Minor pushback to proposed limits on new water-thirsty grasses in areas that get little or no foot traffic
By Allen Best
This story was produced as a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism — two nonprofit news organizations covering Colorado’s water. It follows a five-part series that examined the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.
Colorado legislators in 2022 passed a bill that delivered $2 million to programs across the state for removal of turf in urban areas classified as nonfunctional. By that, legislators mean Kentucky bluegrass and other thirsty-grass species that were meant to be seen but rarely, if ever, otherwise used.
Now, they are taking the next step. The Colorado Senate on Tuesday voted in favor of a bill, Senate Bill 24-005, that would prevent thirsty turf species from being planted in certain places that rarely, if ever, get foot traffic, except perhaps to be mowed.
Those places include alongside roads and streets or in medians, as well as in the expansive areas surrounding offices or other commercial buildings, in front of government buildings, and in entryways and common areas managed by homeowners associations.
The bill also bars use of plastic turf in lieu of organic vegetation for landscaping.
“If we don’t have to start watering that turf in the first place, we never have to replace it in the future,” state Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco, a co-sponsor, said in making the case for the proposed new state standard.
Roberts stressed that the prohibition would not apply to individual homes or retroactively to established turf. “It applies to new development or redevelopment. It does not apply to residential homes,” he said. “This is about industrial, commercial and government property across the state.”
Kentucky bluegrass and other grass species imported from wetter climatic zones typically use far more water than buffalo grass and other species indigenous to Colorado’s more arid climate. The bill, however, does allow hybrids that use less water as well as the indigenous grass species.
Originally reviewed by an interim legislative committee in October, the bill was subsequently modified to provide greater clarity about what constitutes functional versus nonfunctional turf, while giving towns, cities and counties greater flexibility in deciding which is which within their jurisdictions. If the bill becomes law, local jurisdictions will have until Jan. 1, 2026, to incorporate the new statewide standard into their landscaping code and development review processes.
After being approved on a third reading by the Senate by a 28-5 vote on Wednesday morning, the measure now moves to the House.
Advocates do not argue that limits on expansion of what the bill calls nonfunctional turf will solve Colorado’s water problems. Municipalities use only 7% of the state’s water, and outdoor use constitutes roughly half of municipal use.
“One more tool in the toolbox,” Roberts said.
State Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, said if the standard had been adopted 20 to 30 years ago, perhaps 10,000 acre-feet of water could have been saved annually.
“As a percentage, it is minimal,” he conceded. “It’s closing the gaps in small increments as best you can as opposed to large sweeping change.”
The backdrop for this is more frequent drought and rising temperatures since 2002, what Simpson called the aridification of the West. The climatic shift is forcing harder choices.
“We are all trying to figure out how to live and work in this space,” Simpson said.
In a Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting Jan. 25, Simpson also said he was motivated to help prevent water grabs by Front Range cities from the San Luis Valley, what locals sometimes call Colorado’s south slope. Three separate attempts have been made in the past 35 years to divert water from the San Luis Valley, a place already being forced to trim irrigated agriculture to meet requirements of the Rio Grande Compact.
“That’s largely my motivation to be part of this conversation and do everything I can to reduce that pressure on my rural constituents and our way of life,” Simpson said in the committee hearing. The bill passed the committee on a 4-1 vote.
Developing water for growing cities — particularly along the Front Range but even in headwaters communities — has become problematic as the climate has veered hotter and, in most years of the 21st century, drier.
The result, as was detailed in a five-part collaboration in 2023 between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, has been a growing consensus about the need to be more strategic and sparing about use of water in urban landscapes.
Agriculture uses nearly 90% of the state’s water, as was noted by state Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver. At Tuesday’s Senate hearing, he chided Roberts, Simpson and other legislative sponsors for not addressing efficiency in agriculture.
Hansen, who grew up in a farm town in Kansas near the Colorado border, applauded the bill but questioned why the interim committee hadn’t come up with legislation to improve efficiency of agricultural water use. He cited the use-it-or-lose-it provision of Colorado water law that he suggested discouraged farmers and ranchers from innovating to conserve water.
“I feel the interim water committee let us down by not bringing forth anything that advances conservation on what is by far the largest category of use, almost 90%,” he said. “I want to know what is next on that front.”
Hansen got strong pushback. Simpson responded that agriculture in the San Luis Valley has already been forced to change. To comply with the Rio Grande Compact, his district is trying to figure out how to take 10,000 to 20,000 acres out of agricultural production. On his own farm, he said, water deliveries that traditionally lasted until mid-July have ended as early as May 20. “I have to figure out a way to grow crops that are less water-consumptive, more efficient and ultimately take irrigated acreage out of production,” Simpson said.
