Lawn of the Dead – MSU Denver RED

As the historic drought persists, so does Colorado’s dependence on lawn grass. Some lawmakers want to pay you to tear it up.

Twenty years later, Colorado’s historic mega-drought shows no signs of abating.

Across the American West, reservoirs are shrinking, parched populations are growing, and several states are locked in conflict on rapidly diminishing water supplies.

Meanwhile, huge areas of Colorado — residential lawns, strips of sidewalk, freeway medians, commercial frontages — are blanketed in heavily irrigated plush grass that gobbles up millions of gallons of water every year.

“More than 60 percent of Colorado’s water is currently applied outdoors, much of it to ornamental lawns,” said Jennifer Riley-Chetwynd, co-director of MSU Denver. One World One Water Center and director of marketing at Denver Botanic Gardens, which jointly operates the OWOW center. “Turf is the second most irrigated resource in our country after corn, and last time I checked, we weren’t eating it.”


RELATED: Where Did All The Water Go?


Indigenous gardens

The situation is so dire that some state capitol lawmakers recently launched a bipartisan effort, House Bill 1151to implement a statewide turf replacement program.

Their big idea? Pay homeowners and business owners to ditch their lawns in favor of native plants and landscapes that will thrive in the state’s semi-arid climate and, most importantly, use far less water.

But will the Coloradans opt for such a plan? Many residents seem locked into the aesthetic that green lawns are good and everything else is dry and unattractive.

“They couldn’t be more wrong,” Riley-Chetwynd said. “Our state’s native landscape gardens can actually be truly beautiful. And compared to the monotony of green lawns, each one is totally unique – a multicolored world in itself.

Proponents say that for those who are open to the idea of ​​change, becoming a native garden represents a triple win: it drastically reduces water waste, lowers the astronomical water bills that many homeowners currently face, and introduces plants suited to the region that will naturally thrive in the dry climate. .

Becoming a native garden reduces water waste, lowers water bills, and introduces locally adapted plants that thrive in the dry climate. Photo by Scott Dressel-Martin

water success

Several states in the American West that were forced to act earlier — due to drier and hotter climates — have already made huge strides.

In the sweltering Las Vegas Valley, for example, where a single square foot of grass can consume up to 73 gallons of water per year, homeowners got rid of more than 200 million square feet of turf over the past 20 years.

And Colorado didn’t really let up either. Existing local turf replacement programs currently cover about a quarter of the state’s population, with some notable successes. The Life after Lawn program in Greeley has replaced more than 150,000 square feet of turf in just four years, saving approximately 32 million gallons of water.

But despite such success, the 19 turf replacement programs spread across the Centennial State aren’t enough, Riley-Chetwynd said.

“Meaningful, long-term change will only come with the funding and momentum that follows statewide legislation.”

yellow yarrow in a field
With beautiful yellow, white, pink or orange flowers from June to October, yarrow thrives in both dry and wet conditions. Photo: Shutterstock

Positive change

Colorado Landscaping: A Beginner’s Guide

chocolate flower
(Lyrate of Berlyndiera)
This extremely hardy perennial from May to October not only smells like chocolate and cascades over rocks and walls, it is also an important pollinator plant.

Red birds in a tree
(Scrophularia macrantha)
This June-September perennial from New Mexico looks just like its name suggests. Besides needing very little water, it grows to four feet tall and really adds height to a garden.

Yarrow
(Achillea sp.)
With beautiful yellow, white, pink or orange flowers from June to October, this North American perennial thrives in very dry and wet conditions.

Baby Blue Bunny Brush
(Chrysothamnus nauseosus var. nauseosus)
Blending soft, fine texture with rugged toughness, this “tamed” version of a native Colorado shrub blooms bright yellow late in the season while providing a safe habitat for wildlife.

New Mexican Privet
(Forestiera neomexicana)
Featuring white bark, yellow fall color and blue berries, this strikingly beautiful native shrub can be pruned to show off its multi-stemmed trunk and used as a small ornamental tree.

Want to know more? You can plan your whole garden with this Plant search.

(Selections by Annie Barrow, Manager of Horticultural Outreach Programs at Denver Botanical Gardens.)

Another important factor when it comes to water issues is making sure people know the magnitude of the issues. That’s why MSU Denver OWOW Center educates Coloradans about precious water resources and empowers them to take positive action.

“We believe there is no problem that isn’t a water problem,” said Nona Shipman, co-director of OWOW. “Demonstrating that people can care about and defend the environment, whatever their subject of study, career goals or personal passions, is at the heart of everything we do.


RELATED: Cities and Suburbs Face Growing Wildfire Threat


As the OWOW Center approaches its 10and birthday, Shipman is encouraged by Coloradans paying attention to water issues in a way they simply weren’t a decade ago.

“These days, people send me articles and podcasts — with increasing frequency and interest — whenever something big happens in the world of water,” she said. “Furthermore, I have noticed an increased curiosity among our students; they also learn, engage and share in new ways.

Future plans

Riley-Chetwynd points out that the proposed Turf Replacement Act will retain “functional” green spaces, such as parks, recreation areas and sports fields. (Including, yes, Mile High Stadium.)

“The key target has always been the thousands of square miles of lawns, curbside medians and strips along the freeway that serve no purpose,” she said. “They are purely ornamental and not an efficient use of a limited resource.”

Riley-Chetwynd is confident that replacing lawns with native plants will become the norm in the future. “Oh that will be catch up. I’m convinced of that,” she said. “And if it’s not during a voluntary stage, it will eventually become a mandatory necessity.”

“As a semi-arid climate, Denver receives only 13 inches of rain per year,” she added. “It’s just not designed to support the turf from end to end. Our current way of life is simply not sustainable.

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