November 30, 2022
Did you know that 50% of urban water is used outdoors? Most of this water is used to irrigate “non-functional” turf – meaning the only use is for aesthetics that could be achieved through other, lower water use means. One of the most impactful solutions WRA is driving helps municipalities, homeowners, and other property owners replace unnecessary, thirsty grass and lawns – also called “turf” in policy arenas – with low-water alternatives, such as native grasses and plants, trees, and shrubs.
The benefits of replacing non-functional grass
- Saves residents money. Lower water use means lower water bills and reducing the likelihood that utilities will need to invest in costly new water projects to meet demand.
- Supports healthy ecosystems. Native landscaping supports local wildlife, pollinators, and the environment while better reflecting the landscapes around them. They can also reduce urban air pollution from lawn mowing and improve stormwater quality by reducing pesticide and fertilizer applications.
- Uses less water and keep more water in rivers. Reducing water use at the municipal level takes pressure off our rivers and streams.
- Increases water security and resilience to climate change. Improving water conservation will help communities adapt to lower water supplies.
Swapping turf for low-water landscaping will protect communities’ water supplies
The rivers that sustain our communities and environment – from the Colorado to the Rio Grande and the Gunnison to the Gila – are overtaxed due to climate change, multi-year drought, and decades of overuse. Additionally, as flows in the Colorado River and water levels in major Western reservoirs become further depleted – Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the largest reservoirs in the region, are at their lowest levels on record – there is a high likelihood in the coming years that the Colorado River system will collapse, generating a crisis across the West.
This means that local municipalities have a real water security problem. Water demand in communities across the region already outpaces available supply, and this only will get worse as climate change intensifies. WRA is developing and implementing innovative policies and programs that help communities live within their water means while getting rivers back into balance.
Why non-essential turf?
While Western states are among the driest in the country, irrigated turf – think lush, green lawns – has been ubiquitous in many communities across the region, from front yards to sprawling office parks to roadway medians. Much of this grass is not used but requires a large amount of water. In fact, non-functional landscape irrigation makes up more than half of water use in the West. In Colorado, where I live, outdoor water use accounts for 38% of all municipal demand each year. Most of this outdoor water use is dedicated to landscaping and irrigated grass. With the growing impacts on the Colorado River, this is water the region cannot afford to waste.
Replacing grass and lawns is a key part of increasing community resilience to climate change, improving water security, and adapting to a present and future with less water. In other words, turning the sprinklers off will help cities keep the taps on. While many municipalities have had success conserving water through strategies such as requiring low-flow toilets and showers and more water-efficient home appliances, further conservation is needed in the urban sector.
Outdoor water conservation is particularly important because, unlike indoor water use, outdoor water is largely consumptive, meaning it evaporates or is used by the plant and cannot be reused down the line. Switching from grass to low-water plants is the next low-hanging fruit that will help municipalities stretch increasingly limited water supplies over the coming decades.
Additionally, one of the best parts about replacing thirsty grass is that anyone can play a role: An individual homeowner, a large business, a city, or an entire state. By swapping a traditional lawn with drought-proof landscaping, we can help save 50% or more in outdoor water use.
Grass replacement is in high demand
As more local communities seek opportunities to replace high-water use grass, WRA is designing, advocating for, and implementing policies and programs to support their efforts. In 2022, WRA helped develop legislation creating the first state-wide turf replacement program in Colorado and advocated for a similar program in Utah. These voluntary programs will ensure every property owner in the state can access financial resources to replace their lawn with drought-tolerant, sustainable alternatives. We’re also supporting municipalities, like the city of Aurora in Colorado, with crafting effective local water-saving ordinances that meet their unique needs, such as banning new golf courses or restricting lawns in new developments. This builds on WRA’s years of work helping municipalities integrate water into land use planning, ensuring that growth and development are efficient and water smart.
The region is moving in the right direction on lawns. A growing number of Western water providers are creating and advocating for programs that encourage their customers to swap underutilized grassy areas for waterwise landscaping. In Colorado, 22 utilities — including Castle Rock and Fort Collins — provide customers with rebates for replacing water-thirsty plants with low- or no-water alternatives. In Utah, more than a dozen municipalities participate in the Flip Your Strip program, which encourages residents to remove park-strip grass in their front yard and replace it with waterwise landscaping. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), which serves Las Vegas and other areas of the state, has perhaps the most successful lawn replacement program in the country. SNWA’s cash for grass program has saved nearly 467,000 acre-feet of water, which is 167,000 acre-feet more than the amount of Colorado River water that the entire state of Nevada has the right to use each year. SNWA shows that, when implemented at large scale, grass replacement efforts can serve as vital water supply infrastructure — the same as pipes, tanks, and reservoirs.
