By CONRAD SWANSON, The Denver Post
DENVER (AP) — Faced with a historic mega-drought across the American West with no end in sight, Colorado lawmakers, looking for simple and effective ways to conserve water, have set their sights on Kentucky Blue Grass. .
Not just Kentucky Blue Grass, but all kinds of non-native grasses planted in front lawns, back lawns, green strips in front of businesses and apartment complexes. These lawns consume about half of the water used in Colorado cities.
“There’s no water out there and what’s out there is getting really expensive,” said John Berggren, water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates. “So let’s look at how we use it now.”
Berggren’s organization supports a bipartisan effort at the Colorado Capitol to launch a statewide turf replacement program, which would pay homeowners and business owners to replace their non-native ornamental lawns with plants. and landscapes better suited to the state’s dry climate.
The legislation, House Bill 1151, would be an effective way to manage the state’s water demand, state Representative Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said during a committee hearing in late February. And the replacement would be completely voluntary.
“Rather than telling people you have to do this, this is an opportunity for people to come in and say I’d love to,” said Catlin, vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, l livestock and water.
Similar programs across the West have saved billions of gallons of water, paying property owners pennies to dollars for every square foot of turf they replace.
These types of programs, offering money for water-dependent lawn removal, are likely to become more common as states, counties and cities across the West look for relatively painless ways to conserve the resource, water experts told the Denver Post.
About 19 cities, utilities and water districts in Colorado already have turf replacement programs. The legislation would offer matching dollars for these programs, adding to the reimbursement that landowners would receive.
The bill would also help governments launch their own programs. And people who live in areas without such a program could also apply for money directly from the state.
“For too long, the West Rim and Eastern Plains have borne the brunt of water conservation,” sponsoring state Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Steamboat Springs, said at the February committee meeting. .
The proposal gives metropolitan areas the chance to “play their fair share,” Roberts said.
“The same old math doesn’t work anymore.”
Perhaps the most common reason grassy lawns are so common throughout Colorado and the West is because people were used to having them, Berggren said. As people moved from the east, places around the Mississippi River, places with lots of natural rainfall and lots of water, they brought with them a certain aesthetic desire.
“They wanted this big bluegrass lawn,” Berggren said. “They wanted these parks. They wanted those green middle stripes. It does a lot of people good.
For decades, aesthetics were not very problematic. The West seems to have enough water, he said. People could take as many as they wanted for their lawns.
But over time, climatologists and water experts began to realize that the Colorado River was over-appropriated. Then, in 2002, Berggren said, a mega-drought began, compounded by climate change and explosive development.
“Now in the 21st century we know that water is more limited,” he said. “The same old math doesn’t work anymore.”
Most of those green lawns and strips serve no purpose, said Zane Marshall, director of resources and facilities for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. They are ornamental.
Some green spaces like parks and sports fields are what Marshall calls functional. Turf replacement programs like the one in the Las Vegas Valley focus on non-functioning lawns.
How much water grasses and plants might need depends heavily on geography and regional climate, Marshall said, but in Las Vegas, one square foot of grass can consume 73 gallons of water each year. Replacing that grass with native plants and landscaping can reduce that to 18 gallons or less.
The Las Vegas Valley has always been dry. The desert region receives an average of just over four inches of rain per year. The people who live there get 90% of their water from the Colorado River and the rest from an underground aquifer in the area.
For generations, the water supply wasn’t such a big deal, Marshall said. Most homes built in the last 30 years have automated irrigation or sprinkler systems for their lawns. But as the turn of the century approached, water became less plentiful and valley officials took notice.
The Water Authority started its Water Smart Landscapes Rebate program in 1999, Marshall said, offering residents 40 cents for every square foot of lawn they were willing to replace.
Valley dwellers, apartment managers and business owners took money from the authorities and replaced their thirsty blue grasses with sedimentary rocks, Nevada agaves and desert marigolds. The authority increased its reimbursement to $1 per square foot in 2003, then to $2 in 2007.
Now the authority is offering $3 per square foot up to 10,000 square feet, Marshall said. Then he offers $1.50 per square foot after that.
To date, landowners in the Las Vegas Valley have removed more than 200 million square feet of sod, converting it to water-efficient landscaping, Marshall said. That’s something like 72,000 individual projects.
“That’s enough turf to wrap an 18-inch-wide strip of turf around the circumference of the Earth,” he said.
That translates to 11.2 billion gallons of water saved last year, 163 billion gallons since the program began, Marshall said.
During the same period, the valley’s population has increased by 49%, but the amount of water it takes from the Colorado River has decreased by 26%, said Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the authority. .
A similar rebate program by Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Water District was estimated in 2015 to save up to 26 billion gallons of water each year, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In Colorado, Greeley’s turf replacement program, called Life after Lawn, is younger but still successful, said water conservation manager Dena Egenhoff. Since its launch in 2018, the program has helped homeowners replace more than 150,000 square feet of sod, saving an estimated 32 million gallons of water.
Not only does the program save water, it also saves homeowners money and their new native plants thrive much better in Colorado’s dry climate, Egenhoff said.
“They reduce their water bills and they can still have a beautiful landscape, regardless of current or future weather conditions,” she said.
Castle Rock’s turf replacement program has also saved millions of gallons. According to Water Efficiency Supervisor Rick Schultz, the city has reduced residential water use by 7% since its replacement program began in 2009. Non-residential properties became eligible for the rebates a decade later and have since reduced water consumption by around 29%, he mentioned.
Schultz said Castle Rock doesn’t dictate how people replace their grassy lawns, but offers a native plant database full of hundreds of options for grasses, flowers and shrubs that thrive in the high desert.
He calls it Colorado-scaping.
“We want it to look regionally appropriate,” Schultz said. “To promote a landscape that matches the look and feel of Colorado’s Front Range.”
Some people opt for sage and Russian yuccas, he said. Others go with switchgrass or Mexican feather grass.
Some don’t plant anything and install terraces, fire pits or artificial turf greens instead, he said. As long as it uses less water, it probably qualifies.
“Some people get really creative with it,” he said.
The voluntary nature of the program removes much of the controversy, Schultz also acknowledged.
Plus, many Coloradans are already interested, Egenhoff added. Greeley recently surveyed over 700 people and 59% of them expressed an interest in replacing their lawns and most of them cited cost as the main barrier.
Existing turf replacement programs are working, but they only cover about a quarter of the state’s population, Laura Belanger, a water resources engineer with Western Resource Advocates, told lawmakers during the committee hearing. from February.
The statewide proposal, which would start with about $4 million, could expand those existing programs and help start new ones, Belanger said.
Representatives from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado River District intervened in support of the measure.
Plus, this kind of conservation effort can help reduce pressure on the agricultural industry, Catlin said.
The state’s drought contingency plan, finalized in 2019, includes a program that pays farmers not to plant crops and instead send their water downstream.
Likewise, the turf replacement program is another effective way to manage the state’s growing water demand, Catlin said. This would not dictate the specific types of plants that could be used to replace more water-dependent lawns and would instead leave that decision to local programs.
The committee unanimously approved the proposal, sending it to the House Appropriations Committee where it is expected to be heard in the coming weeks. If the measure is signed into law, the Colorado Water Conservation Board will have to develop a statewide turf replacement program by July 2023.
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