Local agencies working to replace ‘non-functional’ turf with incentives
Qualifying customers in the water district can qualify for rebates of $1 per square foot of turf replacement
A proposed state law would provide financial assistance for replacing water-intensive landscaping, but local efforts are also underway.
The bill, co-sponsored by State Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, would require the state’s water conservation board to develop a statewide program for financial incentives for the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with landscaping that uses less water.
Irrigated landscaping is among the most water-intensive ways to use that resource. Indoor domestic consumption will return 90% or more of the water into a municipal system. Locally, that means water is run through treatment systems and returned to our streams. That ratio is roughly reversed for outdoor water use.
Whether or not Roberts’ bill passes, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District offers some financial incentives for turf replacement to owners of single-family homes. Qualifying customers — those who have completed an official irrigation audit — can qualify for rebates of $1 per square foot of turf replacement. The program has a minimum of 300 square feet and maximum of 2,500 square feet.
Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said the program won’t cover the cost of turf replacement. But it will help, she said, adding that water bill savings could quickly recoup the cost of turning a Kentucky bluegrass lawn into more water-wise landscaping.
It’s still green
More efficient landscaping doesn’t mean creating desert landscapes. The town of Vail has started replacing Kentucky bluegrass. The program began in 2019 with a pilot program on the north side of Buffehr Creek Park. Vail Capital Projects Manager Todd Oppenheimer said that project replaced roughly 25% of the turf at the park, and saved about 25% in the park’s water use.
The program continues this year at Ellefson Park, with a target of replacing 53% of the turf grass there. The project is expected to save roughly 176,000 gallons of water per year.
Oppenheimer said much of the replacement vegetation is still green, and includes Dutch white clover, fescue and a native bluegrass. The important thing to look for in replacement is not using “Kentucky” bluegrass, which requires a lot of water to stay healthy.
The difference in water use can be remarkable. Oppenheimer said watering requirements for native grasses and shrubs can be as little as once a week. Native plantings also require far less maintenance.
Johnson said getting people to switch out their landscaping has a few hurdles. One of the big ones, from a water use perspective, is people who want Kentucky bluegrass and are willing to pay for it. Those people — perhaps 10% of the district’s customers — fall into that category. District officials spend a good bit of time talking with those people. Some people listen and some don’t, Johnson said.
It’s about streams
Another potential problem is homeowners associations that have design and other rules that require lawns, or require lawns to be kept green.
“A lot of those things have to change to be successful,” Johnson said.
Nina Timm is the community manager for the Berry Creek Metropolitan District and the Singletree Property Owners. In an email, Timm wrote that the Singletree Property Owners board in 2021 voted to temporarily suspend a rule that required people to irrigate their lawns. Some residents chose to leave their lawns dry.
As upper valley communities look more to water savings, Johnson said the Vail Valley is significantly behind other communities and states. Las Vegas, Santa Fe and Albuquerque all have programs encouraging people to remove their Kentucky bluegrass lawns. Oppenheimer noted that the state of Nevada last year passed legislation that prohibits “non-functional” turf grass. Grass used for ball fields, playgrounds and similar uses is still allowed.
Oppenheimer added that kids can still safely and comfortably play on a Dutch white clover surface.
While an average district homeowner can save money using less outdoor water, Oppenheimer said money wasn’t the primary reason for Vail’s turf conversion program.
“Water, in the big scheme, isn’t that expensive,” Oppenheimer said. “What we’re saving is Gore Creek and the animals that call Gore Creek home.”
• A 2019 turf-replacement project in Vail saved roughly 100,000 gallons of water.
• What you want to replace is Kentucky bluegrass — it uses the most water.
• Popular replacements include American vetch, wooly yarrow, fescue and Dutch white clover.
• Water-smart landscaping tips can be found on the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s website.
• The Colorado Legislature is currently considering a bill that would provide financial incentives for installing water-saving landscaping.