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Pinwheels replace posies in flint-dry Boulder

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

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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.

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