Between 50% and 60% of Coloradans live in housing governed by homeowners associations, commonly called HOAs. Squeezing water devoted to urban landscapes must necessarily involve these neighborhoods.
It’s already happening but, so far, mostly on the edges. A case in point: a small HOA in Greeley called Bittersweet Pointe.
“We keep saying that all the other HOAs are pointless,” Sandy Bertch, president of the board of directors, joked as he led visitors to a hillside on the edge of the HOA’s commons area.
There, three-fourths of an acre of Kentucky bluegrass had been replaced this year by a mixture of blue grama and buffalo grass. With a summer of watering bills now in hand, Bertch estimates that the HOA needs 60% less water to irrigate that section. More turf replacement will occur on the HOA’s 2.5 acres of common ground, Bertsch promised, now that the efficacy of the native grasses has been demonstrated.
This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is the third 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
The HOA is among the smallest you’re likely to find. It has 11 duplexes, or 22 units altogether, all of whose residents are retired. It is self-managed, unlike most HOAs, which employ property management firms.
Ron Mettler, a retired electrical engineer, was president of the board when he brought up the subject of turf conversion. He got immediate pushback. “Don’t you touch that green grass. That’s why I am here,” said a resident, who has since died.
Finally, last year, consensus was achieved. Costs were crucial. The retirees will save money in reduced water bills and won’t need to mow the difficult hillside as frequently.
Making the decision easier was the city of Greeley’s incentive: $1 a square foot for removal of Kentucky bluegrass in addition to rebates for water efficiency.
Clinching the deal was the shared perception of growing water scarcity. Homeowners agreed that they needed to do their part in lessening demands.
“These two are poster children,” Ruth Quade, Greeley’s water conservation administrator, said of Mettler and Bertsch. “The key to a successful project is having one or two champions, and that is what these two are.”
Replacing Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-weather grasses with native grasses and other less-thirsty species will not solve all of Colorado’s water problems. Nearly 90% of water in Colorado goes to agriculture. Only 7% of the state’s water gets used within towns and cities, and roughly half of that goes to outdoor use for lawns, gardens and other urban landscaping.
So, why does it matter? For one thing, it’s very expensive, and politically fraught, for cities to develop new water sources, usually from distant locations. Treating that water to potable standards is expensive, too. Water used indoors, which is largely contained in pipes, can be recycled. Water engineers calculate that 85% of water used for outdoor landscapes is lost because of evaporation and other causes.
All of this has water providers looking to focus on water devoted to discretionary outdoor use in road medians, business parks, homes and common areas. Experts say this transition to less water-demanding landscapes in urban areas will take many years.
Clearings around castles
How did thirsty bluegrass become the landscaping default, the cultural norm in Colorado and elsewhere?
“Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America,” Michael Pollan wrote in an essay published in The New York Times Magazine in 1989. “In little more than a century, we’ve rolled a green mantle of grass across the continent, with scarcely a thought to the local conditions or expense.”
In his essay, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns,” Pollan shared that when he was a child growing up on New York’s Long Island, his father defied convention and refused to mow the turf at the family’s tract house. The turf grew tall enough to flower and seed, something impossible with mowed lawns. “The lawn rippled in the breeze like a flag,” wrote Pollan.
Neighbors saw something else. Some instructed their children not to play with the young Pollan. Later, when he got a lawn himself, Pollan began mulling the purpose of lawns. In this suburban paradise, he concluded, such individuality was unacceptable.
Pollan and other writers have traced our modern idea of a lawn to the early 17th century. In at least one telling, aristocrats wanted clearings around their castles for defensive purposes. They either had animals graze it or dispatched servants with scythes to keep the grasses low.
The idea of grassy lawns around homes was transferred to the United States in the mid-19th century. At first, it was limited to the American aristocracy. Thomas Jefferson put in a lawn at Monticello. So did other wealthy landowners. But for Americans of lesser means, yards were devoted to more functional pursuits, such as the growing of vegetables or the keeping of pigs and other animals.
