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Joe Storinsky, a field service representative with Aurora Water, must perform installations and inspection using the AMI water meter infrastructure at several of the newly built homes at The Aurora Highlands development on Aug. 4, 2021, in Aurora, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The climate-conscious, first-in-Colorado edicts proposed by the City of Aurora are clear: No new golf courses flooding grass with precious water. No grass in medians or decorative spots near offices. No home lawns sprawling out front and back — turf in backyards would max out at 750 square feet.

But get ready, metropolitan water users everywhere else in the state — water experts say similar restrictions on thirsty, traditional turf lawns are on their way. Denver is working with Denver Water on green building codes that could include Las Vegas-style caps on decorative turf and seasonal gallon limits on watering per square foot. 

Some see it as the beginning of the end of purely “aesthetic” turf. With Republican Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman helping to lead the charge, it appears the tide of fresh water onto grass has officially ebbed. 

“It’s a new reality for Colorado,” said Coffman, who previously served in Congress. “Water resources are becoming increasingly scarce in the state and we have to recognize that.” 

Coffman said he’s long had the philosophy that developers should not burden existing homeowners, and water prices for Aurora’s future needs are skyrocketing. Aurora Water says the proposed limits would knock about $2,500 off the roughly $25,000 tap fees builders pay for each home because the efficiencies would mean the agency doesn’t need to acquire as much water to supply that area. 

An Aurora City Council committee will review the turf-limiting proposals again Wednesday, with votes scheduled in June and a proposed effective date for developers Jan. 1. 

Smaller cities like Castle Rock and Aspen have also made progressive moves on water efficiency and alternative landscaping, water experts say. But fast-growing Aurora, with 385,000 residents and big housing developments on many edges, is turning heads, they added. 

“Aurora Water is certainly ahead of the trend in moving toward replacing turf, or progressive turf limits in new development,” said Lindsay Rogers, water analyst with the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates. 

The turf-limiting programs make a real impact, Rogers added. WRA estimates replacing an acre of grass with more efficient landscape saves 1 to 2 acre-feet of water a year. An acre-foot covers a football field in a foot of water, and supplies one to three households for a year. 

“Think about that across hundreds of thousands of acres of turf in the Front Range and throughout Colorado,” Rogers said. “We can think of these types of turf replacement programs as our next reservoir of water, and it’s going to be our cheapest, fastest, most reliable form of new supply.”

Aurora Water says it recently spent $17,000 an acre-foot for water rights on a South Platte Basin farm. 

Colorado water experts increasingly point to southern Nevada and Las Vegas authorities as their models for saving water by controlling turf. A robust plan needs two elements, they say: Limits on largely ornamental or “aesthetic” grass in new development, and a turf buyback program for existing homes and businesses that pays to rip out thirsty grass and design pleasing, water-wise landscaping. 

Aurora Water is one of the few Colorado utilities currently buying existing turf. The agency will design a homeowner’s low-water garden for free, and pay material costs up to $3,000 for 500 square feet — even more for a zero-water landscape. Water agencies and conservation advocates now avoid their earlier favorite low-water term, “xeriscaping,” after a lot of ugly landscape designs raised the ire of homeowners who perceived the results as aesthetically “zeroscaping.”

Lawmakers passed a modest statewide turf buyback program, to start efforts in cities without them or make existing city programs more lucrative for homeowners. The bill awaits Gov. Jared Polis’ signature, and advocates said they want to increase the available buybacks by millions of dollars in future sessions. 

Sterling Ranch, in partnership with the Denver Botanic Gardens, connects homeowners with drought-resistant plants for their landscaping. (Elliott Wenzler, Colorado Community Media)

Lawn watering is the most visible use of Colorado’s precious snowpack, to most Front Range residents, but it does not take a large percentage of available water. Agriculture currently uses more than 85% of Colorado’s available water, according to Colorado State University studies, with municipal water taking about 7%. Of that 7%, about half is used for lawn watering in most cities. 

Still, with drought and fast-growing Western states cutting into the Colorado River Basin water, much of which is diverted under the Continental Divide to Front Range uses, many Colorado lawmakers and water conservancy districts want to see metro areas making stronger conservation efforts. 

Aurora points to its reuse of water as another pioneering conservation effort, though the water agency is still looking for large new reservoirs for future mountain storage. Under Colorado water law, water diverted into other basins can be “used to extinction” by the rights holder instead of being required to return to the channel for downstream users. About 95% of Aurora’s water supply can be treated and reused to extinction.

Aurora’s new proposal includes: 

  • Prohibiting traditional grass in common areas unless it is an “active and programmed recreation area,” like a park ballfield. That means no new grass in medians, rights of way next to curbs, and residential front yards. 
  • Residential backyards would be limited to 45% turf, or 750 square feet, whichever is smaller. As examples of the new era, Aurora Water points to the Painted Prairie development, where front yards are low-water perennials, mulch, gravel and undemanding tall grasses. 
  • No new golf courses, with the exception of previously planned PGA-level Kings Point course. Aurora Water figures a golf course of that size will use 400 acre-feet of water a year, enough to serve 1,200 households.

Asked whether Denver Water is considering stronger turf limits, the agency pointed to its work with the City of Denver on updated green building codes by late this year. Denver is looking to recent Las Vegas rules as well, a spokesman said. 

“The Denver version of this proposal would limit turf to areas that serve specific community benefits and will cap the overall amount of irrigation to 7.5 gallons of potable water per square foot of [permeable] area per irrigation season,” the spokesman said. “If more water is required developers will need to consider alternative water sources.” 

Housing developers have pushed back on some of the provisions Aurora outlined, water agency officials said. An earlier proposal, for example, limited backyard turf to only 500 square feet. 

The Home Builders’ Association of Metro Denver offered a letter to Aurora officials in March, complaining that previous cooperation on water issues had been ignored in springing the proposed ordinance at the last moment. The developers said they were concerned about the high costs of high-quality xeriscaping, among other issues. 

“How will the new ordinance be adequately enforced given that many neighborhoods will be governed by a patchwork of conflicting landscaping and conservation standards?” the builders’ letter said. 

But the public and most developers have been surprisingly cooperative in creating the new guidelines, said Aurora Water spokesman Greg Baker.

“I think even five years ago, we would have had challenges with that,” he said. But recent online surveys with high response rates have set a new tone, he added. 

“Sixty-five percent of the respondents said, ‘Yeah, we agree, you shouldn’t be using turf on golf courses,’” Baker said. 

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver