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In Colorado, Conversation About Lawn Water Use Begins

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Robert Couse-Baker
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Flickr-Creative Commons
Colorado water experts are discussing how much water should be used for watering new lawns.

As Colorado plans for a future with more people and less water, some in the world of water are turning to the problem of lawns.

In the 2014 legislative session, state senator Ellen Roberts (R-Durango) introduced a bill [.pdf] that would limit lawns in new developments if they took water from farms.  Although the bill was changed dramatically before it passed, that proposal opened up a statewide conservation about how water from agriculture and the Western Slope is used – particularly when it is growing Front Range grass.

Roberts' proposed bill set at 15 percent the amount lawn area in new developments, excluding parks and open space, said Steve Harris, the Durango water engineer who pitched her the idea.

"So essentially 15 percent kind of worked out to being that you could have grass in the backyard or front yard, one or the other, but not both," said Harris.

The bill did not pass in its original form, and the issues it addressed were referred to a committee. Now, the conversation about using ag water to grow lawns has morphed into one about the ratio of indoor to outdoor water use, said Harris.

Indoor water is generally recycled, as water goes back into the system, whereas much of the water used for landscapes does not make it back into the water treatment system.

Statewide, that indoor/outdoor ratio is about half-and-half – numbers from Denver Water, which serves residential customers in the city and in many surrounding suburbs, match the state average. The city of Greeley uses a slightly higher percentage of its water for outdoor use, with 45 percent going to indoor uses and 55 percent outdoors.

Harris's part of the state, though, is pushing for change. In its basin plan released July 31 as part of the state's water planning process, the Southwest Region called for water providers to aim for a 60-40 ratio by the year 2030. For those taking new water from agriculture or the Western Slope, the standard would be even higher, with a ratio of 70 percent indoor to 30 percent outdoor use.

This kind of thinking is taking off in Southern California, in the midst of that state's crippling drought. California also has a model landscape ordinance that effectively limits how much turf a new development can have, by placing developments on a water budget.

http://youtu.be/ao4z8lRfipY

"It sets a budget that says you cannot have wall-to-wall turf, and what you do past that is basically up to you," said Drew Beckwith, a water policy expert with the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.

Other communities, such as Las Vegas, have also taken a tougher stance on turf than Colorado has so far, said Beckwith.

The idea of setting limits on that grass, though, is receiving pushback from Front Range water utilities and developers. Many utilities point to their existing leadership in conservation, and say a statewide limit takes control away from localities.

But many in rural Colorado are wary of drying up ag land for development. The Colorado Farm Bureau supports limits on farm water being used for turf.

"The rural areas are saying, wait a minute, we are not keen on taking out productive commercial agriculture that is producing something so that you can grow grass in your front yard," said Harris.

Beckwith and Harris both see Colorado as a place where a discussion on indoor versus outdoor use is just beginning. At some point, said Harris, there will be limits on water use for lawns in Colorado. It's just a matter of when.

Right now, there is little consensus between Colorado's different basins on how water use for new lawns should be limited, or even if it should be. But, said Harris, based on the bill from last year's session, at least there is now a conversation about it.

"If we wanted to create talk, we have created talk," he said.

Colorado's state water plan is due in draft form to the Governor's office this December, following public comment periods and revisions. While the plan, which is slated to be finalized in 2015, will not be binding, it is supposed to serve as a guiding document to Colorado's water future.

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