While fall has arrived, and lawn sprinkler systems are being prepared for cold weather, the war on turf is hotter than ever. In Colorado, and across the country, some special-interest groups are citing our state’s growing water woes to aggressively focus on turf grass — often ignoring more water-wise alternatives.
Fortunately, several forward-thinking communities, including Highlands Ranch, Colorado Springs and others, are balancing water and aesthetics to bring smart solutions.
For some, the mantra of “never let a crisis go to waste” is sparking several panicked policy prescriptions that ignore sound science but do promote a one-sided political agenda. Like many issues today the answer isn’t either we muddle through the status quo and ignore our water challenges, or we tear up all turf and replace it with the far less attractive landscaping rock.
Here’s a balanced and more sustainable approach that we’re using in Highlands Ranch, building on what we have learned from other communities — including a number in El Paso County.
Anyone who lives in or drives through Highlands Ranch knows that there are very large swaths of parkways and other spaces that are covered with bluegrass. For many years, predating the major water challenges we face today, covering those areas with the very attractive, lush bluegrass was a no brainer. It looks great, and it’s easy to maintain. But it likes water. A lot of water. That’s just not tenable — environmentally or fiscally — in arid Colorado in 2022.
The reality is that these areas don’t see much foot traffic or public use at all, so it’s easy to replace bluegrass which is durable and great for backyards and parks, with native grasses. The latter may green up a little later, but it stays attractive throughout the summer and consumes far less water once it’s established.
It also provides a great alternative to filling in all those spaces with just rock, which aesthetically just won’t be acceptable to most residents in our community.
Changing grasses, rather than eliminating turf, helps also to take advantage of the environmental benefits of turf that are seldom discussed as officials wage war on lawns.
For example, one acre of lawn will consume hundreds of pounds of sulfur dioxide created by fossil fuel emissions. Grass also can trap up to 12 million tons of dust and dirt each year. In fact, science has shown a strong upward spike in carbon sequestration in the first several decades that lawns are in place. And while some want to target golf courses, greens and fairways can capture almost a ton of carbon per acre every year.
On a bigger scale, lawns consume 5 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide. These and many other scientific facts show how turf is an important tool in fighting air quality challenges.
But can we still have backyard lawns, or real grass athletic fields?
The real issue with our turf lawns lies with not the turf itself, but with us. The EPA reports that half of the water used for irrigating residential properties is wasted by inefficient use. We often water too often, well beyond what lawns need. We must also ensure we are watering grass, not sidewalks and driveways.
Water suppliers such as Centennial Water — which serves Highlands Ranch — will provide assessments of home sprinkler systems and suggest water saving improvements. They also sell more sustainable flowers and other plants that have proved popular with local homeowners.
When we do not follow the right science when caring for our lawns, this gives ammunition to those who are aiming to eliminate turf. Science-based watering is vitally important, which means watering at the right time, with the right, well-maintained equipment. This means that grass gets all the water it needs, and we can stay well within locally imposed water-use restrictions.
A healthy environment and healthy grasses are not an either/or proposition in Colorado. Choosing grasses that are right for our drought-plagued times and properly maintaining lawns and other recreational assets help our communities reach environmental and sustainability goals, and reduce use of expensive, and precious water supplies. As with most challenging issues, harnessing ingenuity is helping achieve the fiscally and environmentally responsible solutions that our residents expect and demand.