EDITORIAL: Climate change, drought signal time to go against the green

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There is no starker contrast along the Front Range between the sea of green lawns that generations have maintained and the harsh reality that they don’t belong here, and can’t.

Even a casual observer flying into Denver or Colorado Springs airports can’t help but notice how abrupt the change is between the natural scrub and brush of the high plains and the emerald green lawns bestowed on millions of homes, businesses, parks and golf courses sprawling across the metroplex and moving ever farther in all directions.

Without regular and demanding irrigation, the millions of acres of green grass would not exist anywhere along Front Range communities.

Aurora Water officials say just over half of all water usage for customers living in single-family homes is used for keeping the front and back grass watered and green for about half the year.

An average Aurora home uses nearly 7,000 gallons of water a month watering outside, if they follow the city’s strict water guidelines and limitations. Many people don’t limit watering to three days a week for short periods of time. Each summer month, it’s enough water used at each home to fill an 18-foot-round backyard swimming pool.

The costs of such a botanical marvel are enormous in terms of the resources it takes to get high mountain or deep-aquifer water to Aurora water spigots. The impact that millions of thirsty lawns across the Front Range has on the geo-politics of the region is unparalleled.

Mayor Mike Coffman said last week that as the causes and effects of climate change become clearer, and a deepening statewide drought becomes chronic, restricting water-demanding grass lawns is not only inevitable, but critical.

Coffman is absolutely right. 

He’s proposing a host of regulations that would essentially preclude new homes from installing the once ubiquitous front-door-to-driveway-to-street-curb front lawns and restrict the size of backyard landscaping to include little more than small patches of grass.

“I know this seems like a fairly dramatic change, and it is, but the circumstances that we’re in are dramatic,” Coffman said last week about his proposal. “This really is a prudent path forward.”

Given the increasing water demands — by not just millions in Colorado, but hundreds of millions more downstream of the Colorado rivers that supply water to Front Range communities — irrigating frivolous lawns becomes a critical problem in The West rather than a peculiar novelty.

Coffman’s proposal would limit backyard lawns to 45% of the space available in a new yard or 500 square feet, whichever is less. Front yard lawns would virtually be prohibited in most cases, other than relative dots or small strips of lawn in some cases.

Aurora has long been a responsible and prudent steward in collecting water rights, storing water for use in the city, and creating landscape restrictions in home design and landscape restrictions.

For years, the city has already pushed to ensure front yard lawns in new construction, essentially nothing more than ornamental extravagances, are reduced and backyard acreage is minimized.

This move pushes those restrictions further, addressing a problem that works to bankrupt Aurora’s currently healthy water bank.

With virtually every drop of water collected in Colorado’s river basins spoken for, and actually over-promised, and groundwater supplies being threatened by overtaxing aquifers, Coffman’s proposal is a giant step in the right direction.

City and state lawmakers should build on the idea by creating local and state incentives to remove existing yard lawns and replacing them with low-water and no-water alternatives.

Aurora Water and the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service go to great lengths to show city and Front Range residents attractive, affordable water-saving alternatives to watering, mowing and maintaining endless tracts of thirsty grass.

Given the unlikely chances that regional governments or the state would wisely limit growth to preserve water resources, restricting reckless and unsustainable water use on keeping the grass green is critical.

Aurora lawmakers should approve Coffman’s plan and seek out other measures.

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Publius
Publius
19 days ago

I guess I will have to learn different landscaping practices than those I know from my youth in the water rich upper midwest. This old dog can probably learn that new trick.

Jeff Ryan
Jeff Ryan
19 days ago
Reply to  Publius

I grew up in New England, which, like its namesake, is indeed a “green and pleasant land”. After college, I moved to Chicago, the midwest, where it was also quite green. (Living on the shores of an inland sea, Lake Michigan, helped.)

But this is the southwest, no the east or the midwest, or the northwest for that matter. Aurora and Denver stand on a high plains desert. Attempts to turn it green are expensive and ultimately doomed to failure. We have to accept this. Faking it isn’t making it. And, more than ever, lives of all kinds are at stake.

