Colorado takes a step toward banning ornamental grass

Colorado takes a step toward banning ornamental grass

Those grassy medians on roads around Colorado may add doses of green to streets, but state water monitors say the grass is absorbing too much water and that needs to change.

State officials, legislators, water managers and water conservation experts are looking for ways to reduce water use in the face of prolonged drought and concerns about future insecurity of water supplies. One frequently discussed option for urban areas: Find areas with thirsty grass, such as Kentucky bluegrass, which is purely ornamental and remove it. Lawmakers have proposed a bill that takes this approach one step further by banning new installations of this non-functional grass starting in 2025, and the idea received an early vote of support last week.

“It's not about tearing up the grass that's already there,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Summit County Democrat, the bill's lead sponsor. “If you have unusable grass, you will be allowed to keep it if you want. We hope you will replace it, but we are not obligating you to do so.

The proposal focuses on state and local governments and homeowner associations. After January 1, 2025, these entities will not be able to plant or install new non-functional grass, artificial turf, or invasive plant species on any commercial, institutional, or industrial property.

Lawmakers on the Agriculture and Water Resources Review Committee voted 8-2 Tuesday in favor of the proposal, a bipartisan vote and an initial sign of support. It will be presented to the General Assembly in January.

The bill is part of Colorado's efforts to deal with the effects of climate change, the bill says.

The Colorado River Basin, which provides 40% of Colorado's water supply, has lost an estimated 10 trillion gallons of water over two decades due to rising temperatures and climate change, according to recent research.

Does Colorado have enough water?

For now, yes. However, demand in Colorado is expected to exceed supply by 2050, meaning agriculture, municipalities and industries could face severe water shortages. The size of the gap depends on how the climate changes and how the country responds. >>More

In Colorado, cities, towns and industries currently have enough water, but by 2050, municipalities statewide could experience a total shortfall of 230,000 acre-feet to 740,000 acre-feet in a worst-case scenario, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan.

Municipal water use represents only 7% of the state's annual water use. Although that's a small percentage, Coloradans need to worry about even the smallest amount of water these days, Roberts said.

The state has made progress in reducing indoor water use, especially as household appliances have become more efficient. But within municipalities, Coloradans use about half their water on lawns and gardens, which means water managers are increasingly focusing on outdoor use.

“We, as a state, need to look at all possible ways to conserve water within our state borders, and non-functional turf is one of those low-hanging fruit that seems like the very obvious next step of where we need to go in water conservation,” Roberts said.

What is – and what is – non-functional turf?

Cities, towns and residents around Colorado have planted Kentucky bluegrass and other non-native grasses around buildings, homes and urban landscapes for decades.

But in some areas, grass is rarely, if ever, used. Instead, they are watered and maintained primarily for aesthetic purposes. This non-functional grass can be found in green patches next to streets, sidewalks, driveways, parking lots, and front and middle areas.

“I think this is the type of grass that, maybe after this hearing, you'll see walking around all the time now,” Andrew Hill, Denver Water's director of government affairs, told lawmakers during the committee meeting. “It's not used for anything. … Simply put, it only sees the bottom of the lawnmower, and it's only watered.”

In other areas, turf serves civic or recreational purposes: people picnic on it in parks, kick balls on it on sports fields and play on it in playgrounds. This type of grass has a function and will not be affected if the bill passes the legislature. This will also not be done on residential lawns, golf courses, sports fields or any existing areas with unusable grass.

“It's important to make that distinction because there are areas that serve a really valuable purpose for communities,” Hill said. “These urban green spaces, when used functionally, can combat urban heat island effects, improve mental and physical health, and green spaces are critical for disproportionately affected communities.”

Artificial turf — which would also be banned in new landscaping under the proposed bill — looks like grass but made of synthetic materials. The bill says it could exacerbate heat island effects and release harmful chemicals into the environment and watersheds.

