Despite recent storms dropping snow on the east side of the Continental Divide, Colorado’s water supply situation is still in a tenuous situation, with much of the state still experiencing drought conditions. Most of our water on the Front Range comes from the West Slope. As The Gazette reported in its enlightening three-part series on drought in Colorado, our climate is changing, with the potential for greater extremes and hotter droughts.
Water availability is and will always be a challenge in our state, and wise water use must be a permanent way of life. I’m proud to say the landscape industry, in collaboration with water utilities across the state, has developed solutions to stretch this finite resource.
The 2002 drought was a wake-up call for everyone including the green industry and served as the impetus for public education campaigns to reduce water consumption. This led to consumer behavior changes that dramatically reduced water use and increased consumer demand for water-wise landscapes.
Xericscape was the buzzword, but it went beyond rocks and cactus and demonstrated a systemic approach that creates beautiful landscapes that require less water. Today, consumers are asking for sustainable landscapes, designed for water efficiency, through a combination of proper soil prep, native plants and trees (the right plant in the right place), hardscapes that reduce irrigated areas, technologically advanced sprinkler clocks and heads (drip lines replacing spray heads) and even rain barrels to capture runoff water to use on gardens.
Over 20 years, the landscape industry, in partnership with water utilities and the Colorado Water Conservation board, developed water conservation solutions called Best Management Practices. BMPs were developed from input provided by a group of water and conservation experts. To this day, they serve as the basis for many municipal codes, state laws and state-mandated conservation plans.
Water conservation measures implemented by the industry and water providers are working. For a large portion of the metro area, even though the population has steadily increased, water use remains at lower levels achieved after the 2002 drought. Two of the metro area’s largest utilities are using 22% to 36% less water than they were prior to 2002.
Bottom line, the BMPs are helping us save water, but the green industry recognizes more can be done. That’s why Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado implemented the Sustainable Landscape Management Initiative, an initiative to reduce water consumption and reduce plant loss.
The purpose of SLM is as simple as it is important. We want every landscape professional in the state who maintains landscapes to increase water conservation and reduce plant loss by following the same standards — using the same blueprint — for landscape maintenance. Municipalities, water utilities, HOAs, landscape maintenance companies and customers can be on the same page, using the same standards for sustainable landscape care.
According to the Colorado Water Plan, only 3% of water consumed in Colorado is used on landscapes — residential and commercial landscapes as well as parks, sports complexes, etc. Coloradans love the outdoors, and our appreciation for and use of outdoor urban landscapes has increased since the pandemic.
Recently, Colorado State University conducted a study called, “The Hidden Value of Landscapes: Implications for Drought Planning,” that quantified the benefits from this 3% of water. It found that conserving water while preserving landscapes is crucial to mitigating the impacts of drought, wildfires and climate change on the land on which we live. The CSU study concluded, “Coloradans benefit tremendously from the 3% of all of the state’s water used for landscapes.” Through initiatives like SLM, Colorado’s green industry will help preserve these beneficial landscapes using less water and continuing to create sustainable, water-wise outdoor spaces that are key to our way of life. Beautiful outdoor spaces and water conservation are not mutually exclusive.
Keeping our industry vibrant is important for our state’s economy as well as homeowners’ pocketbooks. The green industry employs more than 43,000 people in Colorado and has one of the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse workforces of any industry. The landscape industry contributes more than $2 billion to the state’s economy. At the homeowner level, landscaping can add as much as 15% to the resale value of a home and speed up its sale by up to six weeks. Landscapes are an investment that enhances our quality of life and expands useable living space at home. A 5% investment in landscaping can raise the value of a home by 15% — a net 150% return on your investment. Outdoor urban landscapes benefit all Coloradans. We know that water conservation and functional, sustainable and beautiful outdoor spaces can coexist. It’s up to us to navigate climate change by using water responsibly.
John McMahon is president and CEO of Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado and a member of Green Industries of Colorado.