AURORA | Thirsty lawns may soon disappear from Aurora suburbs, at least in new developments, under a sweeping water conservation proposal by Mayor Mike Coffman that Aurora lawmakers signaled support for Monday.
The mayor said he considered the cuts in light of the realities of climate change, persistent drought and dueling demands on water resources, particularly along the Colorado River.
“I know this seems like a fairly dramatic change, and it is, but the circumstances that we’re in are dramatic,” Coffman said Monday. “This really is a prudent path forward, and the fact is that all of the easy water rights are gone. They’re gone.”
Besides banning the installation of turf for purely aesthetic purposes, the proposal would prohibit grass lawn from being installed on road medians as well as on golf courses, leaving the future of course construction uncertain.
Backyard lawns would also be limited to the lesser of 45% of the yard or 500 square feet, and front yard lawns would be limited to alley-loading properties with backyards too small for turf, covering the lesser of 45% of the front yard or 750 square feet.
Aurora has for years limited new-home lawns. Currently, residential front yards can include no more than 1,000 square feet of turf.
The proposal would also bar “the use of water in all public and private exterior ornamental water features and ponds.”
The proposal would not restrict turf on athletic fields or in parks and would not require property owners to tear up existing lawns, though Marshall Brown, general manager of Aurora Water, said the city is incentivizing property owners to transition to landscaping that requires less water.
Brown put the proposal in the context of an order by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that Colorado River Basin states figure out how to stop using 2-million to 4-million acre-feet of water within a year or else the agency will use its emergency powers to make cuts.
About a quarter of Aurora’s water rights come from the Colorado River, Brown said, with the remainder sourced from the Arkansas and South Platte rivers.
“It’s not a crisis that’s limited to Aurora. It’s an arid West crisis,” Brown said. “Aurora cannot continue to grow in the future as we have grown in the past.”
He told Councilmember Juan Marcano that the largest single users of city water included the Parks, Recreation & Open Space Department, school districts and beverage company Niagara Bottling. The city already uses non-potable reclaimed water to irrigate golf courses, parks and landscaping at city buildings.
Greg Baker, public relations manager for Aurora Water, later said in an email that water used in irrigation is nonetheless unavailable for reuse afterward, and so the city is trying to reduce the amount of water used for that purpose, noting that up to half of the city’s water is used for irrigation now.
Marcano expressed discomfort with the idea of a for-profit corporation drawing heavily on city water, and Brown said Niagara had mentioned expanding in the past.
Marcano and Councilmember Alison Coombs both said they thought the city should go beyond offering rebates for water-wise landscaping and consider restricting water use in existing developments. The two also objected to an amendment suggested by Councilmember Steve Sundberg to increase the amount of turf allowed around homes.
“I think this is already not aggressive enough for the problems that we really face,” said Coombs. “So not just ‘no,’ but ‘hell no’ to making any changes that would increase the water use at all.”
Councilmember Dustin Zvonek expressed concerns over the impacts that the proposal could have on home prices, saying alternative landscaping costs developers more.
“The question is, how do we make sure that we’re balancing meeting these reduction in (water) consumption goals, but at the same time allow for flexibility and growth in our city,” he said. “We’re not sure what this would do to our new home market, given that we would be leading, which I think is a good thing, as a city.”
Brown said Aurora’s proposal was novel in Colorado and that other cities had requested copies of the Aurora ordinance. Zvonek asked Brown if the cost of landscaping could be offset through a reduction in tap fees, and Brown said the current draft of the ordinance would include a $3,000 cut to fees.
The proposal would apply to site plans approved on or after Jan. 1, 2023. Council members did not object to the item moving forward out of study session to a formal vote.