Dozens of Colorado cities win state funding to tear out bluegrass, install water-wise landscapes

More than two dozen Colorado cities and water districts have been awarded an estimated $1.5 million in new funding to pay for voluntary programs to remove lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant landscapes.

The turf replacement grant program is a first-of-its-kind initiative for the state. Interest in the program was high, according to Jenna Battson, outdoor water conservation coordinator at the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), which is administering the grants.

According to the CWCB, 39 applications have been received since the program began this past spring, and 37 have completed or are completing the contracting process.

The application period closed Aug. 31, according to the CWCB, and winners were named across the state, from Cortez to Glenwood Springs, to Aurora and Colorado Springs, to name a few.

Lawmakers approved the bipartisan HB22-1151 in 2022. It provides $1.5 million to encourage the removal of water-hungry landscapes like Kentucky bluegrass in favor of drought-resistant grasses and plants. The law stipulates that communities be allowed to design their own programs and guidelines to cut water use.

In Cortez, in southwestern Colorado, the city of 8,700 people will use its $40,000 grant, along with $40,000 in local matching funds, to create its first turf replacement program.

“With the turf replacement, we expect to reduce water use by up to 50% [by removing thirsty grasses and replacing lawn sprinklers with drip irrigation systems],” said George Tripp, assistant engineer with the city’s public works department. “We had money set aside, but the grant award is very helpful.”

The water conservation program comes as the American West remains mired in a long-term drought and as warming temperatures due to climate change reduce overall water supplies. Cities across the region are being forced to make existing supplies stretch further, and reducing outdoor water use is one of the primary tools available to do this.

Cities participating in Colorado’s first state-level turf replacement grant program

More than two dozen cities and towns across Colorado are participating in the state’s first-ever turf replacement grant program. Credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

Several Colorado communities, such as Aurora, began voluntary turf replacement programs years ago and in 2022 approved a new ordinance sharply limiting what’s referred to as “non-functional” turf, or turf that is purely ornamental, in new commercial and residential development. Since the early 2000s, the city’s turf replacement efforts and other rebates have allowed it to reduce water use by 36%, according to Tim York, manager of water conservation at Aurora Water. The city spends about $136,000 annually on its rebate program, which includes turf replacement.

York said the state grant program, though small, is helping generate more interest in water-wise landscaping and it’s occurring as people across the state begin to embrace water conservation.

“We have hit that tipping point,” York said. “You can make the changes for new development by creating new [landscape] codes in city ordinances. That is a stick approach. With existing landscapes you need a carrot.”

And new funding sources provide that incentive. York said interest in Aurora is surging. This year the city expects more than 100 homeowners to join the turf replacement program, up from previous years when fewer than 25 participated.

Aurora is using its grant to expand efforts among homeowners with fewer resources by paying not just for grasses and plants, but for installation as well, York said.

“It’s been a long build-up,” he said. “But we’re seeing a huge increase in participation and that is fantastic.”

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