What can waterwise landscaping look like where you live?
WRA envisions a future where Western communities showcase beautiful native landscaping reflective of our region that provide all the benefits of grass with a fraction of the water. To be sustainable, communities will need to reflect the water and climate reality we now have, as well as the open spaces that surround them.
Replacing non-functional grass with waterwise landscaping will look different across our states and communities. In Arizona, a grassy highway median could be transformed with saguaros and beargrass. In Colorado, a front lawn could have pops of color with purple gayfeather, yellow rabbitbrush, and blue flax. In New Mexico, orange sunset hyssop and green agave could grow alongside a small, low water buffalo grass lawn in a backyard. Drought-resistant landscaping that occurs naturally in the Western region encompasses an extraordinary range and depth of plants, trees, shrubs, and other flora, from native grasses to fields of wildflowers to large shade trees, that mirror the unique ecosystems of each state.
There is still, however, a role for grass in our communities. Playgrounds, parks, sports fields, and reasonably sized backyards all provide valuable benefits and should be prioritized. These types of spaces provide important community functions. Replacing all non-functional grass allows communities to better maintain turf spaces that are meant for all to enjoy. Replacing or reducing the size of lawns creates an opportunity to prioritize limited water for trees. A healthy tree canopy is vital to combat urban heat island, reduce power bills, and shade yards, which further reduces water needs for plants.
When it comes to the impacts of drought and climate change on the Colorado River, replacing lawns and non-functional grass must happen alongside other large-scale conservation efforts, such as boosting use of recycled water and enabling water from retired coal plants to flow back into rivers. Major water users throughout the basin, including agricultural producers, will also need to do their part to reduce use through a variety of temporary and permanent means.
What’s next for turf replacement in the West
Western communities need to do more – and faster – to improve their water security through expanding turf replacement programs and promoting waterwise landscaping. WRA is instrumental in supporting local governments by:
- Pushing for additional, local lawn replacement policies and programs while increasing funding for current statewide programs in Colorado and Utah;
- Partnering with municipalities to develop local ordinances, local codes, and improved land use and water planning to reduce non-functional turfgrass in new development and redevelopment;
- Partnering with water utilities to develop and expand grass replacement programs;
- Providing input on state water plans to make sure they include and prioritize grass replacement in urban conservation efforts;
- And encouraging more waterwise training and certification opportunities for landscape and irrigation professionals.
In addition to doubling down on grass replacement programs and policies across the West, important shifts are needed to ensure success. First, programs need more dedicated funding. Lawn replacement programs, particularly at the municipal level, are incredibly popular but quickly run out of funding. States, municipalities, and water utilities need to set aside adequate funds for these programs so anyone who is interested can participate and programs can scale to maximize their impact. Water providers, city planners, and local elected officials interested in financing programs can find resources in WRA’s white paper: Financing the Future: How to Pay for Turf Replacement in Colorado.
Additionally, landscaping professionals should focus more training and industry knowledge around caring for native and low-water plants, while ensuring there is plant availability to meet growing consumer demand. Although more residents are converting their thirsty lawns to waterwise gardens, we still have a long way to go in transforming our landscapes and we need everyone involved. Increasing financial incentives, providing additional support, and offering educational resources for homeowners and other property owners will go a long way.
The West needs a waterwise future
In the face of climate change and a growing population, communities across the West must do more to make every drop of water count. Swapping underutilized and high-water-use grass is a key part of the solution with multiple benefits, from increasing water security and reducing water bills to supporting healthy, flowing rivers. States and municipalities must prioritize creating and growing lawn replacement programs in urban areas to improve their climate resilience and protect water users.
If you want to see more waterwise landscaping opportunities in your community, take action! You can contact your local elected officials, like city council members and state representatives, as well as your water utility to tell them you want more lawn replacement programs where you live. You can also help protect rivers while showing your neighbors what a waterwise garden can look like by transforming your own lawn. There are many resources to help you get started, depending on where you live, including: