Get Big Pivots

Town has begun removing grass from its public parks 


by Allen Best

Todd Oppenheimer has had a 33-year career in Vail, where he serves as the landscape architect and capital projects manager. Even 20 years ago, he was designing parks with turf. Now, he’s tearing it out.

“Maybe I’m making up for past sins here,” he said in a telephone interview after the town council approved his plans for partially de-turfing—it’s not a word yet, but maybe it will be someday—the second park in the municipality. The master list calls for removing what Oppenheimer calls “non-functional bluegrass” in eight parks.

The council OK’d ripping out 53% of the turf in the more south-facing and difficult-to-irrigate part of a small park called Ellefson.

Oppenheimer claims to have coined the saying that if the only person who walks on the grass is the person pushing a lawnmower, the grass shouldn’t be there. With that adage in mind, the town three years ago replaced 25% of the grass at the Buffehr Creek Park with less water-intensive plants. Included was the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the streets.

Vail's Bufferh Creek Park before turf removal

Vail has begun methodically removing grass from its parks from areas that serve little purpose, partly with the goal of saving water. Here, before removal, and top after xeriscaping. Photos/Town of Vail

None of this is necessarily new. Denver Water decades ago created the word “xeriscape” to push the idea of vegetation appropriate to a semi-arid environment.

Xeriscaping has yet to become a mainstream thought in landscape architecture, but it’s gaining ground, says Oppenheimer.

“People are almost forced to,” he says, “because of climate change.”

If nestled in a valley at the headwaters of a Colorado River tributary, Vail has begun to see the effects of a warming climate. Dry years have been occurring more often, the temperatures have been rising. Oppenheimer says he sees no need to choose plants for warmer climates—yet. He does see an obligation to reduce water use appropriate to a drying climate.

About 95% of water used in homes and other buildings returns to streams after wastewater treatment. But of irrigation water, he says, only 25% does.

Oppenheimer insists he can only do his part as the landscape architect for one town, but in citing new policies in Las Vegas in a recent presentation to the Vail Town Council, he’s obviously aware of a much larger story in the Colorado River Basin.

Las Vegas has been ripping out turf for well more than a decade and has recently ratcheted up incentives even more. It has used both carrots and sticks. The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that unused grass in Las Vegas and its suburbs soaks up about 10% of Nevada’s entire allocation of water from the Colorado River—the main source of Southern Nevada’s drinking water.

A Nevada law prohibits Colorado River water from watering nonfunctional turf by 2027.

Tightening in Vegas continues in other ways. At the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in mid-December, Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager for resources at Southern Nevada, described new proposals to trim water use at existing golf courses and ban water for new courses. Swimming pools will be cropped in size. Attention is being focused on the water use of evaporative cooling.

Allen Best
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