Those grassy medians in roads around Colorado might add doses of green to streets, but state water watchers say the turf sucks up too much water and that needs to change.
State officials, legislators, water managers and conservation experts are searching for ways to cut water use in face of prolonged drought and concerns about future water supply insecurity. One much-discussed option for urban areas: Finding areas of thirsty turf, like Kentucky bluegrass, that are purely ornamental and removing it. Legislators have proposed a bill that takes that approach a step further by prohibiting new installations of this nonfunctional turf starting in 2025, and the idea got an early vote of support last week.
“This isn’t about ripping up turf that already exists,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Summit County Democrat, who is a prime sponsor of the draft bill. “If you have nonfunctional turf you’ll be allowed to keep it if you want. Hopefully you’ll replace it, but we’re not mandating you to.”
The proposal focuses on state and local governments, and homeowners associations. After Jan. 1, 2025, these entities would not be able to plant or install new nonfunctional turf, artificial turf or an invasive plant species on any commercial, institutional or industrial property.
Legislators on the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee voted 8-2 Tuesday in favor of the proposal, a bipartisan vote and a preliminary signal of support. It will be introduced to the General Assembly in January.
The bill comes out of Colorado’s efforts to grapple with the impacts of climate change, the draft bill says.
The Colorado River Basin, which provides 40% of Colorado’s water supply, lost an estimated 10 trillion gallons of water over two decades because of rising temperatures and a changing climate, according to recent research.
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In Colorado, cities, towns and industries currently have enough water, but by 2050, municipalities statewide could be short a total of 230,000 acre-feet to 740,000 acre-feet in the worst-case scenario, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan.
Municipal water use accounts for just 7% of the state’s annual water use. While that is a small percentage, Colorado needs to be worried about even the smallest amount of water these days, Roberts said.
The state has made progress in cutting down indoor water use, particularly as in-home appliances have become more efficient. But within municipalities, Coloradans use about half of their water on lawns and gardens, which means water managers are increasingly focused on outdoor use.
“We, as a state, need to look at all possible ways to conserve water within our state boundaries,” Roberts said, “and nonfunctional turf is one of those low-hanging fruits that seems like the very obvious next step in where we need to go in conserving water.”
What is — and isn’t — nonfunctional turf?
Cities, towns and residents around Colorado have planted Kentucky bluegrass and other nonnative grasses around buildings, homes and urban landscapes for decades.
But in some areas the grass is rarely, if ever, used. Instead, it is watered and maintained primarily for aesthetic purposes. This nonfunctional turf can be found in green patches next to streets, sidewalks, driveways, parking lots, frontage areas and medians.
“This is the type of turf that I think, maybe after this hearing, you’ll see driving around all the time now,” Andrew Hill, government affairs manager for Denver Water, told legislators during the committee meeting. “It’s not used for anything. … Put simply, it only ever sees the bottom of a lawnmower, and it only ever gets watered.”
In other areas, grassy turf serves civic or recreational purposes: People picnic on it in parks, kick around balls on it at sports fields and play on it at playgrounds. This type of turf has a function and would not be impacted if the draft bill passes the legislature. Nor would residential lawns, golf courses, sports fields or any existing areas with nonfunctional turf.
“It’s important to make that distinction because there are areas that serve a really valuable purpose to communities,” Hill said. “These urban green spaces, when used functionally, can combat urban heat island effects, it improves mental and physical health, and green spaces are also very important to disproportionately impacted communities.”
Artificial turf — which would also be prohibited in new landscaping under the proposed bill — resembles grass but is made out of synthetic materials. It can exacerbate heat island effects and release harmful chemicals into the environment and watersheds, the bill says.
A movement in full swing
Many Colorado communities are already finding ways to reconfigure landscapes in more water-efficient ways.
Colorado water officials recently ended the first year of $1.5 million in local turf removal grants with nearly 40 applications for the money. Broomfield, Fort Collins, Grand Junction, Aurora and Castle Rock are just a few cities with efforts to restrict, remove or otherwise cut down on water used by thirsty landscaping.
In 2022, municipalities and water providers across the Colorado River Basin committed to reduce nonfunctional turf grass by 30% while maintaining key urban landscapes and tree canopies that benefit communities, wildlife and the environment.
Lafayette residents may have recently spotted crews digging up turf at the local library. Or they can scope out a finished water-wise garden at Lafayette Fire Station 1 on North 111th Street.
Aurora has been working on removing thirsty turf as part of the city’s Grass Replacement Incentive Program, which had about 120 participants in 2023, a 50% increase compared with 2022.
Kentucky bluegrass in Aurora needs to be soaked with about 28 inches of water, on average per year, on top of natural precipitation, said Tim York, water conservation manager for Aurora Water.
That’s a little over 2 acre-feet of water per acre. One acre-foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons, or a yearlong supply of water for two or more typical urban households.
Replacing that nonfunctional turf with native grasses could save that full 2 acre-feet per acre, York said. Replanting with water-efficient shrubs or other types of nonnative turf grass could cut water use by 1 to 1.5 acre-feet per acre.
The cost of these projects is all over the board, he said. A project with minimal irrigation modifications could cost $16,000 per acre. To heavily modify a big irrigation system, like irrigation for a park, it can cost up to $60,000. The residential cost to replace turf depends on factors including contractors, labor and landscaping density.
“It’s not cheap,” York said. “The native grass option, where native grass makes sense, is certainly the cheapest and gives us typically the largest (water) savings value.”
It’s not clear how much water could be conserved by replacing nonfunctional turf, or by prohibiting new installations. That is partially because communities like Aurora are still calculating their total acreage of nonfunctional turf, a process that requires aerial surveys and data analysis, York said.
In 2022, Aurora said it would stop building with new nonfunctional turf installations, which means it serves as an unofficial test-case for the recently proposed draft bill.
“If we’re going to ask existing customers to remove it, we’re going to incentivize it, we sure as heck shouldn’t be allowing people to continue to put it in. We know it’s not right,” York said. “We can keep taking it out, but if we continue to put it in, you’re just kind of chasing your tail.”
What do people say about it?
It’s too soon for many entities around the state to take a stance on the draft bill — they will once the legislative session starts — but some communities are already weighing the idea.
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Water Quality and Quantity Committee, called QQ, keeps a close eye on water policies. The committee does not take positions on legislation until the bill has been introduced during the legislative session.
“One of QQ’s guiding policies — water conservation and efficiency measures in Colorado should be increased — does align with the bill. QQ has been supportive of efforts to reduce turf generally and previously,” Claire Carroll, the committee’s director, said in a written statement. “At the same time, many QQ members approach a bill impacting statewide land use decision-making with some concern because the group has worked together for over 40 years to protect local authority to regulate for water quality and quantity protection.”
Several water experts testified at last week’s committee meeting.
“We really do need to make this change, starting now,” Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water, told legislators. “What we’re really talking about right now is not wanting to lose the investment we are making in replacing that turf grass.”
Denver, which committed to reducing its nonfunctional turf by 30%, worked on 750,000 square feet of landscapes in 2023, he said. At that pace, the city would complete its commitment in 100 years.
“We know we need to up that game,” Fisher said, “but we also know that if new turf continues to go into new developments, that’s really setting us back.”