Aurora lawmakers mowing down new lawns, golf courses with water conservation proposal

Townhomes under construction in southeast Aurora. Future landscapes may drastically restrict the installation of thirsty cool-grass lawns under a bill moving through the Aurora City Council
File Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

AURORA | New homes with lush front yards may soon become a rarity in Aurora, under a sweeping water conservation proposal by Mayor Mike Coffman that comes as staffers recommend the city enact even tighter restrictions on watering in 2023.

“This proposal recognizes that the easy water rights in Colorado are all gone,” Coffman said. “A vote for this proposal is a vote to support a sustainable water policy for the future of our city.”

Front lawns planted with cool-season grasses like Kentucky bluegrass and fescue will be prohibited under the proposal, except on alley-loading properties where the backyard is too small for turf. Warm-weather grasses that need less than 15 inches of supplemental water per year, such as buffalo grass, will still be allowed.

All lawns will only be allowed to take up the lesser of 45% of the area of the yard or 500 square feet.

Turf will also be prohibited on new golf courses as well as road medians and other lawns planted for aesthetic reasons, but not on parks or recreation fields. Homeowners with noncompliant lawns won’t be forced to re-landscape, though the city does offer rebates of up to $3,000 for residents looking to trade thirsty grass for water-wise alternatives.

Coffman’s proposal also prohibits “the use of water in all public and private exterior ornamental water features and ponds.”

The mayor and city staffers previously framed the ordinance in the context of growing demands on the Colorado River, which led the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to order river basin states to stop using 2-million to 4-million acre-feet of water within a year or else face mandatory cuts.

Much of the city’s water comes from the South Platte River Basin, also tapped by multiple demands, including a new demand for access to water from Nebraska.

On Monday, a majority of the group also endorsed an amendment initiated by Councilmember Curtis Gardner to hire a consultant to study how the ordinance impacted water use, water rates, home prices, new home construction and the legislative landscape in the metro area three years after the effective date.

Another successful amendment brought by Gardner changed the effective date of the ordinance, now Sept. 30, so that development plans submitted to the city after that date which include prohibited turf will not be accepted, though an exception may be made if the property is located next to a parcel whose plan was grandfathered in and a net water savings can be achieved regardless of turf.

The city has for several years limited grass in residential front yards to 1,000 square feet. 

Residents’ ability to water their lawns is also limited under a four-tiered system that imposes tighter controls when drought is more severe. The city is currently on the fourth and least restrictive tier, Aurora Water spokesman Greg Baker wrote in an email Wednesday.

Under the current watering rules, residents are allowed to water their lawns up to three days each week, but not between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from May 1 to Sept. 30. Baker wrote that the city has formally contacted 220 customers for breaking the rules this year and informally contacted 270 more customers for suspected violations.

While no one has been fined this year, Baker said residents can be fined up to $500 and eventually have service disconnected, though he’s never seen a situation go that far.

Baker said a staff group has voted to recommend to the council that it step up drought restrictions starting in January, which would reduce the number of days lawns may be watered from three to two.

“In 2022, we collected less water than we anticipate using, forcing us to continue to draw down our reservoirs,” he said. “We are concerned that, (if) this coming winter isn’t any better than last winter for snow supply in the three river basins we collect our water from, we may need to declare an advanced drought stage.”

The council is scheduled to take a final vote on the measure Aug. 22; Coffman stressed that his proposal is not meant to be a comprehensive solution for water conservation in the city, and that ​​the city is evaluating water use on city properties, among other efforts.

“This is not the end-all,” he said. “This is merely one part of the effort, but there will be others.”

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1 month ago

I dread this as I love the cooling calmness of a lush green lawn but I totally understand the need. I really hope the city comes up with a way to keep things attractive while reducing water usage. A suggestion for the city might be to po l ice themselves better as well as I see school yards and parks overrwatered or water going into the street etc. How sad but maybe it will generate a new level of green conservation dependent on homeowners. I do fear that rental landlords will be gleeful as this will allow them to do even less beautification of their often incredibly unkempt properties.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago

Sadly, such action is needed, but in order to make a dent, something would have to be done about existing lawns and golf courses. Ornamental-water features can use recycled water. In some cities in Florida, people are not allowed to water lawns unless they have private wells and even then, watering is not permitted during daylight hours. But wells are not commonly an option here since the ground water is not-so easily replenished, and underground water rights have probably already been purchased by someone other than the property owner.

Water rights here in Colorado are a mess, because they were all spoken for and traded a hundred years ago, when there were not-so-many people, and no one envisioned future growth. Our water and the rights to it were sold to surrounding states without even the thought that we here in our state would ever have the demand that we do. People don’t understand this and wonder why water is such an issue here.

Someday soon, water will be more valuable that oil, and oilmen have been buying up water rights, especially in the Southwest, because they know this. People can live without oil, but not without water. This will come into play when the powers that really be make the final takedown of our country. Even the preppers will be shocked when there is no water.

Melissa S.
Melissa S.
1 month ago

This is great news! Down with grass!

1 month ago
Reply to  Melissa S.

Down with stupid politicians who mismanage a valuable resource so badly. Not down with an inanimate object.

1 month ago

I suppose we can anticipate smaller water districts in the region following suit in one fashion or another. Maybe not. Aurora needs to do this to protect expansion and sprawl. They can’t develope more homes without water. But small districts like ECCV, what would be their incentive? What do they get from developement if they are already selling all of their water? Would they care if they get their money fron 20,000 custimers or from 22,000 if what they were to get is the same amount of money?

Can we anticipate in coming years Aurora Water buying up the small surrounding water districts as the only available source of water rights and then squeezing those districts to the same rules, or even more stringent rules in the future?

No matter, the future is coming fast, anf it clearly includes austerity in water use.

1 month ago

Limiting the number of days per week people will not reduce consumption. People will just water 15% longer each of the two days to make up for the lost third day. The only way to reduce consumption by existing lawns is to just stop watering them and then turn to dust or they are removed by city mandate.