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Sod removed from near the Lafayette Public Library on Baseline Road dries in the sun. Lafayette is removing nonfunctional turf from many public spaces and replacing it with low-water landscaping. (Chloe Anderson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Broomfield has joined a swelling wave of Colorado communities sharply limiting thirsty turf grass in new development, with more communities about to follow, while other cities and parks departments are starting to rip out useless grass in medians and rights of way for replacement with water-wise landscapes. 

State water officials, meanwhile, have closed out the first year of $1.5 million in local turf removal grants with nearly 40 applications for the money, and water resource experts hope to use the momentum from the anti-turf evolution to create a bigger state-funded buyback next year. 

“The momentum toward water-wise landscape transformation is unprecedented in the last year or two,” said Lindsay Rogers, a water specialist with Western Resource Advocates. 

The nonprofit worked with WaterNow Alliance to advise Broomfield, and Rogers said cities from Fort Collins to Grand Junction to Edgewater are working on or have recently passed new landscaping ordinances deemphasizing turf. WaterNow Alliance’s grant work with Broomfield, population 78,000, provides up to 250 hours of pro bono water-wise consultation, Rogers said. 

Purple asters and other fall blooming flowers line crushed stone paths through a low-water garden planted where turf used to be near Lafayette Fire Station 1 on North 111th Street. Lafayette is removing nonfunctional turf from many public spaces and replacing it with low-water landscaping. (Chloe Anderson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Broomfield City Council unanimously passed what Rogers calls one of the strongest turf restrictions in the state in early October, with turfgrass allowed on only 30% of the front and side yards of new detached homes and commercial construction. New irrigation systems in Broomfield must have rain shutoff sensors to prevent overwatering, and turf is banned from parking lot landscapes. Broomfield’s new ordinance starts Jan. 1. 

Aurora and Castle Rock have also recently passed sharp cutbacks in turf allowance for new construction, after years of drought in Colorado helped build momentum for water savings. While municipal water use overall makes up less than 10% of statewide water use, with the vast bulk going to agriculture, landscape watering makes up half or more of municipal usage. Broomfield said 60% to 70% of its water use has been outdoors in recent years. 

“We’ve seen a great appetite by our existing residents to participate in our water-wise planting and garden in a box programs,” Broomfield Mayor Guyleen Castriotta said. “So there’s definitely a growing desire to reduce water consumption and conserve, and we’re trying to walk the walk to do it with our own properties.” 

Like Lafayette and other cities, Broomfield is beginning to rip water-sucking turf out of public median spaces that are not used for sports fields or public enjoyment, and replace the grass with landscapes that use far less water. 

Rogers and other state leaders mentioned a growing handful of other anti-turf efforts around Colorado: 

  • Lafayette has an ambitious public turf replacement series underway, with big demonstration projects replacing grass with low-water plantings, and educational signage so that the gardens can be used as a “shopping” list for homeowners wanting to do the same. The city also has programs offering homeowners $1 a square foot in new landscaping subsidies if they rip out grass. 

“I’m a big advocate for practicing what we preach,” said Elizabeth Szorad, Lafayette’s sustainability coordinator. 

  • Denver Parks and Recreation is replacing turfgrass with low-water landscaping in medians and odd-lot spaces it controls after decades of city growth and change. One of the initial projects was a high-profile median at Quebec Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, said deputy parks director Scott Gilmore. The parks department has multiple medians and scattered block-size spaces it controls but which are not useful for public park or athletic field use, such as a block at West 48th Avenue and Julian Street cut off from the larger Rocky Mountain Lake Park by Interstate 70 construction. 

Denver Water is helping to pay for the work, which replaces 10 acres of traditional Kentucky bluegrass in the broad median area. 

  • Fort Collins is preparing to overhaul its landscape ordinances with a restriction similar to Broomfield’s of no more than 30% turf at new home construction, Rogers said. Fort Collins and other cities are also studying bans on installation of artificial, plastic grass as a turf replacement, Rogers said. Artificial turf comes with increasing concerns about PFAS “forever chemicals” used in manufacturing and then shedding in water runoff, as well as creating urban heat islands and a lack of recycling options for old artificial grass. 

  • Grand Junction is working on new landscaping codes that will include not only options for water-wise, low-use designs, but an additional option for ultra-low water “high desert” landscaping, Rogers said. 

  • Colorado is processing up to 39 applications from towns for the initial $1.5 million in state turf buyback programs. Legislators and water experts designed the grant program to fill in gaps among cities that haven’t launched their own buybacks, which until now have been concentrated in larger western cities like Aurora, Las Vegas and others. Rogers and others hope the high interest will push the legislature and state water board to find even more money for the program in 2024. 

“We’d like to see an annual appropriation, given how popular it’s been,” she said. 

New homes are seen under construction near the Montaine community on Oct. 17, 2022, in Castle Rock. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Though many drought-savvy Colorado residents have moved beyond condemning all water-wise landscapes as “zero-scaping” in terms of aesthetics, turf replacement still requires constant public education efforts, Szorad said. Residents don’t want their lawns or public spaces simply given over to concrete or desolate gravel-scapes. Nor do they want to add to worries about dry plants and weeds fueling future wildfires. 

A Lafayette fire station is one of the first public spaces to rip out turf and demonstrate wiser alternatives, after firefighters were ready to give up mowing the unused lawns, Szorad said. 

Attractive but defensible landscapes, Szorad said, have “been a very hot topic for our community ever since the Marshall fire.”

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...