Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman says selling homeowners on the idea of replacing lawns is not easy.

The city of Aurora hopes to be the first municipality in Colorado to put the skids on nonfunctional grass with an ordinance that will get its first review from Aurora City Council on Monday.

The ordinance would restrict the use of "cool weather turf" in new development, redevelopment and for the creation of new golf courses. As defined in the ordinance, cool weather turf includes Kentucky bluegrass and fescue. 

A fact sheet for the ordinance says that Aurora gets less than 15 inches of precipitation every year. But cool weather turf requires as much as 28 inches of precipitation or irrigation in order to survive, and outdoor use accounts for half of the water used in Aurora every year. 

Water used for irrigation either evaporates or is used by plants, and cannot be recycled. Recycled water is a cornerstone of Aurora's Prairie Waters system, which has been fully functional since 2018.

The ordinance would primarily allow turf only in active or programmed recreation, such as sports fields, or other areas serving non-organized sports events, such as parks.

Cool weather turf would be prohibited in medians, curbside landscape, residential front yards and limited in backyards to 500 square feet or 45% of the backyard, which is less. 

It also prohibits use of cool weather turf for new golf courses and bans ornamental water features, such as waterfalls, basins, ponds and exterior decorative fountains.

The ordinance has been in the works for several months and if approved, would go into effect Jan. 1, 2023. 

Selling homeowners on the idea of replacing lawns is not an easy one, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman told Colorado Politics this week. It wasn't an easy sell for developers or City Council either, he said. People worry they'll end up with a pile of rocks for their front yards, he explained, but he believes the idea is gaining support.

What got him moving on the ordinance was a conversation around a new golf course he said could use as much as a million gallons of water per day. Coffman said the city hasn't been "aggressive" on ways to conserve water for parks, golf courses or municipal buildings, which in turn led to what Coffman called the "tough" ordinance on turf.

Coffman believes the ordinance could help the city reduce its outside irrigation usage by half. Converting lawns to warm weather turf, such as buffalo grass, is a way to address drought, Coffman said.

Voluntary cash for grass programs have been in place in a handful of Colorado municipalities, including Aurora, for years. 

But other states that rely on the Colorado River have taken a much tougher approach on lawns and other nonfunctional grass. Las Vegas has had a "cash for grass" incentive program since 1998, but it wasn't enough. The Nevada legislature passed a law last year that prohibits the use of Colorado River water for irrigating nonfunctional grass, and to mandate the removal of nonfunctional grass from everywhere except residential lawns by 2027. The general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority calls it “the most aggressive municipal water conservation measure that's been taken in the western United States.”

Cash for grass or other rebate programs to encourage landowners to replace water-thirsty bluegrass with more drought tolerant grasses and plants are plentiful in California. The state has had a law in place since 2014 to allow homeowners to replace turf with drought-resistant grasses without being sued by their homeowners' association. In Sacramento, turf replacement programs have resulted in 1 million square feet of lawns being replaced with drought-resistant plants and grasses, with 400,000 square feet replaced this year alone. 

Drought, however, is forcing stricter measures. On May 26, the state's Water Resources Control Board put in place a ban on irrigation of decorative lawns around offices, hotels, hospitals and other nonresidential buildings.

Last year, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox unveiled a list of conservation policies that includes a turf-buyback program, already in place in some municipalities, and restricting the use of cool weather turf in new construction. In St. George, a mecca for tourists, the city has said "no" to new golf courses. Existing golf courses are adapting, too, putting in desert-friendly grasses.

Colorado lawmakers have been slow to ask homeowners and businesses to rip out their Kentucky bluegrass lawns in favor of alternatives, such as native grass that uses much less water.

It was tried in 2014 with SB 17, a bill from Durango Republican Sen. Ellen Roberts that would have blocked local governments from approving developments unless that government had adopted an ordinance that limited the amount of irrigated grass to more more than 15% of the total area of all lots in the development. The bill was intended to protect agricultural water that is sometimes used for those irrigation purposes, but it drew such opposition from developers, as well as farmers and ranchers who feared unintended consequences, that it was watered down to a study and faded into the distance.

It's taken another eight years for lawmakers to develop to try again, and in 2022, the General Assembly passed a bipartisan bill to set up a statewide residential turf replacement program, with $2 million in incentives to encourage replacement of nonessential irrigated turf on residential, commercial, institutional or industrial properties. That program, to be administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, goes live next year.

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