By Caitlin Coleman
A new turf replacement program, set to roll out in Colorado in 2023, will pay to convert some of the grass in urban areas and residential yards into more water-efficient landscaping. This is the first time the State of Colorado has dedicated funds expressly to turf replacement. It’s an important step to increase water conservation and get it closer to where it needs to be, said state officials and conservation leaders at a confab earlier this month. But this version of cash for grass will be just one of many tools — and maybe not the most influential one — that will transform landscaping in the state in response to climate change and reduced water availability.
As climate change, drought, and crisis on the Colorado River intensify, outdoor water use and nonessential turf become increasingly important targets for water conservation. Today, 40% of Colorado’s municipal and industrial water use goes toward outdoor irrigation.
“Water conservation is critical. We’re talking about how we can build the landscapes of tomorrow, today,” said Russ Sands section chief of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) in kicking off the Colorado Landscape Summit on November 9. More than 150 people attended, either online or in person, this first-ever landscape summit hosted by the CWCB at Metro State University in Denver. “Outdoor turf removal is a really critical part of this discussion.”
The outdoor water-saving conversation has been gaining momentum in Colorado. The state legislature passed House Bill 1151 in June 2022, requiring the CWCB to develop a turf replacement program that will provide incentives for replacing nonessential irrigated turf with more water-wise landscaping. According to the bill, examples of nonessential turf include medians, land adjacent to open spaces, stormwater detention basins, commercial or industrial properties, portions of residential lawns, and more. The new law also came with an allocation of $2 million to finance the program.
Now the agency is working to set up that grant program, with details expected this spring and applications set to open sometime after July 2023. Local governments, special districts, nonprofits, and tribal nations will be eligible to apply, and individuals interested in receiving funds may be able to work with those entities to access the money.
But the program’s $2 million in initial funds won’t stretch far or transform the state’s turf on its own, said Peter Mayer with Water Demand Management, or WaterDM, an engineering consulting firm.
“The amount of money being spent in Colorado is ultimately nothing compared with what’s being spent in a single year in southern Nevada or southern California,” Mayer said.
After subtracting staffing and administration costs, some $1.5 million will remain for incentives to transform landscapes. That money is expected to be distributed in two cycles of $750,000 over two years, with the majority funneled into existing local turf replacement programs. For the program to continue beyond 2025, Colorado will have to find additional funding. However, though not specifically set aside for turf replacement, the CWCB’s Water Plan Grants and Water Supply Reserve Fund Grants may also be used to fund turf replacement work.
In August 2022, some public water providers and cities who rely on water supplies from the Colorado River Basin, including Aurora Water, Denver Water and Pueblo Water, signed a Memorandum of Understanding committing to reduce per capita water use. On November 15, additional water providers and agencies signed on, bringing the total to more than 30 entities across the West. The MOU says each of the water providers will introduce a program to reduce the amount of “non-functional turf grass by 30% through replacement with drought- and climate-resilient landscaping, while maintaining vital urban landscapes and tree canopies that benefit our communities, wildlife and the environment.” Details about how this will be accomplished have not yet been released.
Colorado is hoping to maintain those same qualities with its turf replacement program, said Sands.
But there’s still a lot to learn about how much savings Colorado can expect from turf replacement, what level of incentives are necessary to encourage participation, and what other potential costs and benefits there may be.
The state is trying to learn from neighbors with large-scale programs. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which provides water to Las Vegas and surrounding cities, has been collecting data on its turf replacement program for almost 25 years, providing a helpful resource for Colorado officials.
Since the late 1990s, the authority has converted about 4,600 acres of turf, saving 467,000 acre-feet of water, at a cost of around $285 million. The average landscape conversion through the authority’s program resulted in a 19% to 21% reduction in water use, with the program’s overall impact resulting in a 75% reduction in landscape water use. Among other findings, participation in the authority’s program correlates with the scale of the incentives – when cash incentives increase, participation increases.
Colorado should expect about one-third of the water savings that Nevada has seen, said Doug Jeavons, managing director with BBC Research, a firm that served as the CWCB’s water economy specialist in working on the 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan. That is because of cooler temperatures and the fact that we don’t water turf year-round here, which means a lower starting point for outdoor water use and therefore less potential savings from turf replacement.
“Lower [water] savings basically means less favorable economics for a property that wants to participate in this program,” Jeavons said. In other words, it will take a property in Colorado more time to see the cost savings that result from reduced water bills due to their landscape conversion than it does in Nevada.
Economics aren’t the only reason to convert a property’s turf to water-wise landscaping. A 2018 Alliance for Water Efficiency study on landscape transformation found that most customers aren’t happy with their landscaping and 69% of all respondents have already considered taking out their lawns, said Mayer, who led the study.
“There’s just not enough [state] money to buy [out] all the landscapes [to transform them from grass to water-wise vegetation] so we have to do the work ourselves toward changing the market and shifting the culture,” Mayer said. “We have to create a new Colorado landscape ethos of less water use, minimizing outdoor water use.”
According to Mayer, incentives aren’t the only way to encourage that change. Codes, ordinances, regulations, land use planning and zoning, water bills, and ultimately education and culture change all play a role, he said. But while making those changes, it’s important to minimize any unintended negative impacts, maintain the tree canopy, minimize the heat island effect, and transform landscapes in an equitable way.
To date, 22 turf replacement programs exist across Colorado, and many other utilities have water conservation programs that target outdoor irrigation.
Colorado Springs Utilities offers a turf replacement rebate and works to incentivize customers to update their landscaping, shifting to plants that can thrive on 12 inches of irrigation per year or less, said Julia Gallucci, the water conservation supervisor for the utility. The city is also focusing on retrofitting parks and public areas where people can see examples of different types of water-wise landscaping.
Colorado’s West Slope communities are also looking to reduce outdoor water use, but face different challenges.
Some residents in the Roaring Fork Valley, for instance, use untreated water for outdoor irrigation that is not metered through the utility, complicating conservation efforts. “We have raw water supplies so it’s difficult to put in outdoor water restrictions because a neighbor might be pulling water from a ditch, so there’s confusion,” said April Long manager of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority. “I think we still need to do some work on changing expectations.”
Meanwhile, the City of Aurora, which offers a grass replacement incentive, upped the ante. In August 2022, the city passed an ordinance that restricts turf in new developments. The city no longer allows “non-functional,” cool weather turf to be installed at new development projects, redevelopment, or at new golf courses. The installation of turf is also banned from medians, curbsides and residential front yards.
“The key is to not put turf in in the first place,” said Tim York, water conservation supervisor for the City of Aurora. In developing its ordinance, Aurora engaged developers and community members. “You want them to get involved because it’s the right thing to do, not because we told them to do it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to note the overall impact of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s turf removal program, which has been a 75% reduction in landscape water use.
Caitlin Coleman is a contributor to Fresh Water News and is editor of Water Education Colorado’s Headwaters Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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