Colorado River crisis looms over state’s landscape decisions
(Colorado Newsline) The deepening troubles of the Colorado River, a significant source of water for most of Colorado’s 5.9 million residents, has implications for the types of grasses we grow in our yards and in street medians.
Speaking in Las Vegas recently, former Arizona Gov. and former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recalled warnings of worsening drought and imbalances between supplies and demand. “There’s going to be a day of reckoning,” Babbitt, 85, told Politico’s E&E News, referring to the warnings of scientists during past decades. “Here we are. The crisis has arrived.”
Colorado’s mounting efforts to limit new expanses of thirsty turf won’t solve the Colorado River problems. Colorado is just one of seven states in the basin. And even within Colorado, agriculture consumes roughly 90% of Colorado’s water and cities about 7%. Exterior use, such as for watering thirsty Kentucky bluegrass yards, consumes 40% to 60% of municipal water.
But if this water use is on the margins, it’s one that many water managers believe must be addressed. A bill that originated in the state’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee in October has the support of two of the state’s largest cities and has sponsors from both political parties from across Colorado.
This proposal would preclude the installation of nonfunctional turf as well as artificial turf in commercial, institutional or industrial properties or in transportation corridors, such as along streets or in road medians. Nonfunctional turf is defined as grasses that are predominantly ornamental — and that few will ever walk on unless to mow, yet still require heavy watering. Think, for example, of those giant carpets of green grass that commonly surround business parks such as the Denver Tech Center or Broomfield’s Inverness business park.
The bill, however, does not address residential water use.
Many urban landscapes in Colorado are planted in Kentucky bluegrass and other thirsty species that require close to double what the semiarid climate delivers. Native grasses such as blue gramma and even some imported species can survive with far less or even no supplemental water.
Continued population growth also adds pressure to city water utilities. The Colorado Water Plan projects growth of the state’s current population to at least 7.7 million by 2050, mostly along the Front Range.
Legislators have been advised by the state’s Colorado River Drought Task Force to bump funding to $5 million per year for turf removal. In 2022, they allocated $2 million, which has now been exhausted in grants to local jurisdictions.
Also informing Colorado’s path forward will be recommendations from another task force, appointed by Gov. Jared Polis last January, to investigate opportunities for an accelerated transformation in use of water in urban landscapes. The 21 committee members were drawn from the ranks of local governments, academia, environmental advocacy groups and developers.
At their eight meetings, committee members wrestled with what should be the proper mix of incentives and mandates and ultimately just how far the state should push into matters of local land use. One member suggested that banning new turf in road medians was a no-brainer. Another member urged flexibility for local jurisdictions to achieve state goals. “We’re going to be on this journey for a long time,” said Catherine Moravec of Colorado Springs Utilities. “Less controversy will help keep us together.”
In final meetings, now concluded, members agreed on the need to support state legislation. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which oversaw the process, emphasizes that the task force’s report will have no direct connection to legislation. The task force’s pending report “may be used by decision-makers at state, local or even neighborhood scales,” said Jenna Battson, the agency’s outdoor water conservation coordinator. “It’s a resource.” The task force recommendations are expected to be released in late January after review — and perhaps tweaking — by Polis.
Changing the status quo
Water scarcity underlies all these discussions. Specific circumstances vary. Some jurisdictions, most notably those between Denver and Colorado Springs, depend upon receding underground aquifers for most of their water. They get very little or no Colorado River water.
Most other jurisdictions do rely upon the Colorado River. Ambiguity has long dogged the Colorado River Compact, the agreement reached by delegates from the seven basin states in 1922. What if runoff declined substantially? The river since 2000 has delivered an average 12.3 million acre-feet per year, far short of the 20 million acre-feet that delegates had assumed.
Must Colorado and the three other upper-basin states — New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — leave more water to flow downstream if runoff declines even more? That would cause curtailment of diversions with water rights after 1922. A study commissioned by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District found that 96% of Front Range water use could be subject to curtailment.
That includes diversions by Denver Water. “It is possible that Denver Water’s deliveries of Colorado River basin supplies could be curtailed for a period of time,” advised a statement from Denver Water issued in August 2022 when the utility was issuing new water bonds.
That statement was issued the same month that Denver Water and 30 other utilities from Colorado to California that rely upon Colorado River Basin water committed to removing urban turf, with a goal of 75 million square feet in the case of Denver Water. That’s an area roughly equivalent in size to 1,800 football fields. At the current rate, that will be achieved in 100 years, according to Denver Water.
