Get Big Pivots

Bill signed into law on Friday makes thirsty imported grasses a no-no in new road medians and other public places that rarely see human feet. Native grasses OK.


by Allen Best

The remarks in the office of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Friday afternoon were brief, befitting the bill that was soon to be signed into law, the state’s most aggressive effort yet to curb water allocated to urban landscaping.

“We want folks to be part of the solution around water and to reduce the water needs of their non-functional turf, ranging from Colorado-scaping and xeriscaping to lower-water solutions with different types of grasses that may require less water,” said Polis of SB24-005.

Taking the lectern, Sen. Dylan Roberts, a prime sponsor and a Democrat who represents much of northwestern Colorado, noted an irony. It had snowed hard the previous day along the northern Front Range, where about 75% of Coloradans live, and the snow was extremely wet, even for March.

“It’s funny, with all the snow right now, you might not think that we have to deal with a lot of water scarcity, but we do,” said Roberts, a Frisco resident.

“We know that in Colorado we face a historic drought and we need to put in place every single common-sense tool to save water that we can. And this is one of those.”

Colorado in 2022 began incentivizing removal of what is commonly called non-functional turf. The phrase means imported grass species with high water requirements that typically get almost no use. A legislative allocation of $2 million resulted in grants to about three-dozen communities across Colorado but especially in Front Range cities where 85% of the state’s residents live.

In September 2023, the Colorado Water Conservation Board awarded a $1.5 million grant to Boulder-based Resource Central. The nonprofit was formed in 1976 to encourage conservation. In 2023, it completed 604 lawn-replacement projects along the Front Range. Its marquee program, Garden In A Box, provides low-water plants and has partnerships with several dozen municipalities along the Front Range. The state grant will allow Resource Central to expand its programming to the Western Slope.

In October 2023 a year-round legislative water committee that is chaired by Roberts heard a proposal from Denver Water, Western Resource Advocates and others. That proposal was the basis for the new law.

Instead of incentives to change, the new law draws lines of restraint. Beginning in 2026, local governments can no longer allow the installation, planting or placement of non-functional turf, artificial turf, or invasive plant species. This applies to commercial, institutional, and industrial properties, but also common-interest community property. Read that as HOAs.

Also verboten will be planting of non-functional turf in street rights-of-way, parking lots, median or transportation corridors.

Non-functional turf planted with thirsty imported species will be banned from new road medians and other public and commercial places in Colordo that see few human feet beginning in 2026, a year earlier in projects of state government. Photos/Allen Best

The law applies to new or redeveloped state facilities beginning in 2025.

Imported species such as Kentucky bluegrass can use twice as much water as native grass. Native species such as buffalo and blue gamma or species hybridized for arid conditions will be allowed.

Several Colorado jurisdictions have gone further. Aurora and Castle Rock in 2022 both adopted limits to residential water use for landscaping. The state law does not touch water use at individual homes. The two municipalities both expect substantial population growth but have limited water portfolios for meeting new demand.

Other municipalities and water providers from Broomfield to Grand Junction have also adopted laws crowding out water-thirsty vegetation. Their motives vary but all are premised on Colorado’s tightening water supplies. Cities use only 7% of the state’s water, and roughly half of that goes to landscaping.

Yet developing new sources of water requires going farther afield, usually converting water from agriculture, and can become very expensive. Consider plans by Parker Water and Sanitation District and Castle Rock. They are planning a pipeline to the Sterling area in coming years with a new if smallish reservoir near Akron. In this case, the project has support from an irrigation district in the Sterling area, but all this new infrastructure comes at a great expense.

The bill faced no major opposition in the Legislature, although most House Republicans — nearly all from rural areas — voted against it.

During her time at the microphone, Rep. Karen McCormick, a Democrat from Longmont, emphasized the need to define what constitutes non-functional turf.

“Coming up with those terms of functional versus non-functional turf was really important so that the people of Colorado understand that the choices that we have in these spaces (can result  in) beautiful, Western drought-tolerant grasses and bushes and flowers.” she said.

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Democrat from Durango, emphasized cost savings as well as water savings. “If you’re not having a picnic on that little piece of turf or having a soccer game, you probably don’t need to be spending the water and money it takes to keep that alive.”

Sen. Cleave Simpson, a Republican from Alamosa who represents much of southwestern Colorado and the fourth prime sponsor, was not present for the bill-signing.


Colorado State Rep. Karen McCormick

Rep. Karen McCormick of Longmont said that urban landscapes of great beauty can be created that need less water.

Those present for the bill signing included Denver Water’s Alan Salazar, the chief executive, and Greg Fisher, the manager of demand planning.

A Denver Water staff member decades ago had invented the word “xeriscaping” but the agency had never put much muscle into curbing water use. After all, it had a flush water portfolio. The thinking as explained in Patty Limerick’s book about Denver Water, “A Ditch in Time,” was that if drought got bad enough, the agency could always squeeze residential use for water, as it did in the severe drought summer of 2002.

With new leadership and a worsening story in the Colorado River Basin, Denver had altered its thinking. The city – which provides water for about 1.6 million people, including many of the city’s suburbs – gets roughly half of its water from transmountain diversions. That statistic holds true for the Front Range altogether. Denver’s water rights are relatively senior, but they’re junior to the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

That compact assumed far more water in the river than occurred in most of the 20th century. Flows during the 21st century have diminished, at least in part due to intensifying heat. That heating – and drying – will very likely worsen in coming decades. While Colorado accurately claims that it has not used its full allocations under river compacts, there’s the underlying and shifting hydrology that argues against any certainty.

The city this year will partner with Resource Central, a first, to encourage transformation of front yards with high water demands into less-needy landscapes.

Lindsay Rogers, a water policy advisor for Western Resource Advocates, said the key work during the next couple of years will be to work with local jurisdictions to implement the new law.

“Not only that, they’ll need to figure out how they’re going to enforce their new landscaping standards. And if they do that well, this bill will be hugely impactful.”

She said this bill should be understood as being part of a “growing understanding that everyone needs to do their part to conserve. There are lots and lots of opportunities across the land-use development spectrum.”

At least some of those ideas can be found in a report by a state task force issued in late January. Polis had appointed the 21-member group a year before and gave it the job of examining what steps Colorado could take to reduce water devoted to urban landscaping.

After seven meetings, the task force issued a report in late January that concluded that “the time to rethink our landscapes is now.” It provided 10 recommendations.

Topping the recommendations was a statement in accord with the new law. The task force also called for continued support of turf replacement in existing development, promotion of irrigation efficiency and encouragement of pricing mechanism that steer decisions that promote water conservation.

Considering that it took well more than a century to install the existing urban landscapes, this shift will not be accomplished in a few short years. The climate could shift to produce more water for Colorado, but the warming atmosphere would almost certainly steal those gains.

In short, the water scarcity driving this new law is not going away.

See also this five-part series in 2023 published in collaboration with Aspen Journalism:

I. Colorado squeezing water from urban landscapes

II. Enough water for lawns at the headwaters of the Colorado River?

III. How bluegrass lawns became the default for urban landscapes

IV. Why these homeowners tore out their turf

V. Colorado River crisis looms over state’s landscape decisions

And also: Bill limiting nonfunctional turf planting clears Senate

Allen Best
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