“Turf War,” a 2008 essay by Elizabeth Kolbert published in The New Yorker, identifies Andrew Jackson Downing as a seminal influencer as the masses began to embrace lawns. In his 1841 book, “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” Downing, based in New York, took aim at the dowdy rural landscapes of his familiarity. He equated personal self-improvement with gussied-up front yards.
“In the landscape garden, we appeal to that sense of the Beautiful and the Perfect, which is one of the highest attributes of our nature,” Downing wrote. Essential to that perfect garden, Downing wrote, was an expanse of “grass mown into a softness like velvet.”
Others spread the gospel. Frank J. Scott, in an 1870 book titled “The Art Of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent,” wrote that “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.” Frederick Law Olmsted deployed the broad lawns of Central Park and also planted grass in some of our first suburbs.
Technology also played a role. In 1830, a textile engineer in England adapted a carpet cutter to create the world’s first reel lawn mower. After an improved design in 1870, hand-pushed lawn mowers were produced by the tens of thousands annually. In 1893 came a patent for the first steam-powered mower. We were well on our way to the Saturday ritual many people know so well.
“Over time,” wrote Kolbert, “the fact that anyone could keep up a lawn was successfully, though not altogether logically, translated into the notion that everyone ought to.”
Kolbert further identified the role of what farmers call inputs. To get potassium and other essential elements to spur growth, farmers over the ages had used everything from human dung to ground-up bones. In Europe, some robbed human graves for the skeletons. On the American Great Plains, bison were shot, their bones piled high and shipped to the East Coast.
Costs of waging war on weeds
In 1909 came an invention in Germany with profound but conflicting implications. Fritz Haber, a chemist who later won the Nobel Prize, figured out an economical way to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen.
One result: explosives and gasses used to help run up the death toll in World War I to 20 million. Another: the ability to create fertilizer that, when applied to fields, enabled the world’s population to expand by several billion more than it probably would have otherwise.
This synthesized fertilizer could also be applied to turfgrass to counteract the seasonal cycle. By tricking the plants into putting out new growth, wrote Kolbert, fertilized grass could become ever-green. Other chemicals could quell the yellow blemishes of dandelions and every other shade of plant deemed a weed. That includes clover, which otherwise has value for fixing nitrogen in the soil. Such is the cost of having unadulterated grass.
By the time baby boomers were mostly toddlers, the idea of a perfect lawn had swept the country, even to the smallest of Colorado towns and cities. Along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Abraham Levitt, the namesake for the Long Island town, declared that “no single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and locality as well-kept lawns.”
In “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” Virginia Scott Jenkins pointed to the export of this idea to deserts of the Southwest and also to the Middle East. “Even the American community in Saudi Arabia has front lawns in the middle of the desert,” she wrote.
Perfection was possible — but at a well-known cost. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” described the risk to human health posed by indiscriminate pesticide use. This, wrote Kolbert, inverted the calculation about the meaning of a well-tended, unblemished lawn. “Instead of demonstrating that a homeowner cared about his neighbors, a trim and tidy stretch of turf showed that he didn’t,” Kolbert wrote.
What then? If shaved lawns of green no longer represent civic virtue, what should take their place? That’s the question now being addressed in Colorado and many other places.
Perfect lawns also bump up against a hard hydrologic reality in Colorado. It is the nation’s seventh-most-arid state, and the story of the 21st century has been of a warming, drying climate.
Cities with growing populations exist in this shifting axis between supply and demand. They’re looking to conserve water in the most-cost-effective ways. To succeed, some of this must necessarily involve homeowners associations.
Homeowners associations have been described as private governments enforcing covenants among homeowners. Colorado as of 2022 had 10,510 HOAs with 2.4 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization. Most are managed by private companies. And, according to detractors, they tend to be stuck in their ways.
Before George Teal became a Douglas County commissioner, he was a member of the Castle Rock City Council for 6½ years. Because the city was heavily reliant on a large but unrenewable underground aquifer, it wanted to encourage low-water landscapes — what it calls ColoradoScapes.
