Units at the Geos community in Arvada contain xeriscaped yards to minimize the need for watering. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado would expand grass turf buyouts statewide and double existing city rip-and-replace programs in a bill aimed at solving misuse of precious water during the state’s long-term drought. 

The bipartisan bill would create a $2 million to $4 million annual pool from general fund money to pay homeowners, businesses or any other landlords willing to replace thirsty bluegrass on lawns, road medians, highway ditches and other places the decorative greens are draining state reservoirs.

Most current turf buyout programs in Colorado pay $1 per square foot to replace grass with drought-friendly alternatives, and they only cover about 25% of the population. The turf buyout bill would match local spending to increase the buyouts to $2 a square foot, and bring $1 a foot buyouts to the other 75% of the state living without a buyout option, sponsors and environmental backers said. 

“No one has a picnic on the strip of grass in the median at a shopping mall,” cosponsor Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, said. With the Colorado River Basin draining in a decades-long drought, and neighboring downriver states threatening legal action to get their water rights from Colorado, Bridges said, “we need to do more to make sure we’re getting the most possible use, the most benefit, from what we have here in the state.” 

Conservation groups, who have long argued it’s time to trim nonnative grass watering that Colorado State University experts estimate makes up most of the 55% of Front Range urban water used on the outdoors, hail the statewide buyout idea as a great first step that they hope will expand. 

“This is all part of a strategy to make Colorado landscapes more water efficient. And so we think a statewide turf buyback program is one great way to do that,” said John Berggren, a water analyst with the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates. 

“There’s a growing recognition that we have to reduce the amount of irrigated turf we have, and a growing recognition that while some turf is definitely beneficial – parks, sports fields, parts of people’s yards – we all know there’s a lot of turf that doesn’t get used,” Berggren said. 

House Bill 1151 is sponsored by Bridges, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa; Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose; and Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon. 

Bill sponsors and conservation supporters estimate all the buyout programs in the state currently spend about $1.3 million a year, and they want to at least double that amount. Legislators are still negotiating on the general fund amount they will ask for. 

Some southwestern cities have more aggressive buyout programs. Las Vegas offers $3 a square foot to help tear out grass and design low-water gardens and landscaping. 

A $2 million to $4 million budget would be tiny in the big picture – Denver Water revenues in 2021 from water sales were projected at $311 million. But advocates see public acceptance of buyouts as an important initial goal as climate change and shorter-term drought shrink the amount of water available in Colorado. 

Environmental groups also believe city water departments need to participate more in conservation efforts – 80% to 85% of Colorado’s water goes to agricultural use, but conservation advocates say they want rural and urban areas to cooperate on long-term water demand issues. Front Range cities rely heavily on river water diverted from the Western Slope

Sponsors also emphasize Colorado won’t be dictating that every town have a buyback program, or how they run their payouts. 

Grass lawns are not getting outlawed, Bridges noted.

“We’re creating a fund to say if you agree with us, which we hope you do,” he said, “here’s a way to make it less expensive for you to make the fix that we all know you need to make.” 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...