Lawn of the dead
As historic drought persists, so does Colorado’s addiction to turf grass. Some lawmakers want to pay you to tear it up.
Editor’s note: The Colorado legislature passed House Bill 22-1151: Turf Replacement Program on May 10, 2022.
Twenty years in, Colorado’s historic megadrought shows no signs of slowing.
Across the American West, reservoirs are shrinking, thirsty populations are growing and several states are locked in conflict over rapidly diminishing water supplies.
Meanwhile, huge areas of Colorado — residential lawns, curbside strips, highway medians, business fronts — are carpeted in heavily-irrigated, plush grass that guzzles millions of gallons of water each year.
“More than 60 percent of Colorado’s water is currently being applied outdoors, much of it on ornamental lawns,” said Jennifer Riley-Chetwynd, co-director of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s One World One Water Center and director of marketing at Denver Botanic Gardens, which jointly runs the OWOW Center. “Turf grass is the second-most irrigated resource in our country next to corn, and last time I checked, we weren’t eating it.”
RELATED: Where did all the water go?
The situation is so dire that some lawmakers at the state Capitol recently launched a bipartisan effort, House Bill 1151, to implement a statewide turf-replacement program.
Their big idea? Pay homeowners and business owners to ditch their lawns in favor of native plants and landscapes that will thrive in the state’s semi-arid climate and, crucially, use much less water.
But will Coloradans go for such a plan? Many residents seem locked into the aesthetic that green lawns are good and everything else is dry and unattractive.
“They couldn’t be more wrong,” Riley-Chetwynd said. “Our state’s native landscape gardens can actually look really beautiful. And compared with the monotony of green lawns, each one is totally unique — a multicolored world unto itself.”
Proponents say that for those open to change, going garden-native represents a triple win: It radically reduces water waste, cuts water bills and introduces regionally appropriate plants that will thrive naturally in the dry climate.
Several states across the American West that were compelled to act sooner due to drier, hotter climates have already made huge strides.
In the sweltering Las Vegas Valley, for example, where a single square foot of grass can eat up 73 gallons of water a year, property owners have gotten rid of more than 200 million square feet of turf over the past 20 years.
And Colorado hasn’t exactly been slacking. Existing local turf-replacement programs cover around a quarter of the state’s population, with some notable successes. The Life after Lawn program in Greeley has replaced more than 150,000 square feet of turf in just four years, saving an estimated 32 million gallons of water.
But despite such successes, the 19 turf-replacement programs spread across the Centennial State aren’t nearly enough, Riley-Chetwynd said.
“Significant and long-term change will only come with the funding and impetus that follows statewide legislation,” she said.
Colorado-scaping: a beginner’s guide
Red Birds in a Tree
Baby Blue Rabbitbrush
New Mexican Privet
Want to know more? You can plan your whole garden with this Plant Finder.
(Selections by Annie Barrow, manager of Horticulture Outreach Programs at Denver Botanic Gardens.)
Another important factor with water issues involves making sure people know how high the stakes are. Which is why the OWOW Center is educating Coloradans about precious water resources and empowering them to take positive action.
“We believe there is no issue that is not a water issue,” said Nona Shipman, co-director of OWOW. “Demonstrating that people can care about and advocate for the environment — regardless of their study topic, career goals or personal passions — is at the core of everything we do.”
RELATED: Cities and suburbs face growing wildfire threat
As the OWOW Center approaches its 10th anniversary, Shipman is encouraged by Coloradans who are paying attention to water issues in ways they simply weren’t a decade ago.
“These days, people forward me articles and podcasts with increasing frequency and interest whenever something big happens in the water world,” she said. “Plus, I’ve seen an increased depth of curiosity in our students — they’re learning, engaging and sharing in new ways, too.”
Riley-Chetwynd points out that the proposed turf-replacement law would retain “functional” green spaces, such as parks, recreational areas and sports fields (including, yes, Empower Field at Mile High).
“The key target has always been the thousands of square miles of lawns, curbside medians and strips along the highway that don’t have any useful purpose,” she said. “They are purely ornamental and not an efficient use of a limited resource.”
Riley-Chetwynd is convinced that replacing grass lawns with native plants will become the norm. “Oh, it will catch on. I am confident of it,” she said. “And if not during a voluntary stage, it will eventually become a mandated necessity.”
“As a semi-arid climate, Denver gets just 13 inches of rain a year,” she added. “It simply isn’t built to support turf grass from end to end. Our current way of living just isn’t sustainable.”