If you’ve ever slipped and spun your way across Vail Pass through a wet, heavy snowstorm, you can be excused for wondering how Eagle River Valley communities could ever have too little water.
Vail and its neighbors do have that problem, though. It has become evident in the growing frequency of drought years in the 21st century.
First came 2002. Water officials, verging on panic, restricted outdoor water use. The drought was believed to be the most severe in 500 years. Fine, thought water officials as rain and snow resumed, we’re off the hook for at least our lifetimes.
In 2012 came another drought, one nearly identical in severity. More bad years followed in 2018 and 2021. The Eagle River normally chatters its way down the valley through Avon and to a confluence with the Colorado River near Glenwood Canyon. In those bad drought years, it sulked. The shallow water was hot enough to endanger fish.
Colorado River flows have declined 20% since 2000. Having water rights is not enough. And the future looks even hotter and, because of that heat, drier. Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, warns of up to 20% additional flow loss by midcentury.
This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is the second of a five-part series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.
Part 1: Colorado squeezes water from urban landscapes, an overview
Part 2: At Colorado River’s headwaters, questions about whether there’s enough water for lawns
Part 3: How bluegrass lawns became the default for homeowners association
Part 4: The outliers in urban residential landscaping: Why these homeowners tore out their turf
Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to rise 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. The agency projects slightly greater increases in Colorado and other upper basin states.
In Vail, managers of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District have decided they need more storage. They plan a 1,200-acre-foot reservoir near Minturn called Bolts Lake. That compares with the 257,034-acre-foot storage of Dillon Reservoir. At that capacity, this new reservoir will be the most cost-effective way to ensure resilience as the climate becomes more variable. With the reservoir, they hope to capture water during high-runoff years for use in the district’s service territory from Vail through Edwards.
Demand reduction will be another tool of growing importance in a hotter, sometimes drier climate. Managers hope to reduce water demand in the district 5% by 2026 even as new housing, especially more affordable units, gets built. That’s 400 acre-feet per year.
The most productive place to wring these savings will be in water used for outdoor landscapes. Only 25% — or even less — of water applied to lawns returns to streams and rivers compared with 95% of water used indoors.
Siri Roman, the district’s general manager, said short-term change, such as restricted lawn watering in drought years, can be a strategy. But her district wants to effect permanent change.
“It’s not about drought years,” she said. “It’s about a drying climate. We have to get people to shift their attitudes, to know that water is getting to be more scarce.”
Roman’s district, like other water utilities in Colorado, is targeting nonfunctional turf. Precise definitions vary, but nonfunctional generally refers to grasses that require large volumes of water to irrigate but rarely see human feet except when mowed. It is also described as aesthetic turf.
Three years ago, Eagle River Water began offering rebates of $1 per square foot to customers willing to replace thirsty lawns with landscapes that use less water. Using state aid, the district this year bumped up the incentive to $2.
“We are not saying it needs to be stone and look like Arizona,” Roman said.
Directors of the district in October also agreed to new tiered rates that will discourage high-volume consumption.
Other Western Slope communities have also set out to discourage thirsty landscape choices. Motivations vary, but for many, there is also acknowledgement of the need to walk the talk of water conservation expected of Front Range communities. “That is something I hear a lot from communities I am working with,” said Marjo Curgus, a consultant.
‘Lawn Begone’ in Durango
Almost a decade ago, Steve Harris, a water engineer in Durango, summoned the local news media to his house to watch him remove sod from his front yard. He also had bumper stickers produced: “Lawn Gone.” In an editorial, the Durango Herald offered an alternative: “Lawn Begone.”
Harris believed that Colorado needed to make clear that decorative lawns had less value than agriculture. He worked with his state legislators to draft a bill that would have limited transfers of agricultural water to cities if that water went to lawns. As for his own lawn, Harris thought that he and others on the Western Slope couldn’t just pay lip service to this idea.
At the Colorado Capitol, the bill introduced in 2014 by then-Sen. Ellen Roberts and then-Rep. Don Coram was quickly shelved. Local governments objected. So did ag producers who thought state legislators had no business blocking their abilities to sell water rights.
Instead, the idea was directed to an interim committee for further study. Bills sometimes get sent there to die. In this case, the conversation continued, as Roberts had intended.
Since then, legislators have adopted several laws. A bill that passed in 2022, House Bill 22-1151, does not institute a prohibition but instead allocated $2 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, $1.5 million of which went to local jurisdictions to spur voluntary replacement of irrigated turf.
The law asserts that for every 100 acres of turf converted to water-wise landscaping, up to 200 acre-feet of water can be conserved. The act defines water-wise landscaping as a water- and plant-management practice that emphasizes using plants with lower water needs.