Movement apace

Many Colorado communities are already finding ways to reshape their landscapes in more water-efficient ways.

Colorado water officials recently completed the first year of $1.5 million in municipal turf removal grants with nearly 40 applications for the money. The cities of Broomfield, Fort Collins, Grand Junction, Aurora and Castle Rock are just a few of the cities making efforts to restrict, remove or reduce water used for thirsty landscaping.

In 2022, municipalities and water providers across the Colorado River Basin committed to reducing non-functional grasses by 30% while maintaining key urban landscapes and tree canopies that benefit communities, wildlife and the environment.

Fall-blooming flowers line a low-water garden planted where grass used to be near Lafayette Fire Station 1 on North 111th Street. The Lafayette company removes non-functional turf from many public spaces and replaces it with low-water landscaping. (Chloe Anderson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lafayette residents may have recently spotted crews digging up the grass at the local library. Or they can explore a ready-made water park at Lafayette Fire Station 1 on North 111th Street.

Aurora is removing thirsty grass as part of the city's turf replacement incentive program, which had about 120 participants in 2023, an increase of 50% compared to 2022.

Kentucky bluegrass in Aurora needs to be soaked with about 28 inches of water, on average annually, in addition to natural rainfall, said Tim York, director of water conservation for Aurora Water Company.

That's just over 2 acre feet of water per acre. One acre of water equals about 326,000 gallons, or a year's water supply for two or more typical urban households.

Replacing this non-functional grass with native grasses can save a full 2 ​​acres per acre, York said. Replanting water-efficient shrubs or other types of non-native grass can reduce water use by 1 to 1.5 acre-feet per acre.

He said that the cost of these projects is high in all areas. A project that includes minimal irrigation adjustments can cost $16,000 per acre. A major modification to a large irrigation system, such as irrigating a garden, can cost up to $60,000. The residential cost of replacing turf depends on factors including contractors, labor and landscape density.

“It's not cheap,” York said. “The native turf option, where native turf makes sense, is definitely the cheapest and typically gives us the most value for (water) savings.”

It's not clear how much water could be conserved by replacing unfit turf, or by banning new installations. That's partly because communities like Aurora are still calculating the total area of ​​inoperable grass, a process that requires aerial surveys and data analysis, York said.

In 2022, Aurora said it will stop building with new, non-functional turf structures, meaning it serves as an unofficial test case for the recently proposed bill.

“If we were to ask existing customers to take it down, we would be incentivizing it, and we are certain that we should not allow people to continue to put it up. We know that is not right,” York said. “We can keep taking it out, but if we keep putting it in, you're just kind of chasing your tail.”

What do people say about it?

It's too early for many entities across the state to take a position on the bill — they will do so once the legislative session begins — but some communities are already considering the idea.

The Northwest Colorado Government Council's Water Quality and Quantity Committee, called QQ, closely monitors water policies. The committee does not take a position on legislation until after the draft law is presented during the legislative session.

“One of QQ’s guiding policies — the necessity of increasing water conservation and efficiency measures in Colorado — is consistent with the bill. “QQ has been supportive of grass reduction efforts generally and previously,” said Claire Carroll, the committee’s director, in a written statement. Same, many QQ members approach a bill affecting statewide land use decision-making with some concern because the group has worked together for more than 40 years to protect local authority to regulate the protection of water quality and quantity.”

Several water experts testified at the committee meeting last week.

“We really need to make this change, starting now,” Greg Fisher, Denver Water's director of demand planning, told lawmakers. “What we're really talking about now is not wanting to lose the investment we're making to replace this grass.”

Denver, which has committed to reducing non-functional turf by 30%, has worked on 750,000 square feet of landscaping in 2023. At that pace, the city will complete its commitment in 100 years, he said.

“We know we need to up this game, but we also know that if new areas continue to push into new developments, this will really set us back,” Fisher said.

    (Tags for translation)Colorado Legislature

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