Even so, that was a sharp reversal for Denver Water, a utility that delivers water to 1.5 million people in Denver and 17 other municipalities in the metro area. Even after severe drought 20 years before, Denver made no move to remove turf. If drought got bad enough, the agency reasoned, it could ask customers to stop watering their yards. The utility now plans a pilot program in 2024 in conjunction with Resource Central to cost-share lawn removal with customers.
Greg Fisher, Denver Water’s manager of demand planning and efficiency, told legislators in October that spending money to help remove turf makes no sense if thirsty nonnative turf species are simultaneously being planted elsewhere.
“Ultimately, success for us is changing the status quo, creating a new cultural landscape that will benefit Colorado’s environment and save water at the same time,” he said. Fisher cited the ancillary benefit of providing habitat for pollinators, which is not provided by imported grasses. Denver supports the bill.
The proposed state law up for consideration in the 2024 session would also preclude artificial turf in lieu of grass. The bill says artificial turf releases harmful chemicals into watersheds and exacerbates the heat island effect compounded by rising temperatures in coming decades.
Colorado is famously a local-control state. Its towns and cities, many of them operating under home-rule charters, jealously guard local prerogatives. They, not the state, decide the speed limits on their streets and don’t like the state telling them what to do, particularly in land use. Always, there is tension.
But in water, the state has already adopted efficiency requirements. Any toilet sold in Colorado must consume no more than 1.2 gallons per flush. Colorado law also requires the most efficient pop-up sprinklers.
Should state law also override local authority in deciding landscaping choices? If still a sensitive area, even cities normally inclined to tell legislators to butt out are now more inviting of state engagement or at least inclined to remain neutral.
“Aurora will typically be one of the communities that shows up and says don’t do anything at the state level that impedes our local control,” Marshall Brown, general manager of Aurora Water, told the legislative committee in October in support of the ban on planting new vegetation with high water needs. This proposal, he added, retains local control while providing strong guidance from the state.
When Aurora changed its mind
For many years, Aurora tried voluntary programs for turf removal, in order to stretch its water. It made no sense if others then planted large amounts of grass. “We didn’t have success until we mandated a ban on nonfunctional turf,” Brown said.
In September 2022, Aurora City Council adopted a wide-ranging ordinance that is among the most aggressive in Colorado. It bans Kentucky bluegrass and other thirsty cool-weather grass in front yards of new residential developments. New golf courses are allowed, but not with thirsty grasses. They must have grasses that use less water. New ornamental water features, such as fountains, are also banned.
Several decades ago, Aurora had gained a reputation for lacking greenery due to the mostly treeless landscape of newer subdivisions.
“I would ask those people to go east of Aurora and see what they see,” said Tim York, water conservation manager for Aurora. “They won’t see turf and they won’t see very many trees. Although we aren’t against trees. We definitely need trees. Just be sure to put them in the right places.”
Aurora, now with a population of 400,000, for many decades believed it needed well-watered turf in its urban landscapes. Even in the late 1980s, the city water department had just one employee devoted to conservation.
“In retrospect, installing landscapes for aesthetic purposes that require over 2 feet of water per year was probably not the right way to do it,” said York.
The 2002 drought forced a new reckoning. That hot, dry, windy year revealed the inadequacy of Aurora’s portfolio of water rights and storage, both for that intense drought but also in regard to projected population growth. The city’s utility manager warned of dire reductions if snow didn’t arrive. It did the next spring, on St. Patrick’s Day of 2003, but the episode revealed the city’s vulnerabilities.
Both reuse and conservation became an active part of the municipal agenda. Since then, per-capita water use has declined by 36%. The population during that time has grown by 30%. The city offered rebates to residents willing to replace their thirsty turf.
In 2022, though, the city recognized the fallacy of creating a bigger problem that would have to be addressed later.
York, a landscape architect by training with experience in Las Vegas, contends that pleasant urban landscapes can be created with lesser volumes of water. It just takes more thoughtfulness about the function.
“That function should not be that ‘It looks pretty’ and that is all that it does,” York said. “A water-wise landscape, done correctly with species variation, can be far more attractive than the monotonous green carpet turf found in most places.”
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said homeowners resisted the ban at first, as did some members of the City Council, who saw it as going too far. They were convinced by Coffman that taking action now may prevent more dramatic actions in the future if the Colorado River situation deteriorates further. Aurora gets 25% of its water from multiple sources in the Colorado River basin.
