PHOTO: At Interlochen, a business park in Broomfield, an expanse of grass lies behind a fence at a corporate headquarters. Photo courtesy Allen Best.
This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a multi-part series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.
Like weekly haircuts for men, a regularly mowed lawn of Kentucky bluegrass was long a prerequisite for civic respectability in Colorado’s towns and cities.
That expectation has begun shifting.
A growing cultural norm blesses a broader range of respectable landscapes, which require not much more water than what occurs naturally across most of Colorado. Denver, for example, averages 15.6 inches annually.
Native grasses, most prominently buffalo and blue grama, need half to one-third as much of the supplemental water a year required to keep Kentucky bluegrass — a species native to Europe — bright green. In metro Denver, for example, Westminster and Broomfield estimate that these cool-season grasses require 24 to 29 inches of supplemental water annually in addition to the 15 to 16 inches of average precipitation. Other water-wise landscape choices can also ratchet down water requirements by at least half.
Many homeowners have the additional goal of installing shrubs, flowers and other plants that attract pollinators.
The shift can be traced back to at least 1981, when Denver Water coined the term “xeriscape” to reflect landscaping choices that use less water. The drive to cut excessive water use for landscapes picked up significantly during and after the searing drought of 2002. When that drought ended, many consumers retained their new, more judicious habits of irrigation.
Now, say water providers and others, the pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened. If still far from universal, Coloradans have started developing a new aesthetic around urban landscapes. What is required to be a responsible homeowner and property manager is being redefined.
With Colorado River water woes still unresolved and depletion of aquifers in the Denver Basin and elsewhere continuing, Big Pivots in collaboration with Aspen Journalism set out to understand water devoted to urban landscapes in Colorado. This is the first of five stories about this giant and probably long-term shift in how we use water in urban landscapes.
Nobody argues that this shift alone will solve Colorado’s water challenges. Water devoted to lawns and other urban landscapes constitutes just 3% to 4% of Colorado’s total water consumption. Nonetheless, that use is being questioned as never before.
Western Slope residents have long objected to dewatering of rivers and streams for lawns along the Front Range. Now, water utilities on both sides of the Continental Divide see more-judicious use of water as being the most cost-effective strategy in serving larger populations in a hotter and possibly drier climate. And many homeowners have decided that by replacing imported varieties of turf with native plants, they can be part of the solution to declining populations of pollinating insects.
Colorado legislators have passed several laws in recent years to curb standard turf-growing practices. In January, they will be asked to approve a bill that would require local governments and homeowners associations to ban the installation, the planting or the placement of new nonfunctional turf, artificial turf or invasive plant species in commercial, institutional or industrial properties. The bill takes aim at purely aesthetic non-functional turf along roads and in medians. Residential homes would be exempted from the prohibition.
Nonfunctional turf generally means grass intended to be seen but rarely, if ever, touched by human feet. For example, the Flatirons Mall in Broomfield, a hospital in Fort Collins and a warehouse complex in Aurora have broad swathes of green grass surrounding them. Another example is along the drive-up lane to an ATM at a bank on East Colfax Avenue in Denver. Cosmetic or aesthetic turf is universal.
The bill has the backing of both Denver and Aurora. They argue that replacing existing turf, a costly task, is negated if the saved water is then used for new development that hews to the old habits of landscape. Aurora, in particular, has made clear that voluntary approaches have had only marginal success.
Colorado Springs, although equally committed to reducing water use, believes that a harder but better approach will be more effective in the long term. The Colorado Municipal League, representing 270 of the state’s 272 towns and cities, has concerns. At issue is a familiar one in Colorado: state mandate vs. local prerogative.
Voluntary approaches, though, have been impressive. For example, thoughtful design can be found in abundance at Centerra, a commercial and housing complex in Loveland. There’s still bluegrass, but it tends to be minimized.
In Boulder, Resource Central began offering water-conservation services to Front Range communities during the severe drought of 2002. The nonprofit reports a rapid uptick in its lawn replacement and other programs. It now has relationships with 47 water providers who help support the nonprofit’s Garden In A Box and other programs.
“This is the first year that we have seen more than 10,000 people participating in our various water-conservation programs, which tells us that this is rapidly becoming the new norm in Colorado,” said Resource Central CEO Neal Lurie, referring to lower-water landscapes. “What happens is one person makes a change in their yard and their neighbors come over and ask, ‘What are you doing?’”
It is that neighbor-to-neighbor conversation that is driving the urban landscape changes evident to anyone moving about most Colorado towns and cities.
Growing awareness of water scarcity also drives these altered sensibilities as well as new government regulations limiting outdoor water use. Declined flows in the Colorado River figure prominently in the thinking of many individuals but also public officials.
Aurora adopted bold restrictions on water use for outdoor landscapes in 2022. No use of Kentucky bluegrass or other so-called cool-weather varieties that use higher volumes of water will be allowed at new golf courses. The same applies to new front yards, although 500 square feet or 45% of backyards, whichever is less, will be permitted. The regulations also take aim at water for road medians and curbside landscapes. Fountains, waterfalls and other ornamental water features will also be banned in new development.
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman — whose city has the state’s third-highest population, at 400,000 — cites worries about potential diminishing water, imported from the Colorado River basin, as one of several reasons for taking action. “The longer you wait, the more dramatic your decisions have to be,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path.”
At least 38 utilities and other water providers have instituted turf-replacement programs, offering incentives that in some places can reach $3 per square foot of turf removed. That’s almost double the number of jurisdictions of just a few years ago. Like Aurora, many local governments have also adopted limitations on outdoor landscaping. Broomfield adopted regulations in late August.
Read Part Two, tomorrow…
Allen Best publishes the e-journal Big Pivots, which chronicles the energy transition in Colorado and beyond.