Turf wars
Bill limiting nonfunctional, non-native turf clears Colorado Senate

Turf wars

A bill moving through the Colorado General Assembly would require local jurisdictions to amend their landscaping codes to eliminate use of thirsty species of grasses from alongside roads such as this streetscape in Arvada. / Photo by Allen Best

Allen Best / Big Pivots - 02/08/2024

Colorado legislators passed a bill in 2022 that delivered $2 million to programs across the state for removal of turf in urban areas that are classified as nonfunctional. By that, legislators mean Kentucky bluegrass and other thirsty-grass species that were meant to be seen, but rarely, if ever, used.

Now, they are taking the next step. On Jan. 30, the Colorado Senate voted in favor of Senate Bill 24-005, which would prevent thirsty turf from being planted in certain places. Those places include alongside roads and streets or in medians, as well as in the expansive areas surrounding offices or commercial buildings, in front of government buildings and in entryways and common areas managed by homeowners associations. The bill also bars use of plastic turf in lieu of organic vegetation.

“If we don’t have to start watering that turf in the first place, we never have to replace it in the future,” Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco, a co-sponsor, said.

Roberts stressed that the ban would not apply to individual homes or retroactively to established turf. “It applies to new development or redevelopment. It does not apply to residential homes,” he said. “This is about industrial, commercial and government property.”

Kentucky bluegrass and other imported grass species imported typically use far more water than buffalo grass and other species indigenous to Colorado. The bill does allow hybrids that use less water as well as indigenous grass species.

Originally reviewed by committee in October, the bill was subsequently modified to provide greater clarity about what constitutes functional vs. nonfunctional turf, while giving municipalities greater flexibility. If the bill becomes law, local jurisdictions will have until Jan. 1, 2026, to adopt the new standards.

After being approved on by the Senate on Jan. 31, the measure now moves to the House.

Advocates do not argue that limits on expansion of “nonfunctional turf” will be just a small drop in helping to solve Colorado’s water problems. Municipalities use only 7% of the state’s water, and outdoor use constitutes roughly half of that. “One more tool in the toolbox,” Roberts said.

However, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, said if the standard had been adopted 20 to 30 years ago, perhaps 10,000 acre-feet of water could have been saved annually. 

“As a percentage, it is minimal,” he conceded. “It’s closing the gaps in small increments as best you can as opposed to large sweeping change.”

The backdrop for this is more frequent drought and rising temperatures, what Simpson called the aridification of the West. The climatic shift is forcing harder choices.

“We are all trying to figure out how to live and work in this space,” Simpson said. ?

This story, collaboration with Aspen Journalism, was edited for length. To read it in its entirety, visit https://bigpivots.com and https://aspenjournalism.org.