PHOTO: Meredith Slater poses with her water-wise yard in Denver. 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.
Read Part One
In southeast Denver, Meredith Slater took a break on an August morning to explain why she and her husband, Jake Hyman, earlier this year had replaced the lawn of their brick home with plants native to Colorado and nearby areas. The yellow, red and orange flowers were thick with bees and other pollinators.
“Over the last few years, I’ve come to recognize that native bees, birds and insects don’t have a place to call home in much of Denver because of all the grass and non-natives,” Slater said as her husband used a tiller to rip out the remaining Kentucky bluegrass on the other half of the front yard. “That was part of the impetus for this.”
Slater works for a global organization called ActionAid. It operates in 40 countries, many of them in Africa and Asia, to assist farmers faced with the challenges of a warming climate. That work has made her particularly attentive to the challenge of protecting adequate water for agriculture. In Denver, she sees water devoted to lush green lawns as wasteful.
“I’m just trying to do my little part with my front yard,” she said.
Her thought was echoed by dozens of homeowners from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins to Durango who were interviewed for this series of stories. “We’re not going to save the world, but we’re doing what we can,” said a Denver homeowner.
Colorado gets 83% of its water from rivers, streams and other surface sources, while the other 17% comes from groundwater, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan. Agriculture uses about 90% of Colorado’s water, towns and cities 7%, and industry 3%.
Within urban areas, outdoor irrigation consumes roughly 50% of water.
Why would cities want to cut outdoor use? Motivations vary.
For most jurisdictions, conserving water through reduced outdoor use represents the cheapest way to serve larger populations. Colorado Springs Utilities, for example, serves a population of 500,000 but has expectations of serving 800,000 at buildout.
Population growth along the Front Range during the past century has been primarily satisfied by transmountain diversions. Half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. In theory, Colorado has undeveloped water in the Colorado River. New transmountain diversions, though, can be very expensive and problematic. Aurora and Colorado Springs, for example, completed their Homestake diversion project in 1967. Since the early 1980s, they have been seeking additional diversions from Homestake Creek, an Eagle River tributary. Conservation has been more easily accomplished.
Easier in most cases than transmountain diversions — but still difficult — has been converting agriculture water to municipal use. That’s true even in the South Platte River Basin. As The New York Times reported in a September story, the Denver suburb of Thornton began acquiring water rights near Fort Collins in 1985. Construction of a 72-mile pipeline to bring that water to Thornton residents and businesses has barely started.
Several of Denver’s south-metro-area cities have been unsustainably drafting the Denver Basin aquifers. Parker gets nearly 60% of its water from the aquifers; Castle Rock attributes “most” of its water from the aquifers.
Parker Water and Sanitation District, working with farmers in the Sterling area, plans to pump water roughly 125 miles across eastern Colorado. It estimates the cost at $800 million. Castle Rock may participate in that project and also has a project called Box Elder that would draw water from 60 miles away in northeastern Colorado.
Lessened demand from landscaping means less need for costly new infrastructure. It also makes water utilities more resilient in the face of drought. Landscapes can sparkle with little water. Actually, they can be even brighter at times. After all, the “perfect” lawn is a monotone, unblemished by yellow dandelions or anything else.
Still other water providers have been motivated simply by a desire to leave water in streams and rivers. That’s the case in Vail, which is landlocked with no expectations of significant expansion. There, the town has been replacing water-consumptive Kentucky bluegrass in town parks since 2019 with less-thirsty native species. This year’s projects also include removal of grass from an on-ramp to Interstate 70.
Vail’s motivation is simple: to preserve flows in Gore Creek and protect the aquatic environment, said Todd Oppenheimer, the town’s capital projects manager.
Boulder has a robust portfolio of water rights and self-imposed growth limitations. Unlike neighboring jurisdictions along the Front Range, It has no practical considerations driving landscape changes. But for 20 years, it has been participating in Resource Central’s water-saving programs. This year, the city provided each customer $500 that can be applied toward either turf removal or Garden In A Box programs.
Turf removal reflects community values, said Laurel Olsen, Boulder’s utilities engagement and outreach senior program manager. “We have decided as a community that wise use of our resources is a high priority.”
In theory, this should result in Boulder’s leaving more water in creeks. The city, however, does not have a tabulation of that.
Colorado’s state government has also been delivering nudges. State legislators in 2022 directed the state’s leading water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a statewide program that would use financial incentives to encourage the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with water-wise landscaping. That law allocated $2 million for the programs. Through early September, funding had been awarded to 25 jurisdictions with 13 others considered “eligible.” A deadline to apply for a second round of grants was in late August.
In February, Gov. Jared Polis appointed 21 members to a new Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force. He asked them to identify practical ways to advance outdoor water-conservation through state policy and local initiatives. Members must report their findings in January.
Several of the major water providers in the Colorado River basin have also agreed to reduce water for urban landscapes.
In August 2022, water providers from Denver, Aurora and Pueblo, along with those from Los Angeles and other southwestern cities, announced a memorandum of understanding. The MOU commits participating water utilities to “reduce the quantity of nonfunctional turf grass by 30% through replacement with drought- and climate-resilient landscaping, while maintaining vital urban landscapes and tree canopies that benefit our communities, wildlife and the environment.”
Driven, at least in part, by the Colorado River troubles, public perceptions have been shifting rapidly.
Denver Water has conducted surveys since 2016 that ask respondents how scarce they think water is now, and how scarce they think it will be in 10 years. Survey results show a sharp uptick in concern.
“Two-thirds of people think water is scarce now, and 90% of people think water is going to become more scarce in the future,” said Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water.
Fisher sees a link to the “innumerable Colorado River stories” that have been published and broadcast in recent years. “We’re attaching that to climate change. And I think from what I read, it’s a lot of people asking, ‘What can I do? I now understand there’s this problem in the Colorado River. What can I do to help that?’ And I think we’re starting to show them a way that they can help.”
Denver Water in 1981 coined the term “xeriscape,” combining the Greek prefix “xero,” which means dry, with landscape. Water conservation advocates now rarely use it. They say too many people take it to mean zero-landscape, and for many, that means rocks and cactus. Yards of gravel are anathema to landscape architects. Not only are gravel yards boring, but they contribute to the heat-island effect of urban areas…
Read Part Three, tomorrow…
Allen Best publishes the e-journal Big Pivots, which chronicles the energy transition in Colorado and beyond.