Aurora may ban decorative grass, new golf courses to conserve water

The city of Aurora’s proposed climate-conscious First-in-Colorado edicts are clear: No new golf courses flooding grass with precious water. No grass in medians or decorative spots near offices. No lawns that spread out front and back – backyard lawns would be a maximum of 750 square feet.

But brace yourself, water users in major cities across the state — water experts say similar restrictions are on the way for thirsty, traditional lawns. Denver is working with Denver Water on green building codes that could include Las Vegas-style caps on ornamental lawns and seasonal gallon limits on irrigation per square foot.

Some see it as the beginning of the end of the purely “aesthetic” lawn. With Republican Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman helping to lead the prosecution, the tide of freshwater on grass appears to have officially ebbed.

“This is a new reality for Colorado,” said Coffman, who previously served in Congress. “Water resources in the country are becoming increasingly scarce and we have to acknowledge that.”

Coffman said he’s had a long-held philosophy that developers shouldn’t burden existing homeowners, and water prices are skyrocketing for Aurora’s future needs. According to Aurora Water, the proposed limits would save about $2,500 out of the roughly $25,000 in tap fees that homebuilders pay for each home, because the efficiencies would mean the agency would not have to purchase as much water to service this area .

An Aurora City Council committee will reconsider the lawn boundary proposals Wednesday, with votes scheduled for June and a proposed effective date for developers on Jan. 1.

Smaller towns like Castle Rock and Aspen have also taken progressive steps in water efficiency and alternative landscaping, water experts say. But fast-growing Aurora, with a population of 385,000 and large housing developments on many outskirts, is catching the eye, they added.

“Aurora Water is certainly ahead of the trend of replacing turf or progressive turf borders in new developments,” said Lindsay Rogers, water analyst at the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.

The turf boundary programs are having a real impact, Rogers added. WRA estimates that replacing an acre of grass with a more efficient landscape saves 1 to 2 acres of water per year. An acre foot covers a soccer field in one foot of water and feeds one to three households for a year.

“Think about it on hundreds of thousands of acres of lawns in the Front Range and across Colorado,” Rogers said. “We can envision this type of turf replacement program as our next water reservoir, and it will be our cheapest, quickest, and most reliable form of replenishment.”

Aurora Water said it recently spent $17,000 an acre for water rights on a farm in the South Platte Basin.

Colorado water experts are increasingly pointing to authorities in southern Nevada and Las Vegas as role models for water conservation through turf control. A robust plan needs two elements, they say: limits on largely decorative or “aesthetic” grass in new developments, and a turf buyback program for existing homes and businesses that pays dividends to uproot thirsty grass and create appealing, water-focused landscaping.

Aurora Water is one of the few utilities in Colorado that currently purchases existing turf. The agency will design a low-water garden for homeowners at no cost and will pay material costs of up to $3,000 for 500 square feet — even more for a waterless landscape. Water boards and conservation advocates are now avoiding their former favorite term for low water, “xeriscaping,” after many ugly landscaping schemes have drawn the ire of homeowners who found the results aesthetically “zeroscaping.”

Legislatures passed a modest statewide lawn buyback program to try in cities without them or to make existing city programs more lucrative for homeowners. The bill is awaiting Gov. Jared Polis’ signature, and proponents said they want to increase available buybacks by millions of dollars in future sessions.

Sterling Ranch, in partnership with Denver Botanic Gardens, connects homeowners to drought-resistant plants for their landscaping. (Elliott Wenzler, Colorado Community Media)

Lawn irrigation is the most visible use of Colorado’s precious snowpack to most Front Range residents, but it doesn’t take up a large percentage of the available water. According to studies by Colorado State University, agriculture currently uses more than 85% of Colorado’s available water, with municipal water taking up about 7%. Of that 7%, about half is used for lawn irrigation in most cities.

With drought and rapidly expanding western states cutting into the waters of the Colorado River Basin, much of which is being diverted to the Front Range as part of the continental divide, many Colorado legislators and water conservation districts want metropolitan areas to do more conservation efforts.

Aurora points to water reuse as another groundbreaking conservation effort, though the water agency is still exploring for large new reservoirs for future mountain storage. Under Colorado’s water law, water diverted to other basins may be “used to extinction” by the rights holder, rather than having to be returned to the canal for downstream users. Approximately 95% of Aurora’s water supplies can be treated and reused to the end.

Aurora’s new offering includes:

  • Banning traditional grass in public areas unless it is an “active and programmed recreational area,” like a ball field in the park. That means no new grass in medians, rights of way next to curbs, and residential front yards.
  • Residential backyards would be limited to 45% lawn or 750 square feet, whichever is smaller. As examples of the new era, Aurora Water points to the Painted Prairie development, where front yards consist of arid perennials, mulch, gravel and undemanding tall grasses.
  • No new courses, except for the previously planned PGA-level Kings Point course. Aurora Water estimates that a golf course of this size will use 400 acres of water per year, enough to power 1,200 homes.

When asked if Denver Water was considering stricter turf limits, the agency cited its work with the City of Denver on updated Green Building Codes by the end of this year. Denver is also looking at recent Las Vegas rules, a spokesman said.

“The Denver version of this proposal would restrict turf to areas serving specific community benefits and limit total irrigation to 7.5 gallons of potable water per square foot [permeable] area per irrigation season,” said the spokesman. “If more water is needed, developers will need to consider alternative water sources.”

Property developers have pushed back some of the regulations Aurora outlined, water agency officials said. For example, a previous proposal limited the backyard lawn to just 500 square feet.

The Home Builders’ Association of Metro Denver offered Aurora officials a letter in March complaining that previous cooperation on water issues had been ignored when the proposed regulation was launched at the last moment. The developers said they were concerned about the high cost of high-quality xeriscaping, among other things.

“How will the new ordinance be adequately enforced given that many neighborhoods will be subject to a patchwork of conflicting landscaping and conservation standards?”

But the public and most developers have been surprisingly cooperative in creating the new guidelines, said Aurora Water spokesman Greg Baker.

“I think five years ago we would have had problems with that,” he said. But recent online surveys with high response rates have set a new tone, he added.

“Sixty-five percent of respondents said, ‘Yes, we agree, you shouldn’t use turf on golf courses,'” Baker said.

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