Homeowners associations resisted, said Teal. He cited “just numerous examples” given to the City Council members each year of homeowners being told by their HOAs that they could not rip out their turf. That included his own neighborhood and HOA, Crystal Valley Ranch, one that he describes as consisting of mostly working middle-class people. A change would have required a 65% vote. He similarly cites another HOA, Woodland, which consists of more-affluent residents.
“It became kind of a rallying cry on the council,” Teal said in a recent interview. “What could we do to get HOAs to accept the more water-smart landscape methodologies that were being advocated by our water utility?”
The answer was nothing. Local governments did not have the power to curb HOA powers. It had to be done at the state level.
In 2019, Colorado legislators passed the first of four laws that do so. House Bill 19-1050 stipulates that it is contrary to public policy for common-interest communities, such as HOAs, to “prohibit or limit installation or use of drought-tolerant vegetative landscapes, or require cultivated vegetation to consist wholly or partially of turf grass.”
The law did allow HOAs to adopt aesthetic guidelines.
In 2021 came another law, HB21-1229. It required HOAs to allow artificial turf in backyards and also solar panels, once again subject to “reasonable aesthetic guidelines.”
These steps were applauded by Jody Beck, an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. “Extensive green lawns are almost never an appropriate expression of responsible citizenship in the arid West, if by responsible citizenship we mean the conscientious use of limited shared resources,” he said.
In 2022, legislators did not specifically target HOAs and water. Instead, HB 22-1151 instructed the state’s chief water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a program for the voluntary replacement of turf in cooperation with local governments and appropriated $2 million for that work. After administrative expenses, $1.5 million has been awarded to more than two dozen local jurisdictions in Colorado.
Later that same year, legislators were advised that another law was needed to close a loophole in the 2019 law. At least some HOAs had used the clause that gave them aesthetic discretion in reviewing plans to effectively stall or even block turf-replacement projects proposed by owners of single-family homes.
Proponents have cited abundant anecdotal evidence. The most-direct evidence came from a survey conducted in 2021 by Western Resource Advocates in cooperation with the city of Greeley. The survey was intended to reveal the primary barriers keeping residents from replacing some or all of their grass with water-wise landscaping. Cost? Expertise? Aesthetics?
Nothing was asked by the survey about HOAs, but when allowed the opportunity to describe the challenges, 41 of the 720 who completed the survey cited their HOAs.
A step in the right direction
This year’s bill had bipartisan support. “In practice, we see barriers to people who want to replant their front yards with more water-conserving plants,” said state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Democrat from Longmont, when introducing the bill, HB23-178, at a legislative committee hearing.
Another bill sponsor, Sen. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, who represents seven Western Slope counties, cited demands on the Colorado River. “This will not save all of Colorado’s water, but it is a step in the right direction.”
The bill requires that HOAs must select at least three preapproved water-saving landscaping templates that residents can follow. Residents and HOAs can choose to go for other designs, but at least three options must be preapproved. There’s no real excuse for saying no.
The state’s most significant organization representing HOAs didn’t bother to show up to testify one way or another. The bill passed with minor opposition grounded in questions of local control.
Teal, who testified in both legislative committee hearings, said he would have preferred local control. But, given the sweeping powers of HOAs, he believed the state had to step in order to aid municipalities. “Water conservation and water reuse have become primary goals of the town of Castle Rock and, I think, soon will become one of our primary policy goals here in (Douglas) County as well,” he said.
Robert Greer, a Denver attorney, helped draft the bill that he says closed the loophole in the 2019 law that was big enough to “drive a solar system through.”
He was driven, he said, most powerfully by a desire to create urban landscapes that accommodate pollinators of the natural ecosystem. His sentiment is part of a broad and powerful undercurrent in Colorado’s push to replace Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and
other imported cool-season varieties. It’s not all about saving water.
Also testifying was Chris Marion, who began work in 2017 as a water conservation specialist. After getting a master’s degree in sustainability planning from the University of Colorado Boulder, he founded a company called 3.0 Management. It provides management for about 40 HOAs in metropolitan Denver.
