultivation of lawns and promoting what’s known as ``xeriscaping,″ or rocky desert landscaping.

Now the question of rock or grass is causing turf battles around town.

More than two years ago, Albuquerque moved to conserve the rapidly shrinking acquifer that supplies the city with water. The city limited high-water-use lawns to just 20 percent of any new home lot, not including the house and any pavement.

Just how strongly people in Albuquerque felt about the issue was soon demonstrated by a dispute in a walled subdivision that isn’t even subject to the new restrictions because it is not a new community.

The upscale Towne Park, governed by a homeowners association, dug its heels into the sod and went to court when Kim Hedrich, a New Mexico native, ripped out her grass and xeriscaped her yard last spring. The association sued, claiming its rules require grassy front yards.

``Most people who bought here bought because there was that little bit of green out there,″ said Joe Gironda, a 67-year-old semi-retired man who moved here from New Orleans 25 years ago. ``It was called Towne Park. It would have been called Towne Desert otherwise.″

Looking down a row of lawns interrupted by xeriscape is like looking at someone ``who has a tooth missing,″ said Gironda, chairman of the Towne Park architectural control committee.

The case was settled earlier this month in favor of Ms. Hedrich and a few other Towne Park homeowners who xeriscaped last year, partly because the language of the subdivision’s covenant was murky.

``We live in New Mexico, not Kentucky,″ Ms. Hedrich said.

Over the years, people in Albuquerque have been planting lawns consisting of a mixture of rye, tall fescue and bluegrass. Eventually, bluegrass alone became more prevalent in this mile-high desert city of 420,000 people and less than 9 inches of rain a year.

``Most folks want a place for their kids to play _ a cooling effect on their back patio.″ said Bobby Lee of Conroy’s Landscaping. ``They see a need for grass.″

``We often joke that they bring Ohio with them,″ said Jean Witherspoon of the city’s Water Conservation Office.

In contrast, xeriscaping _ pronounced ZEER-ih-scaping, the word is derived from the Greek ``xeros,″ meaning dry _ can include gravel dotted with native shrubs, trees or flowers, or dry expanses with fist-size rocks or boulders.

Doug Bennett, irrigation conservation manager for the city, said that bluegrass needs 30 to 35 inches of water a year but that most homeowners use between 50 and 100, and he’s seen lawns that got more than 160.

Part of the problem is that many newcomers to New Mexico don’t realize that if they water the lawn during the heat of the day, most of it promptly evaporates.

Xeriscaping would use about one-third as much water, ``and that’s a fairly densely planted xeriscape, one with lots of flowers, lots of shrubs, lots of plants,″ Bennett said.

In Towne Park, which was the 11th biggest water customer in the city in 1995 with more than 63 million gallons used by its nearly 500 homes, the opposition to xeriscaping is so strong that pro-xeriscaper Scott Varner resigned from the homeowner board last year after receiving hate mail and nasty phone calls.

Elsewhere in the city, retirees Richard and Pat Hartleben said they used to have a grassy backyard but are replacing the lawn with rocks, railroad ties and desert plants such as yucca. They said xeriscaping their front yard had saved them nearly $100 a year on water bills and freed them from worry while traveling.

``When we come back the grass is almost seven miles high _ or it’s almost dead,″ said Hartleben, 67, who moved here after retiring from the Greece, N.Y., police force in 1986. ``We’re probably going to rock more this spring.″

Mrs. Hartleben said she doesn’t miss the high maintenance of the grass: ``It was too much work and too much weeds.″

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