There were also arguments that water-wise landscaping is ugly.
“I don’t think it’s ugly,” Coffman said in an interview. “What is ugly is when homeowners, because of the cost of water, give up on their yards. That’s ugly. But anyway, it’s the new reality we live in, and people have to get used to it.”
Down the Colorado River
Nevada and California have adopted far more significant restrictions.
A century ago, when the Colorado River Compact was crafted, Las Vegas had a population of little more than 2,000. The compact allocated only 300,000 acre-feet to Nevada, compared with 4.4 million acre-feet for California.
By 1996, Las Vegas was becoming a metropolitan area, and lawns replicating those found in Midwestern towns were still being planted in an environment of soaring summer heat and only 4 inches of average precipitation. The Southern Nevada Water Authority began offering incentives for turf removal. That program has since then cost $285 million, according to a January 2023 report prepared for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
In 2021, with the notion of an empty Lake Mead becoming an all-too-real possibility, Nevada banned all ornamental turf dependent upon Colorado River water. Ornamental in this case applies to grass used in street medians, entrances to developments and office parks — in general, places where people rarely set foot except to mow. This covers about 31% of all the grass in the Las Vegas area.
California also took a very aggressive step in 2023. The law, Assembly Bill 1572, prohibits using drinking water for purely decorative grass in medians and outside business and in common areas of homeowner association neighborhoods, the Los Angeles Times reported in September. The ban will take effect in phases between 2027 and 2031. It exempts sports fields, parks, cemeteries and residences.
Metropolitan Water, the agency that supplies wholesale water to most of Southern California, estimates that the bill will save 300,000 acre-feet. That’s equal to Nevada’s Colorado River allocation.
Sterling Ranch may be Colorado’s best example of judicious water use. The development of more than 3,000 houses lies in the southwest corner of metropolitan Denver. The developer set out to do better than 0.75 acre-feet annually per single-family residence, which is Douglas County’s requirement. It aimed for 0.4 acre-feet but has come in at 0.2 acre-feet. The developer expects an apartment complex will yield even less consumption, at 0.14 acre-feet per unit.
Andrea Cole, general manager of Dominion Water & Sanitation District, the water provider at Sterling Ranch, said “conservation” is not used in messaging “because it implies that it was yours to use and we are asking you to please use less.” At Sterling Ranch, she said, developers combined demand-management techniques — including higher rates for outdoor water use — with land-use planning to dial down water use.
Several Colorado jurisdictions have taken more-limited action in the past several years. In August, for example, Broomfield adopted a code limiting new turf grass to 30% of front and side yards of detached single-family homes and commercial properties. Turfgrass must primarily consist of low-water grasses. Both a city and a county, Broomfield has 77,000 people but with expectations of growing to 125,000 as land is developed.
In Edgewater, a municipality of moderately dense neighborhoods west of downtown Denver, redevelopment will be the primary target of regulations adopted in November. The regulations limit Kentucky and other cool-weather grasses to 25% of residential areas. It also has limitations in commercial and other areas similar to what is proposed in the proposed state law.
Paige Johnson, sustainability director for Edgewater, said the primary goals are saving water and creating and sustaining robust and diverse natural ecosystems.
And in Castle Rock
Castle Rock gets virtually no water from the Colorado River except for a tiny bit of reused water. It was a late bloomer among cities of metro Denver with fewer than 4,000 residents in 1980. The limited water from Plum Creek combined with wells drilled into aquifers of the underling Denver Basin were just fine.
It now has 80,000 residents but plans for 142,000 in decades ahead. In anticipation of that much larger population, it has been offering rebates of $1.50 per square foot for replacement of water-thirsty grasses with native species that use less water. Those who replace grass with concrete or artificial turf can get only $1. Both exacerbate heat-island effects of high temperatures and create more runoff problems during rains.
Castle Rock calls these less-thirsty yards “ColoradoScapes.” Such areas must have 75% vegetation to qualify.
In October 2022, after several years of outreach, Castle Rock adopted regulations that lifted the bar several notches higher. No thirsty grasses can be planted in front yards. Backyards, where families tend to gather, can have a maximum of 500 square feet. Castle Rock also banned new ornamental turf — grass that no one actually walks on — in road medians and at entrances to housing projects.
