A Remembrance of Xeriscape Advocate Scott Varner

Feb 22, 2012

The Xeriscape Council of New Mexico holds its annual Water Conservation Conference and Expo starting Thursday.  This year, the event is dedicated to a man who worked for decades to transform Albuquerque into a more water conscious place.  KUNM's Conservation Beat reporter Sidsel Overgaard has this remembrance.

Scott Varner spent most of his 20 years in Albuquerque living in the gated community of Towne Park with his partner Eloise Colocho. Colocho stands outside their home next to a small plot of land that once contained nothing but grass and a few thirsty trees. Today it’s really hard to imagine this list of common desert plants as fodder for hate mail.  But 1990 was a different world. Colocho points across the street at a community park, still mostly grass, but with some nice xeriscaping down one slope.

“This is the park that the HOA (that’s Home Owners Association) did xeriscape. Probably January, I guess. January, December not too long ago. Yeah, it’s a nice beginning.”

Scott Varner did not live long enough to see this park transformed though he fought for years to make it possible.  When I ask Colocho an innocent question, he responds with a laugh.

“Did they mean for it to be, like, a tribute to Scott? God no. They would not. No, no, no.”

People use many wonderful words to describe Varner.  “Meek” is not one of them.  In his fight to allow not force, just allow xeriscaping in communities like Towne Park, Varner made a few enemies.

“He had a very strong, deep, bass voice and people sort of shook when he spoke but they should have been more afraid of me than him. People come to the desert and don’t figure out that this is an area that gets 8 inches of rain a year,” said Varner in an interview with NPR in 2007.

“They brought homes in developments where they were told you can have grass forever. We have plenty of water and now that we know differently they’re very reluctant to change.”

It doesn’t seem like Varner took up xeriscaping as a cause because of any great passion for gardening.  He just saw something that needed to be fixed.

“We grew up with a minister father so notions of right and wrong and morality were there all the time,” said his sister Mary Alice Fisher.  She says their father worked for civil rights in 1940s Virginia and Varner probably inherited that sense of justice.

Plus, says Eloise Colocho, “He did like the challenge, for sure.”

Having retired from one of those government jobs that no one seems to know much about, Varner had time.  He quickly went from working for change on a neighborhood level, to volunteering with the Xeriscape Council, to becoming its Executive Director—a position he held for well over a decade.

In that time, Varner helped grow the council’s annual Conference from an event involving a few dozen locals to one that draws in hundreds of people from around the country.  And he started a trade show for the public- the Expo- which brings at least 10,000 people to the Fairgrounds every year.

The Xeriscape Council’s Judith Phillips says she used to think that growth was just a natural evolution.

“I know now that he really had a vision, a long term vision, and he was incrementally moving toward that goal, which worked. It worked really well.”

She says Varner was one of those people who led with self-effacing humor and could make almost anyone feel comfortable.

“Some people have told me how much they valued their directness and other people-it’s obvious they need their hand held-and he was there leading them along the path. So he just had a really interesting skill set.”

While Varner did successfully lobby to change laws having to do with water use, Katherine Yuhas says it was his work with the Xeriscape Council that had the greatest impact.  She’s Conservation Officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. 

“When we started the conservation program, xeriscape was a very new concept and having the Expo and conference right here in Albuquerque brought a lot of wonderful professionals to our community. It also has given our residents a wonderful opportunity to go for free on the weekend and see all at once all the different products that are available [and] get information from the different agencies on how to xeriscape so it’s been just an invaluable service to our customers.”

Yuhas says since Varner’s entrance onto the scene, city residents have changed out more than 6-million square feet of turf, leading to annual water savings of 250-million gallons.

“So he had a huge impact.”

For all his boom and bluster, Varner was not one to hog the spotlight, according to the Xeriscape Council’s George Radnovich.

“I’m the emcee. I stand in front of everyone and I talk about xeriscape and I talk about the speakers and I welcome everybody. Scott did more work than any of us and he just stood in the background and half the time when I introduced him he was not even in the room. He was out doing other things for the conference.”

Radnovich says Varner’s quiet work behind the scenes means no one totally understood the extent of his contributions until now.

“We’ve had a rough year without Scott and I miss him as a friend and a fellow advocate.”

Scott Varner died of kidney cancer on September 10th.  He was 69.


More information about the Xeriscape Council's Conference and Expo.

Varner's "only Republican friend" dishes on our blog: earth air waves