State lawmakers are advancing a bill that would prohibit the planting of new nonfunctional turf.

If the bill passes next year, it would prohibit local and state governments and unit owners associations from allowing the planting nonfunctional turf or nonnative plants, or installing artificial turf in commercial, institutional or industrial properties, beginning in 2025. Although new bluegrass could still be planted around homes, homeowners associations and others would be prohibited from planting such grass for ornamental purposes in medians or areas fronting streets, sidewalks or driveways. The bill is not intended to be retroactive and would not affect already existing nonfunctional turf.

The draft bill passed out of the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Oct. 31 on an 8-2 vote. The legislature will now consider the bill in the 2024 session. Committee chair Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-District 8, is a primary sponsor of the bill, along with Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-District 6.

As drought and climate change deplete water resources, voluntary turf-removal programs have grown in popularity as municipalities turn to them to combat outdoor water use. In 2022, House Bill 1151 created a state program to fund turf-removal projects for property owners. Many cities around the state, including Glenwood Springs, have taken advantage of that program. 

But these types of voluntary “cash for grass” incentives and rebates only go so far. Up until now, developers have been able to continue to install grass that municipalities would later incentivize to remove. The bill marks the first prohibition at the state level aimed at preventing the planting of nonfunctional turf. 

“Among communities that offer turf-replacement incentives specifically, there’s a growing understanding that allowing new nonfunctional turf to be installed in their communities, only to pay for it to be removed in the coming years, is both inefficient and not cost effective,” Lindsay Rogers, healthy rivers policy adviser for Western Resource Advocates, testified to the committee this week. 

The bill is not aimed at residential lawns, parks or sports fields. “Nonfunctional” turf is often defined as ornamental or aesthetic, where the only person who ever walks on it is pushing a lawnmower. The bill defines nonfunctional as often being located adjacent to streets, sidewalks, driveways, frontage areas and medians — areas that are not regularly used for civic, community or recreational purposes. 

Tyler Desiderio with his wife Melanie and daughter Rosalie in their back yard in Glenwood Springs, where they replaced a strip of grass with drought-tolerant plants. Municipalities are turning to rebates and incentives for replacing thirsty turf as a way to stretch water supplies farther. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Front Range water providers support bill

Aurora Water has been more aggressive than other water providers when it comes to nonfunctional turf. General Manager Marshall Brown testified that developers did not take advantage of financial incentives to install water-efficient landscaping; bluegrass was still the status quo in many cases. That led Aurora Water in 2022 to get the City Council to prohibit turf for aesthetic purposes in all new development and redevelopment, and in front yards. Turf in backyards is limited to 45% of the space or to 500 square feet, whichever is smaller.

“I’m in support of the idea of this bill,” Marshall said. “We tried voluntary programs for a long time in Aurora, and we did not have success until we mandated a ban on nonfunctional turf.”

Denver Water, which serves 1.5 million customers and gets about half of its water from the ever-shrinking supplies of the Colorado River basin, helped author the bill. More than 40% of the provider’s water use comes from outdoor watering. Prohibiting new nonfunctional turf is a way to protect all the investments Denver Water has poured into turf-removal programs over the years, according to Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning and efficiency at Denver Water. 

Last year, Denver Water was one of a handful of municipal water providers in the Colorado River basin to sign a memorandum of understanding committing to reducing nonfunctional turf grass by 30%. The bill would make it easier for Denver Water to meet this goal.

“We won’t lose ground if this bill passes,” Fisher said. “We did about 750,000 square feet this year, and frankly, we lost a little bit of that investment because we saw new developments go in with bluegrass lawns next to the street where it just doesn’t have a functional purpose.”

Bill proponents hope that it is part of a cultural shift that recognizes that green grass in arid environments is not always appropriate. Fisher is one of 21 members of the state’s Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force, convened this year by Gov. Jared Polis. The updated Colorado Water Plan calls for “transformative landscape change.”

“We have too much nonnative, high-water-using landscape,” Fisher said. “What we are looking to do is change the culture of how people look at landscapes and really think about bluegrass has a place here, but really be intentional about where it is.”

Although trading turf for less-thirsty plants may help stretch cities’ water supplies farther, it’s not a panacea to the problems on the Colorado River. The vast majority — about 86% — of Colorado’s water use is in agriculture. 

According to a January study, commissioned by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the water savings from turf removal may be lower than previously assumed. Statewide, municipal water accounts for just 7% of total water use, with outdoor use accounting for about 2.8% of all Colorado water use. The study says that nonfunctional turf removal has the potential to save 10,000 to 20,000 acre-feet a year, which is just 2.5 to 5% of annual outdoor water use per year, if fully realized over a decade. 

And although Fisher claims that the estimate is too high because drought-tolerant plants can be found on the cheap, the study puts replacing 30% of the nonfunctional turf statewide at a cost of $1.8 billion to $3.5 billion or more

“We understand the municipalities have a relatively low percentage of use on the Colorado River, but we think there’s a role for us in those solutions however small it may be,” Fisher said. “When you look at it from the scale of the Colorado River, these savings look small, but from a community perspective, the benefits are huge.”

This story ran in the Nov. 5 edition of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily, the Nov. 6 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Craig Daily Press and the Nov. 7 edition of the Grand Junction Sentinel.

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...