Mark Marlowe, director of Castle Rock Water, emphasizes cost in justifying the restrictions. Building water-treatment plants and distribution to meet peak demand during the hot days of summer bears a large price tag. Getting additional water from more distant places is also expensive.
Castle Rock residents today use 118 gallons per capita on average daily. “If we can get our community below 100 gallons per capita a day, we can save upward of $70 million in long-term water rights and infrastructure,” Marlowe said.
Similar to other Colorado cities, 50% of Castle Rock’s water was devoted to outdoor landscaping. That has declined to 42%. Marlowe projects it will continue to drop as Castle Rock Water has set a goal of removing 30% of the current non-functional grass turf in the municipality and replacing it with Coloradoscape by approximately 2050.
Limiting water devoted to outdoor landscaping helps Castle Rock in another way. Water applied to outdoor landscapes mostly disappears into the atmosphere, while about 90% of water used indoors gets treated. In many places in Colorado, this treated water is released into streams and rivers to satisfy those with water rights downstream.
Because it draws the water from the aquifers, Colorado water law allows Castle Rock to reuse that water repeatedly, to “extinction.” Overall, the city hopes to achieve 75% renewable water by midcentury, reserving use of the Denver Basin aquifers to droughts.
Denver has a very different situation. A century ago, when Castle Rock was a small ranch town of fewer than 500 residents, Denver already had 256,000 people. Envisioning a far larger city, civic leaders had laid plans for Colorado’s first major transmountain diversion to take water from the Fraser River via the Moffat Tunnel.
Now, the city is landlocked, able to grow upward but not outward. Water use has leveled off. The city has a strong water portfolio but wants to help residents learn how to use less water for landscaping.
“You don’t have to have wall-to-wall grass to have an inviting city,” said Denver Water’s Fisher. He cautioned against pointing fingers at those with cool-weather turf. “I do think we’re trying to slowly change how people approach their landscapes and make that connection back to water,” he said.
A golf course without water hazards
In Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, overall water demand has remained relatively flat since the mid-1980s. During that time, the city’s population has nearly doubled. Most of that 40% decline in per-capita water use has occurred since 2001. Other Front Range cities similarly report substantial declines of 35% to 40%.
Colorado Springs Utilities has championed the use of native grasses in urban landscaping but also paid careful attention to the efficiency of preinstalled irrigation systems as it plans for a population of 800,000 in coming decades. It’s now at 500,000.
The city also wants to help residents maintain their yards using water-wise techniques. Between 25% and 30% have stopped irrigating their yards. That neglect “has a significant, negative impact on our collective quality of life and economic vitality,” said Colorado Springs Utility in a statement. “Our work is to reach those customers as well.”
The changing climate also poses challenges. Julia Galluci, supervisor of water conservation for Colorado Springs, said the city expects to have water resources available for outdoor watering about one day a week by 2050. “We are trying to implement the kinds of landscapes that can survive in that kind of climate and environment,” she said.
Colorado Springs has been moving slowly, only this year moving into its messaging of the more general population. “It’s not a quick fix,” said Galluci.
Of course, if the Colorado River situation deteriorates rapidly, city and state policies may accelerate. After last winter’s strong snowpack, the big reservoirs— Mead and Powell — rebounded slightly after dropping to perilously low levels. In April 2022, railroad tracks on a ledge of the canyon wall that had been abandoned upon completion of the Glen Canyon Dam re-emerged after being underwater since soon after the dam was completed in 1966. Those artifacts are underwater again, but no one knows for how long.
As for new golf courses, they may look different in the future. Aurora’s recent commitment to restrictions was triggered by a golf course approved long before. The golf course has been granted authority to move ahead after agreeing to use a grass variety that will cause it to use 250 acre-feet annually instead of the 400 acre-feet that would be needed by more conventional grass.
Developers of the golf course will tap an aquifer with a projected 50-year supply. When that aquifer goes dry, they will not seek to use city water, Other golf course developers may also want to study new hybrid species of grass. A new type of Bermuda grass, for example, uses 50% to 75% less water.
Colorado has two golf courses that use no more water than comes from the sky. One is a nine-hole municipal course at Springfield, in southeast Colorado. The other lies 100 miles east of Aurora, near Hugo. The Hugo Golf Club falls under the heading of “pasture golf.” It has 300 trees that get watered, but the fairways where bison once grazed now consist of native buffalo grass, cactus and sagebrush. For greens, it has sand. Naturally, it has no water hazards.