State Sen. Byron Pelton, R-Sterling, also took the occasion to cite incremental gains in irrigation efficiency and the loss of production in the Republican River basin. There, roughly 25,000 acres need to be taken out of production for Colorado to meet interstate compact requirements.
As had been the case several days before at the bill’s legislative committee hearing, most of the limited opposition in the Senate was against the notion that cutting water used for landscaping is a statewide concern. It’s a familiar argument — a preference for local control — used in many contexts.
A representative of the Colorado Municipal League (CML), a consortium of 270 towns and cities, told the Senate committee that the proposal constituted state overreach in a one-size-fits-all approach.
Heather Stauffer, CML’s legislative advocacy manager, cited the regulations of Aurora, Greeley and Aspen as examples of approaches created to meet specific and local needs. “We would advocate that the state put more money into funds that address turf removal programs that have been very successful among municipalities across the state,” Stauffer said.
In 2023, Boulder-based Resource Central completed 604 lawn-replacement projects along the Front Range. With aid of state funding, it plans to expand its turf-removal and popular Garden In A Box programs to the Western Slope this year.
No representatives from any towns or cities showed up to oppose the bill. But representatives of three local jurisdictions, including Vail-based Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the water provider for unincorporated Pueblo West, testified that the bill filled a need.
Denver is behind the bill. Denver Water, which provides water to 1.6 million people, including the city’s 720,000 residents as well as many suburban jurisdictions, has committed to reducing the water devoted to urban turf in coming years by 30%, or roughly the turf covering 6,000 acres. Utility representatives have said they don’t want to become frugal with water devoted to existing landscapes only to see water used lavishly in new development.
Andrew Hill, government affairs manager for Denver Water, called the bill a “moderate approach” in creating a new waterwise landscaping standard, one in which imported grasses are not the default.
“It makes real changes statewide, but it’s narrow enough to only apply to areas [where] I think a consensus exists,” Hill said at the committee hearing.
Local governments can go further, and many have already. Thirty-eight local governments and water providers in Colorado offer turf-replacement programs. Western Resource Advocates found last fall that 17 of the jurisdictions already limit new turf while another nine plan to do so.
Aurora and Castle Rock, late-blooming municipalities in the metropolitan area, have adopted among the most muscular regulations in Colorado, taking aim at water devoted to new homes’ front yards. Both expect to continue growing in population, and together they plan to pursue importations of water currently used for farming along the South Platte River in northeastern Colorado. Aurora also still owns water rights in the Eagle River basin that it has been trying to develop for the past 40 years.
In the full Senate debate, Republican leaders argued for incentives, such as the expanded buy-back program for turf removal, instead of a statewide thou-shalt-not approach.
The Colorado River Drought Task Force recommended legislators allocate $5 million annually for turf-removal programs. Key legislators have already indicated they plan to introduce legislation to do just that.
But is this the answer? Such programs are “inefficient and not cost-effective” if water-thirsty grass species continue to be planted in questionable places, the policy manager for municipal conservation at Western Resource Advocates said in the committee hearing last week.
The policy manager, Lindsay Rogers, said passing the bill would build the momentum to “help ensure that Coloradans live within our water means and particularly in the context of a growing state and worsening drought conditions.”
The Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado, which represents 400 Colorado landscape and supplier companies, testified in support of the bill but hinted at future discussions as the bill goes through legislative sausage-making. Along with sod growers, they quibble over the dichotomous phrasing of nonfunctional versus functional turf. They prefer the words recreational and utility.
On the flip side of these changes, some home gardeners might find buffalo grass and other indigenous grasses more conserving of water but less appealing. Buffalo grass, for example, greens up a month or so later in spring and browns up a month earlier in fall.
Water in urban landscapes is also on the agenda for three programs this week at the annual meeting of the Colorado Water Congress, the state’s preeminent organization for water providers. Included may be a report from a task force appointed by Gov. Jared Polis last February that met repeatedly through 2023 to talk about ways to reduce expansion of water to urban landscapes.
Why support Big Pivots?
You need and value solid climate change reporting, and also the energy & water transitions in Colorado. Because you know that strong research underlies solid journalism, and research times take.
Plus, you want to help small media, and Big Pivots is a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Big grants would be great, but they’re rare for small media. To survive, Big Pivots needs your support. Think about how big pivots occur. They start at the grassroots. That’s why you should support Big Pivots. Because Big Pivots has influence in Colorado, and Colorado matters in the national conversation.