Eagle River Watershed Council: Common misconceptions about water efficiency

A photo of the CSU Extension office in Eagle, filled with native and water-wise plants that thrive in a high alpine desert with little to no irrigation.
Courtesy photo

Water is an ever-so-important resource here in the West. Hardly a day goes by that the Colorado River doesn’t make the news in some way. Whether it’s updates about reservoirs like Lake Powell nearing deadpool, contentious inter-state negotiations around water rights, or more, water quantity is a charged, emotional topic that affects us all. If you haven’t already, now, more than ever, is the time to start your water conservation efforts.

When talking about conserving water, especially in the West, there is a focus on outdoor irrigation. Why? With recent developments in water-efficient indoor fixtures and efficiencies in water treatment, most indoor water is returned to our waterways. On the flip side, generally, less than 20% of all water used outdoors makes it back to the river system.

Much of the water used outside is lost to evaporation, transpiration or consumed by our water-thirsty plants. Therefore, we need to be aware of what we plant in our outdoor spaces and how much water we are using for irrigation. This is especially important when our lawns are overwhelmingly made up of one of the most heavily-irrigated and water-intensive crops in the United States: Kentucky bluegrass.

To stay healthy and green, Kentucky bluegrass needs about 58 inches of precipitation during the growing season. Here in Eagle County, we live in a high alpine desert, which typically receives only 14 inches of water during the growing season. In order to keep these lawns green, that means we have to make up that significant difference through supplemental irrigation, significantly increasing our water consumption.

Beyond being a poor choice because of its water needs, Kentucky bluegrass and other lawn turf grasses are non-native mono-crop. This means that there is very little species diversity in the ground cover and it is less beneficial as a habitat and forage for local wildlife and insects. Another issue that arises with mono-crops is unhealthy soil conditions and decreased water quality from the higher use of fertilizers and pesticides to keep the grass looking healthy. Pesticides and fertilizers are often used improperly and can easily be washed away with a common afternoon thundershower and run into our local streams via storm drains, impacting sensitive bugs, fish, and more.

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One popular and very effective way to combat these issues is to transform your lawn from turf grass to water-wise, native plants. However, the process of turf transformations, along with irrigation system upgrades can be overwhelming and full of unknowns. There can also be a lot of questions circulating through one’s mind like: What part of my lawn do I transform? How much will this cost me? What plants do I even use?

These questions all lead to anxiety over this process, and when it is mixed with incomplete information, it can cause the transformation to be more stressful than it needs to be. To help you with your water conservation journey, we at the Watershed Council would like to clear up some common misconceptions about transforming your lawn.

Misconception: Xeriscaping means rocks and cacti

Here in Eagle County, there are many different micro-climates ranging from subalpine to high-alpine deserts. Water-wise landscaping and alpine scaping can include many different types of plants that are adapted to survive in low-water areas. For example, chokecherry trees and sunflowers can thrive in our valley. You can of course include rock if you choose but many transformed lawns are filled with color and are thriving mini-ecosystems.

Misconception: My Home Owners Association won’t let me get rid of turf grass

Your HOA cannot require turf grass or stop you from planting water-wise landscaping. State Senate, Bill 13-183, passed in 2013, prohibits HOAs from enforcing by-laws that require a certain amount of turf grass or that disallow xeriscaping. Additional legislation, State Senate Bill 23-176, is currently with Gov. Polis. If this legislation is passed it will provide homeowners that want to plant native more protections against being denied by their HOA due to aesthetics.

Misconception: If I transform my lawn, I have to get rid of all my turf grass

When you start your turf transformation process, we recommend assessing which parts of your landscape are made up of functional turf grass and which parts are nonfunctional. Functional turf grass refers to space that you, your kids, dogs, etc use to your benefit. This grass has a purpose for you. Nonfunction is the grass that you do not use. Often, but not always, nonfunctional grass is found in your front yard. This is especially true when you have a backyard that you use more than the front. Think about the different areas on your property: What parts do you only use when you’re mowing the lawn? That’s not a functional part of the lawn!

Once you have identified the nonfunctional area, that is where you can begin your transformation. Even then, it does not have to be the whole space. Breaking it down into smaller chunks can make it an easier and more manageable process.

Misconception: Water-wise landscaping is not fire-wise landscaping

Just because native or water-wise plants are drought tolerant does not mean that they are more likely to go up in flames and burn your house down. According to the Eagle County Wildfire Collaborative, one of the most important parts of fire-wise landscaping is the “fire-free 5.” This is the concept that you should have at least 5 feet of defensible space around all structures on your property.

Defensible space is the buffer you create between a building and the landscape that surrounds it. Some common types of defensible space are hardscaping, like gravel or river rock, high-quality topsoil and perennial gardens. As long as you maintain your yard by removing downed tree branches, cleaning leaves off your roof, and continuing to water appropriately to keep plants alive and healthy, you can plant water-wise plants confidently. If you are interested in seeing if your property is firewise you can visit to apply for a free wildfire risk assessment.

Entities and organizations like the Watershed Council, Eagle County Conservation District, and Eagle County, in addition to water providers like Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, are spearheading local efforts to assist residents with implementing water efficiency measures. If you want to transform your lawn or practice better water efficiency, it is easier than ever thanks to educational workshops and rebate programs.

If you are interested in learning more about these opportunities please visit to learn how to apply for rebates, register for water efficiency workshops and look over the written resources that are readily available to Eagle County residents. Together, we can make a measurable impact on water use in our community.

Rose Sandell is the education and outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit

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