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

Colorado’s first climate-conscious edicts proposed by the city of Aurora are clear: no new golf courses flooding the grass with precious water. No grass in the embankments or decorative points near the offices. No residential lawns extending to the front and back – grass in backyards would be a maximum of 750 square feet.

But brace yourself, metropolitan water users everywhere else in the state — water experts say similar restrictions on traditional thirsty lawns are on the way. Denver is working with Denver Water on green building codes that could include Las Vegas-style caps on decorative turf and seasonal gallon limits on watering 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 charge, it looks like the freshwater tide on the grass has officially subsided.

“It’s a new reality for Colorado,” said Coffman, who once served in Congress. “Water resources are becoming increasingly scarce in the state and we need to recognize that.”

Coffman said he’s had a long-standing philosophy that developers shouldn’t burden existing homeowners, and water prices for Aurora’s future needs are skyrocketing. Aurora Water says the proposed limits would shave about $2,500 off the roughly $25,000 faucet fee that builders pay for each home, because the efficiencies would mean the agency doesn’t need to. acquire as much water to supply this area.

A committee of Aurora City Council will consider the land-limiting proposals again on Wednesday, with votes scheduled for June and a proposed effective date for developers of Jan. 1.

Smaller towns like Castle Rock and Aspen have also taken progressive steps in water efficiency and alternative landscaping, according to water experts. But fast-growing Aurora, with 385,000 residents and large developments on many edges, is turning heads, they added.

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

Territorial limitation programs are having a real impact, Rogers added. WRA estimates that replacing an acre of grass with more efficient landscape saves 1-2 acre-feet of water per year. One acre-foot covers a football field in one foot of water and supplies one to three households for a year.

“Think of that on hundreds of thousands of acres of grass in the Front Range and all over Colorado,” Rogers said. “We can look to these types of turf replacement programs as our next reservoir of water, and it will be our cheapest, fastest and most reliable new form of supply.”

Aurora Water says it recently spent $17,000 per acre-foot for water rights on a farm in the South Platte Basin.

Colorado water experts increasingly cite authorities in southern Nevada and Las Vegas as models for saving water by controlling turf. A solid plan needs two things, they say: limits on largely ornamental or “cosmetic” grass in new developments, and a turf buy-back program for existing homes and businesses that pays to tear up the thirsty grass and design a pleasant and water-efficient landscaping.

Aurora Water is one of the few Colorado utilities currently purchasing existing sod. The agency will design a homeowner’s low-water garden for free and pay material costs up to $3,000 for 500 square feet — even more for a waterless landscape. Water agencies and conservation advocates are now shying away from their old favorite low-water term, “xeriscaping”, after a slew of ugly landscaping angered homeowners who perceived the results as aesthetically “zeroscaping”.

Lawmakers passed a modest statewide turf buy-back program, to launch efforts in cities without them or make existing municipal programs more lucrative for homeowners. The bill awaits Governor Jared Polis’ signature, and supporters have said they want to increase available buyouts by millions of dollars in future sessions.

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

Lawn watering is the most visible use of Colorado’s precious snowpack, for most Front Range residents, but it does not take a large percentage of available water. Agriculture currently uses more than 85% of Colorado’s available water, according to studies from Colorado State University, with municipal water taking about 7%. Of that 7%, about half is used for watering lawns in most cities.

Yet with drought and fast-growing western states draining water from the Colorado River Basin, much of which is diverted under Continental Divide uses to the Front Range, many Colorado legislators and districts in water conservation want to see metropolitan areas make greater conservation efforts.

Aurora points to its water reuse as another pioneering conservation effort, though the water agency is still looking for new large reservoirs for future mountain storage. Under Colorado’s water law, water diverted to other basins can be “used to extinction” by the rights holder instead of being forced back into the canal for water. downstream users. Approximately 95% of Aurora’s water supply can be treated and reused until extinguished.

Aurora’s new proposal includes:

  • Ban traditional grass in common areas unless it is an “active, scheduled recreation area,” such as a park ball diamond. This means no new grass in medians, right-of-ways beside curbs and residential front yards.
  • Residential backyards would be limited to 45% grass or 750 square feet, whichever is smaller. As examples of the new era, Aurora Water points to the development of Painted Prairie, where front yards are low-water perennials, mulch, gravel, and undemanding tall grasses.
  • No new golf courses except for the previously planned PGA level Kings Point course. Aurora Water estimates that a golf course of this size will use 400 acre-feet of water per year, enough to serve 1,200 households.

When asked if Denver Water is considering stricter turf limits, the agency pointed to 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 spokesperson said.

“Denver’s version of this proposal would limit turf to areas that serve specific community benefits and cap the overall amount of irrigation at 7.5 gallons of potable water per square foot of [permeable] area per irrigation season,” the spokesperson said. “If more water is needed, developers will need to consider alternative water sources.”

Property developers have pushed back on some of the provisions Aurora outlined, water agency officials said. An earlier proposal, for example, limited backyard sod to just 500 square feet.

The Metro Denver Home Builders Association sent a letter to Aurora officials in March, complaining that previous cooperation on water issues had been ignored in crafting the proposed ordinance last moment. The developers have expressed concern about the high costs of high-quality xeriscaping, among other issues.

“How will the new ordinance be adequately enforced given that many neighborhoods will be governed by a patchwork of conflicting landscaping and conservation standards?” says the builders letter.

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

“I think even five years ago we would have had problems with this,” 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 grass on golf courses,'” Baker said.

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Michael C. Ford