Marion sees an opportunity for HOAs and other places with large expanses of turf to rethink their landscapes. Irrigation systems installed 40 to 50 years ago need replacement or updating, Some HOAs are poorly funded for replacement of leaking pipes and so forth.
“It’s not only the cost of water, but the associated maintenance costs of older grass,” he said.
Something else is going on, a shifting cultural norm. The impetus for expanses of Kentucky bluegrass that we see today was “simple, cost-effective landscaping, which was primarily bluegrass.” Now, said Marion, younger generations in particular have become at least aware of “the concept of personal ecological footprints.”
That shift in attitudes is now being integrated into governance of HOAs.
Lessons from Fort Collins
In Fort Collins, Colorado’s fourth-largest city, with a population of 170,000, residents of the Oak Ridge VII homeowners association were informed in 2018 that they would have to pay $18,000 more annually for water.
When the tap fee for the commons area owned by the 52 members of Oak Ridge VII and two other HOAs had been assessed several decades ago, it assumed a maximum volume of water. Water use for that commons area had been rising, exceeding the maximum. Homeowners had to figure out how to use less water or pay the greater fee.
The 10.1-acre commons area consists of expansive lawns interspersed with trees that turn bright with warm colors during the fall. It also has a soccer field and a 1.4-acre detention area designed to hold stormwater. Water can get 1 foot deep when it rains, as it did prodigiously this year. In previous drier years, though, Kentucky bluegrass required irrigation to maintain its well-coiffed look.
In 2019, HOA directors approved conversion of the bluegrass to buffalo and blue grama grasses. A survey of homeowners found that 80% supported the shift. Later, another problem area — a small south-facing hill that was difficult to irrigate and mow — was also replaced. Water use for the park has declined to 3.1 million gallons per year — the original projected need when the subdivision was created 30 years ago — from 4 million to 5 million gallons per year.
The full cost of the landscaping work of $86,000 was defrayed by $57,000 in grants from Northern Water, the bulk water provider, and the city of Fort Collins. “We never could have done it without the grants,” said Susan Gilbert, a homeowner who championed the shift.
“People have loved it,” said Gilbert during a walk through the park. A pollinator park along the concrete pathway, buzzing with bumblebees, has been particularly popular.
Weeds can be a problem in conversions, and this was no exception. The HOA had its landscaper apply herbicides in some spots.
“Everybody gets a little jittery when we do spraying,” said Milan Hanson, president of the HOA’s board of directors.
“During the first year or two, I think every native grass conversion looks pretty bad,” he added.
Tony Koski, a professor of turfgrass sciences at Colorado State University and described by many as the guru of water-wise landscaping in Colorado, condones the use of herbicides as essential in landscape conversions, but he counsels care and transparency.
The need for herbicides diminishes as the native grasses become dominant over the course of about three years. But homeowners planting native grasses should expect to see the new turf brown more quickly in the fall and green up more slowly in the spring.
Still, Oakridge residents have seen enough to think about converting other places to native grasses.
What caused the increased water use? It’s not uncommon, said Frank Kinder, water-efficiency manager for Northern Water. The agency distributes Colorado River water to providers along the northern Front Range.
“People are watering earlier and watering more during a year to keep up the appearance,” said Kinder. “The landscape may take up to 120% of the previous amount in order to keep looking like what people want it to look like.”
HOAs undertaking conversions can have different motivations: costs, concerns about climate change, a desire for landscape diversity or easier maintenance. “Bluegrass takes a lot of work to meet certain expectations,” said Kinder.
Key lessons from Fort Collins and Greeley HOAs are that turf replacements take time and are most easily accomplished with partnerships. Key in both cases, too, were grassroots champions.
Very likely, you will also begin to see more and more cool-weather turf converted to low-water landscapes in Colorado’s HOAs. That’s exactly what some of those who helped draft some of Colorado’s recent laws intended. Call it a grassroots movement.
Next: Colorado allows sales of only low-flush toilets to better conserve limited water. What role should the state have in reducing water use allocated to urban landscapes? A task force has been studying the state’s options and opportunities.