Zero
Zero
19 days ago

Everybody is up in arms over this and it’s silly. It only effects new development, new houses that are being built – nobody is “comin’ for yer lawns!”, if you already have a giant, water-wasting expanse of grass infront of your giant, water-wasting McMansion, this doesn’t matter to you – you continue to have the precious freedom of wasting water to your hearts content. People considering buying new homes will just have the freedom to choose whether or not to buy new home in the collectively water-wasting annexed expanses of East Aurora with slightly smaller individual water-wasting lawns. You and your precious, existing lawn are not under any kind of threat. You’re being whipped into a political frenzy over nothing.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
18 days ago
Reply to  Zero

I don’t see a “frenzy,” but rather, a need. And proposals mention incentives for those who wish to leave their wasteful ways behind. But it would all be voluntary. It will take 100 years before limits placed on new development will have any effect of substance, so existing lawns need to be targeted with incentives, not mandates. The “voluntary” part may become impelled with water restrictions as the well runs dry for everyone.

I have actually predicted that water will soon be a more-valuable commodity than oil. And if there is any type of “crash,” oil will be of little use, but water will still be needed. I wonder how-many people have been paying attention to those oligarchs/robber barons that are buying water rights across the Country, especially in the southwest, and many of them are oilmen.

Don
Don
18 days ago
Reply to  Joe Felice

for those who wish to leave their wasteful ways behind.”

ah yes, Joe’s moral superiority positions never disappoint

Don
Don
18 days ago
Reply to  Zero

It is inevitable that existing lawns will eventually be removed via mandate. To say otherwise is to ignore history. They cannot remain grandfathered forever.

Bob
Bob
18 days ago

The city water department has with their own rule making ability forced a voluntary cut back to people that want nice looking property. You want a nice lawn you pay, you pay the stepped up tier. Which somehow that magic number has something to do with how much water you use in the winter. Not sure on that relationship of water billing. So does Niagra Bottling, pay the stepped up tier level? Flat rate per month, who knows? They are not stealing it from anybody.  That was never discussed. The city is a long way from understanding what direction to take when they chew into who’s going to have more. Can the city water department experts be trusted to give good advise? Seems like the other departments founder around with their providing good city services any more.    

Last edited 18 days ago by Bob
Joe Felice
Joe Felice
18 days ago

Why just single-family homes? Restrictions and incentives should apply to multi-family communities, as well–apartments and homeowners’ associations.

Whatever Council decides to do, I hope it is not a hasty, knee-jerk reaction, as we often see. There need to be careful study, input and consideration– things that are often omitted in this Council’s law-making process.

Debra MacKillop
Debra MacKillop
18 days ago
Reply to  Joe Felice

and all the grassy areas in shopping malls and commercial areas need to stop too. Here’s a great podcast from Freakonomics on the history of lawns in America, why we must move away from them, and the great alternatives that will help our planet. https://freakonomics.com/podcast/how-stupid-is-our-obsession-with-lawns/

Hypocrisy Monitor
Hypocrisy Monitor
18 days ago

How about we start by targeting the vast swaths of city-owned property, golf courses, parks, and commercial office campuses? The city’s Great Lawn should be on the very top of the list for a total sod elimination.

Publius
Publius
18 days ago

A harbinger of things to come, no doubt. I wonder how I go about developing the aesthetic to plan the new landscape. I think part of having that aesthetic is longterm exposure to it. Growing up around it.

I wonder how this will change our wildlife. Seems over time as this expands we will have an environment supporting different wildlife than we currently see. It will be interesting.

Debra MacKillop
Debra MacKillop
18 days ago

Prob first and only time I agree with Coffman. Must be something in this for him. This podcast from Freakonomics on history of lawns in America and why we MUST MOVE AWAY FROM LAWNS is really good – great info on the alternatives that will be easier for people and help save our planet. Before protesting finding alternatives to lawns, try to learn about the topic first. https://freakonomics.com/podcast/how-stupid-is-our-obsession-with-lawns/

Last edited 18 days ago by Debra MacKillop