Coloradans could spend $2 billion-plus replacing water-hungry grass in the name of conservation

One of Colorado’s leading urban water conservation strategies — turf replacement — could require up to $2.5 billion to save 20,000 acre-feet of water, according to a recent report commissioned by the state’s top water policy agency.

Colorado communities are facing a drier future with water shortages and searching for ways to cut down water use. The idea of replacing thirsty, unused grassy areas with more drought-resistant landscaping has gained momentum in recent years, even prompting proposed legislation this session. Despite a potentially high cost and relatively low savings, water experts, landscape professionals and some legislators are backing the idea.

“We’re really seeking to shift the expectation around what Colorado’s urban spaces look like — both the existing spaces and the future ones — so that people can embrace this Colorado aesthetic,” said Frank Kinder, water efficiency and sustainability manager at Northern Water. “While we’re not going to be able to save maybe as much water in comparison to other industries, we know that we want to do our part.”

The agriculture industry is Colorado’s largest water user, but cities and towns in Colorado use about 380,000 acre-feet of water per year, or about 7% of the state’s overall water use, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Outdoor urban water use makes up about 2.8% of that amount.

Turf replacement efforts in urban areas often focus on lawns and nonfunctional turf — places where thirsty, nonnative grasses are rarely used, but are still watered and maintained mostly for aesthetic purposes. (Think: Green patches between sidewalks and roads, in medians, along frontage areas and parking lots.)

The idea is to remove the gluttonous grasses and replace them with native grasses, trees and other plants that are more drought-resistant.

This turf-focused strategy has gained new momentum since 2020 and 2021, when the water crisis in the Colorado River Basin became shockingly apparent (to more than just water experts) as two enormous reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell, fell to historic lows.

“This almost seems spontaneous to me,” said Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning at Denver Water. “Literally two years ago, we weren’t talking much about it [turf replacement].”

This year, the Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force — convened by Gov. Jared Polis in 2023 — listed adopting turf policy among its top recommendations for legislators to consider.

One turf bill has already passed the state Senate with a 28-5 vote. On Monday, it successfully passed out of the House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources committee with a 10-2 vote.

The bill aims to prohibit the installation of nonfunctional turf, artificial turf or invasive species on any new development of government, commercial, institutional or industrial property starting in 2025.

“We know it’s not cheap”

Even with this momentum, water experts around the state are still trying to answer basic questions about turf removal: How much turf is there in Colorado, and how much of that is nonfunctional? How much water could be saved, and how much would that cost?

The recent water savings analysis by BBC Research and Consulting estimated that the total amount of turf statewide was about 167,800 acres but listed no estimate for the total amount of nonfunctional turf.

It’s hard to estimate in large part because there are different local definitions of what is considered “nonfunctional,” said Jenna Battson, outdoor water conservation coordinator for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The estimated water savings are about 12 gallons per square foot, or about 1.6 acre-feet per acre. Up to about 20,000 acre-feet of water statewide could be conserved through turf replacement by homeowners, and commercial, industrial and institutional property owners, Battson said.

One acre-foot equals enough water to supply about two households for a year.

These savings are small compared to looming future water shortages. By 2050, cities, towns and industries could be short 230,000 acre-feet to — and in the worst case scenario — 740,000 acre-feet, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan.

It would also cost between $152 million and $2.5 billion to make those savings happen, according to the report. Past reports have also listed a cost in the billions, she said.

“We know that it’s not a cheap thing to do, but that’s not necessarily a reason not to do it. It’s just, what else can we do to complement that?” Battson said. “I don’t know if it’s a surprising number. Maybe if you’re not in the weeds all day reading about this, maybe it’s very surprising.”

“Colorado is going to transition”

Although many water providers, land use experts and state agencies have supported turf replacement, one sticking point has been whether it should be managed at the state or local level, Fisher said. Some state legislators Monday cited concerns about economic impacts to sod farmers during the House committee hearing.

Supporters say cities and towns need to do their part. Water efficiency is the right thing to do in face of an increasingly challenging climate, said Kinder, who was on the task force.

“Colorado is going to transition. We will still have turf, but it will be in places where it makes sense — where people need something that’s durable, and they’re actively gathering and recreating on it,” said Laura Belanger, task force member and senior policy advisor with Western Resource Advocates. “It will no longer be the go-to landscaping in Colorado.”

Turf replacement is one way to help communities adapt to a hotter and drier future at the local level, said Fisher, who also served on the task force. It’s also one conservation strategy that can be used alongside other options, like leak detection and water bill rate structures that discourage high water use, said Battson, who was a staff resource for the task force.

Andrea Lopez, who represented Ute Water Conservancy District on the 2023 landscape task force, said it was hard to tell now whether turf removal will be worth it. There’s still a lot of data to gather, she said.

“We have to start somewhere, but I think only time will tell how much it actually costs and how much water it’s saving,” Lopez said.

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