"Give it up, Walter!"

Beginning in July, locals may have an opportunity to participate in a cash-for-grass program as part of statewide efforts to reduce water consumption. The turf replacement initiative comes on the heels of Colorado House Bill 1151 passing in June 2022. According to the Colorado General Assembly, “the act requires the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to develop a statewide program to provide financial incentives for the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with water-wise landscaping,” financed using $2 million transferred from the state general fund.

Since 1990, Colorado’s annual precipitation has decreased dramatically — by 0.92 inches per decade. Even now, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 83% of the state is currently below normal precipitation conditions and 43% of the state ranges from “moderate drought” to “exceptional drought.” 

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that although the fall months have stayed consistently wet over the past century, central and southwestern counties of Colorado have faced continually drier springs and summers, and it’s in these two seasons that lawns require the most water. 

Kentucky bluegrass, one of the most common turfgrasses in Colorado, generally requires over an inch of water weekly. Meanwhile, average annual precipitation in the Roaring Fork Valley generally ranges below the state average of 18 inches — hovering around 17.2 inches in Glenwood Springs and 16.8 inches in Basalt. Moreover, lawns themselves can be highly inefficient — the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 50% of residential outdoor water gets wasted due to overwatering.

Alternatives to the classic, high-consumption lawn include natural landscaping and xeriscaping. Natural landscaping, as its name suggests, is the use of plants native to an area, while xeriscaping (derived from the Greek word for “dry”) specifically selects plants for water conservation while increasing the amount of dry soil. Both rely on higher diversity and more varied terrain than fields of green grass, and both are prime candidates for turf replacement.

However, if one prefers the classic lawn look and feel, there are more efficient alternatives to common sods. In August of this year, Roaring Fork Conservancy partnered with the Basalt Public Library to plant drought-resistant tall fescue turf beside the usual Kentucky bluegrass. The fescue requires around half as much water as the bluegrass and, although both types of turf might be under a bit of snow for now, the two look quite similar.

Rebates and governmental compensation for turf removal are already common practice in various counties of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California and have proven to be very effective in changing residential landscaping, some with far larger programs. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California alone set aside $350 million for turf rebate and conservation programs to widespread use by citizens. Colorado’s $2 million isn’t likely to fundamentally shift landscaping statewide, but CWCB is hopeful, stating on its website that the program “has the potential as a pilot to show how larger scale turf replacement efforts can be a successful pillar of community water efficiency and drought resilience.” 

CWCB’s website also states that the turf replacement program is anticipated to be available after July 1, 2023. However, individual homeowners will not be able to apply directly for state funding; instead, only local governments, special districts, tribal nations and nonprofit organizations with their own turf replacement programs will be able to receive a part of that $2 million. 

Therefore, individuals interested in receiving funding should consult their local government before the state. In areas where turf replacement programs do not currently exist (such as in and around the Roaring Fork Valley), third parties contracted by the CWCB will administer them. As of yet, no third-party contractors have been selected.