Colorado could soon have a program that would pay property owners to get rid of one of the largest water uses for Western Slope water providers: grass.
A turf replacement bill, which passed unanimously this week out of the House Agriculture, Livestock & Water Committee, would require the state water board to develop a statewide program to provide financial incentives for the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with water-wise, drought-resistant landscaping. Local entities that already have turf-replacement programs could apply to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for money to help increase the rebate to property owners. In areas where a program doesn’t currently exist, the CWCB would have to hire a contractor to administer a program.
The drafters of House Bill 1151 say it is aimed at efficient water use and would increase communities’ resilience to drought and climate change, reduce the sale of agriculture water rights to meet increased demand in cities, and protect river flows. Sponsors are asking the program to be funded with $4 million from the general fund. The bill’s next stop is the House Appropriations Committee.
Colorado would be following in the footsteps of other states that take water from the dwindling Colorado River by expanding these so-called “cash for grass” programs. Some Colorado municipalities and water providers already have lawn buy-back programs; the bill could increase the incentives they give to customers.
According to bill sponsor Rep. Dylan Roberts, who represents Routt and Eagle counties, nearly 50% of the water used between the municipal and industrial sectors goes to the outdoor watering of non-native turf grasses.
“That’s not the type of activity we should be doing in our state when we are facing such a drought,” he said. “If this bill can help incentivize folks to make the right decision about water conservation in their community, that’s a win.”
Each acre of turf removed saves one to two acre-feet of water per year, according to the bill’s language.
Western Slope outdoor water use
If it becomes law, the bill could give a boost to some Western Slope domestic water providers that have focused on reducing outdoor water demand.
On the Western Slope, using less water indoors has only a tiny effect on river flows; roughly 95% of the water that comes out of an indoor tap goes down the drain to a wastewater treatment plant where it is filtered, disinfected and returned back to the river.
In contrast, according to Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager with the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District in Vail, an average of only about 25% of outdoor water use in the district returns to the river because the majority of it is consumed by the plants.
Since the onset of the drought that has gripped the region beginning in 2002, the district has focused nearly all its water conservation efforts on outdoor use because that’s where it finds the biggest bang for the buck.
“If what you are concerned about are streamflows and the overall water supply — our higher goal here is taking care of our aquatic environment and the riparian areas and the things we all moved here to enjoy — where do we actually find the most water? It’s in our outdoor use,” Johnson said.
Eagle River Water & Sanitation has a pilot rebate program for turf replacement, which could be expanded with state money, if the bill passes. Rebates could double from about $1 a square foot of lawn replaced to about $2.
The district has developed a tiered rate system that charges more as water use goes up. But even higher prices aren’t always enough to deter wealthy property owners from using lots of water on their lawns.
“People think, ‘Well just bill me for the water; I’ll pay for it,’” Johnson said. “Our point is, we don’t want the money; we want the water. It’s more important to us that you use less. It’s not about the money; it’s about the resource.”
For the city of Aspen, outdoor water use makes up roughly 70% of annual water use, according to Utilities Director Tyler Christoff. Although the city has a strict outdoor landscaping ordinance, rebate programs like turf replacement are still in their infancy. But turf replacement will probably be one of the areas the city looks at as it explores enhanced conservation measures, which are outlined in the city’s recently adopted integrated water resource plan.
“These types of state programs are how we as Coloradans are going to solve our long-term conservation issues and goals,” Christoff said.
The bill has received support from Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Front Range municipalities and water providers and environmental groups. Several people testified in support of the bill at Monday’s committee hearing, including Zane Kessler, director of government relations for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. The River District’s board, which is charged with protecting and developing Western Slope water, unanimously supported the bill at its February meeting.
“One thing we know is that in a hotter, drier future, we are going to have to use less water,” Kessler said. “So promoting the efficient use of Colorado’s water resources by decreasing areas of non-essential irrigated turf is an easy way that we can take pressure off West Slope agriculture. It’s also a way that we can reduce pressures on our rivers that drive our economies on both sides of the Continental Divide.”
Last year, in recognition of the exceptional thirstiness of grass, Nevada lawmakers passed a bill outlawing “non-functional turf,” meaning grass that lines street medians and office parks for purely aesthetic reasons.
“This is an opportunity for Colorado to do some things that have been done in the deserts,” said Montrose Republican and bill sponsor Marc Catlin. “Las Vegas, places like that have had very much success with this.”
The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.