Whether that much water gets saved also depends upon whether irrigation systems are changed to match the lesser water needs of the new landscapes. Grass that needs 12 inches of supplemental water per year need not continue to get 25.
All that funding has now been allocated. On the Western Slope, the municipalities of Cortez, Glenwood Springs and Frisco were awarded funds as was the Eagle County Conservation District. The state agency said 25% of turf-replacement funds were for Western Slope entities.
Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose and then-Rep. Dylan Roberts of Frisco, two of the four prime sponsors, are from the Western Slope. Another prime sponsor, Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa, now has a district that encompasses southwest Colorado, while Roberts has become a senator.
Without state funding, Montrose County approved grants for seven turf-replacement projects.
“From the start, I thought this initial effort might have more value from an education and outreach perspective than actual water savings,” said Justin Musser, the county’s natural resources manager.
Projects were chosen based on various objectives. For example, do the new landscapes provide energy savings or wildlife benefits? “We are not overly prescriptive,” said Musser. “If you have a good plan that references standards from the Colorado State University Extension or another reputable source, the application gets a higher ranking.”
Why would Montrose County be interested in yanking sod to save water?
“It’s important that we look at these types of things across the Colorado River basin,” Musser said. “We would want people in California and Arizona and Nevada to be looking at these types of programs, too. I think it makes sense for a place like Montrose County to be conserving water as much as we can, too.”
But, he added, this is “one part of a very complex issue.”
Droughts versus aridification
The Western Slope of Colorado produces 70% of the water in the Colorado River, according to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Some of that water stays in Colorado. About half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. Yet more of the Colorado River gets diverted to farms in the South Platte and Arkansas river valleys.
And, of course, water from the Western Slope flows downstream to farms and cities in Arizona, California and Nevada.
The Colorado River has infamously been falling short of meeting all demands. The river first failed to reach the Sea of Cortez in the 1960s and, as diversions in Arizona and elsewhere expanded, has ceased to reach the sea altogether since the 1990s — save for an especially engineered pulse in 2014.
In 1922, when delegates of the seven states met to negotiate the Colorado River Compact, they assumed that flows of the early 20th century would be the norm, delivering more than 20 million acre-feet. As Eric Kuhn and John Fleck explain in their book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” it had been a wet period.
It didn’t stay that wet, and in the 21st century it has been delivering far less water, an average 13.2 million acre-feet through 2022. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, and others have warned that continued warming could depress flows to 9 million acre-feet during coming decades. Or even less.
Grand Junction more recently adopted regulations curbing water needed for urban landscaping. The city has adopted sustainability goals, “and water plays a big part of that,” said Randi Kim, utilities director for the city of 69,000 people.
Cost savings enter into the city’s calculation as it prepares for a projected 91,000 residents by 2040. The municipal utility taps high-quality water from Kannah Creek, which originates on Grand Mesa. When that is insufficient to meet demands, as the city utility projects will be the case by 2040, the city will tap the Gunnison River but will need to pay more to treat the dirtier water.
Rising heat can also drive higher demand. Grand Junction in July reached 107 degrees, tying the record that had been set just two years before. The city’s 13 highest temperatures have occurred this century.
This is but one aspect of the changing and drying climate, a process that many — including Kim — describe as aridification. “I think people realize that we have to change the way we use and manage water, and it really affects every aspect of our lives,” she said.
Grand Junction’s new regulations apply to new developments. Turf that does not meet the city’s definition of “functional” cannot exceed 15% of landscaping. The new regulations also require low-water vegetation in traffic medians and some other common areas.
Steamboat Springs, although cooler and wetter than Grand Junction, faces similar challenges. It gets 24 inches of precipitation a year, compared with 10 inches for Grand Junction. Some years, the snow along streets of Steamboat gets piled higher than the head of a rim-rattling professional basketball player.
These prodigious snowfalls have not been yielding equally impressive runoffs in the Yampa River. Several times during the longer, hotter summers of the 21st century, the river slunk to such shallow depths that water officials decreed a temporary end to fishing. It almost happened again in July before temperatures cooled and rain arrived.
“We were one day from the river being shut down again,” said Madison Muxworthy of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, a nonprofit. “It was crazy.”
Muxworthy calls the Yampa River the “life beat of our community.” The description is apt. Kayakers paddle amid the waves during runoff months, and anglers drop lines every season. There are always people along the river banks.
In 2021, heeding local sentiment, the sustainability council launched a water-conservation program focused on outdoor use. Working with the city government and Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, the group created a guidance document for landscapes called “Yampascaping.” Four educational workshops this year were well attended.
