Vail looks to cut back on turf grass
Initial project saves 100,000 gallons per year
As drought affects more and more of the Western United States, saving water, even in higher elevations, is more important every year.
One of the best ways to save water is cutting back on irrigation. About 95% of domestic water consumption is returned to wastewater treatment plants and, ultimately, local streams. Only about 25% of irrigation water makes it back into stream.
One of the biggest users of irrigation water is turf grass. To cut back on that water use, the town of Vail has launched a program to cut back on what’s called “non functional” turf grass — grass used in places other than playing fields and golf courses.
The town started the program in 2019 at Buffehr Creek Park. That project removed 25% of the grass at that park and replaced the grass with less water-intensive plants. That project saves about 100,000 gallons of water per year. According to the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, an “average” unit — which includes single family homes, condos and lodging units — uses about 5,000 gallons per month.
This year’s project
The project continues this year at Ellefson Park in West Vail.
The plan is to remove about 11,800 square feet of turf grass, about 53% of the total. The removal will come largely from south-facing, difficult-to-water slopes at the park. That’s more than 50% of the non-functional turf grass at the park.
That project will save an estimated 176,000 gallons of water per year.
Removing the grass won’t just leave bare dirt in its wake. The project will replace the grass with “native grasses and plantings” including native shrubs, native ornamental grasses and ground cover, including Dutch white clover and wooly yarrow.
Vail Capital Projects Manager Todd Oppenheimer recently told the Vail Town Council that turf grass is ground cover in some ways similar to concrete or asphalt paving. In the same way a property owner wouldn’t pave an entire lot, that owner also shouldn’t simply use turf grass exclusively.
“We want to lead by the example of alternative landscape techniques,” Oppenheimer said.
More to come
While ground ivy is part of the initial plan, Mayor Kim Langmaid cautioned against its use. Langmaid noted that ground ivy is an invasive species that can out-compete native plants.
“That may be why I’m having trouble finding ground ivy (seeds),” Oppenheimer said.
But, he added, Dutch white clover was once an integral part of lawn seed mixes, adding that the plant is a boon for “pollinator” species and puts nitrogren, an essential nutrient, back into the soil.
With the Ellefson Park project on this year’s schedule, future plans include turf grass reduction or elimination at eight sites including the Red Sandstone underpass, the south side of the Lionshead parking structure and the north and east sides of Dobson Ice Arena.
All told, those sites hold more than 75,000 square feet of turf grass. Removing all that turf grass could save as much as 1.1 million gallons of water per year.
50,000 square miles: Estimated amount of turf grass in the U.S.
11,800 square feet of turf grass will be taken this year from Ellefson Park.
That reduction could save more than 176,000 gallons of water per year.
Replacement plantings will include Dutch white clover and woolly yarrow.