“Citizens are really interested in this because they see the impacts from climate change that we’re already having,” said Muxworthy, her organization’s soil moisture, water and snow program manager. “It’s really easy for them to make the connection and want to do something about it.”
The Mount Werner district, which serves the base of the city’s bigger ski area, offers rebates of $1 per square foot for turf removal.
Eighty miles south of Steamboat, at a 131-unit multifamily project along the Eagle River called The Reserve, turf-removal incentives of $2 per square foot have also helped the homeowners association replace a half-acre of thirsty grasses with native vegetation. The homeowners hope to replace another 60% of the more than 4 acres of common area.
Saving water is paramount in the mind of Deb Forsline, a director of the homeowners association. She sometimes lulls her grandchildren to sleep with the soothing sound at river’s edge and, at other times, accompanies her husband on fishing expeditions, knitting while he dangles lines. “It’s about saving water for the river, not the money,” she said of the efforts to reduce water for landscaping.
Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager at Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, concurs. The $2 per square foot “helps move the thinking of people who have already been thinking about it,” she said.
Roman, the district’s general manager, points to the innate connection that most of her district’s 31,000 consumers have with the outdoors. “A lot of people who live here year-round know that it is irresponsible to overuse.”
A steeper staircase of water rates
After the 2002 drought, the Eagle River district adopted an inclining block rate structure. The more you use, the more you pay. The district got inconsistent results. Larger homes and those with more expansive and water-intense landscaping dropped their use in smaller percentages than smaller homes. The rate structure had been flawed, allowing larger homes to pay less per 1,000 gallons than smaller homes for the same volume of water. Different rates were needed to snag the attention of high-volume consumers.
Aspen had the same problem. It adopted tiered water rates in 2005. Managers thought the rates would discourage high volumes of consumption. But even in drought years, some properties continued stubbornly high volumes.
In 2017, Aspen adopted a new approach. The regulations require reduced water use in the landscape and irrigation plans for new and redeveloped projects. Such caps are called budgets. Like Denver and Boulder, Aspen has almost no new development of raw land. The law imposes a hard cap of 7.5 gallons per square foot of landscape. That’s about a foot of water, or roughly half of the supplemental water required in Colorado for Kentucky bluegrass. The law also requires so-called “smart” irrigation systems and alternative plants but leaves some flexibility in how developers and their consultants stay within the water budgets.
So far, 110 to 120 projects in Aspen have been reviewed, but only 15 to 20 have been executed – still too soon to discern clear results in water savings for the city, said Rob Gregor, utilities permit coordinator. Still, the city has leveled its water use and hopes to achieve even greater efficiencies in water devoted to residential and commercial landscapes. That could leave more water in Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork River, one of the goals of the program.
Durango, with 19,000 people and a projected population of 25,000 by 2035, has considered using rates to nudge high-volume users to less demanding landscapes. Justin Elkins, utilities manager, said the city hopes to encourage voluntary reductions in water use by allowing water users to monitor the volume of their use and compare it to consumption by their neighbors.
The Ute Water Conservancy District has successfully used rates to encourage water conservation. The Grand Junction-based district delivers water to rural and exurban areas of the Grand Valley from Cameo to the Utah border. Customers tend to be more responsive “when it hits them in the pocketbook,” said Andrea Lopez, the district’s external affairs manager. “As they use more water and enter into tiers that become steeper with the more they use, we usually see a reduction in use.”
That’s what Eagle River Water has done. Like Aspen, the Vail Valley has some wealthy homeowners. Under the old tier system, somebody in a smaller home paid more per gallon than somebody in a larger home, if they both used the same large volume.
Beginning in January, Roman was on the agenda of everybody from Rotary clubs to Eagle County commissioners. “Really, this is targeting our excessive users,” she told the Vail Town Council at a June meeting. “They’re the ones that are going to feel this.”
District directors in October approved the new tiered rates that intend to discourage high-volume consumption.
In Wildridge, a neighborhood on the south-facing slopes of Avon, Linn Brooks has shown what is possible in landscape conversions. Fifteen years ago, before she started transitioning her landscape, her home used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons a month. Now, it uses, at most, 7,000 gallons a month and her landscape is commanding.
The takeaway, she said, is that communities can have vibrant landscapes and protect property values – and still use less water.
Next: How did bluegrass lawns in Colorado become the default? Some trace it to the castles of Europe. Half or more of Coloradans live in neighborhoods governed by homeowners associations. Some have started to curb thirsty bluegrass, but others needed a firm nudge this year from state legislators.