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A second metro Denver town clamps down on lawns amid drought: “Water’s on everyone’s mind”

Coming to a yard near you — everything but the lawn.

Castle Rock this week became the second metro area municipality in as many months to pass a measure severely limiting the amount of water-intensive “cool-season turf” that can be rolled out with new homes in the Douglas County town.

The new ordinance, passed Tuesday in a unanimous vote of the Castle Rock town council, bans turf in the front yards of new homes and limits it to no more than 500 square feet in the backyard. It also does away with turf in non-functional areas — spaces not meant for recreation — around commercial properties and multi-family developments.

The new measure applies to any new home construction permitted after Jan. 1.

Aurora passed a similar ordinance last month amid increasingly alarming reports about water supply in the American Southwest, with the Colorado River — the source of water for 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles — heavily overdrawn amid a two-decade drought.

“Water’s on everyone’s mind and how we can conserve it,” Castle Rock Mayor Jason Gray said. “We’re going to get more and more people moving in and we’re going to have to accommodate these people.”

In fact, Castle Rock has plans to grow to around 125,000 people from 81,000 today over the next couple of decades. Nearly half of the water the town uses is for outdoor irrigation and water officials estimate Castle Rock could achieve a reduction of 52% in future outdoor water use if less thirsty turf — like fescue or Kentucky bluegrass — is planted and more drought-tolerant native vegetation is grown, a practice known as xeriscaping.

The town has a goal of cutting per capita water usage from 118.4 gallons a day to 100 gallons daily by 2050.

“We want to build a landscape that fits within our environment and this is the way to go,” said Mark Marlowe, director of Castle Rock Water. “It will also have a positive impact on water rates and fees.”

While homebuilders aren’t required to put in a finished backyard for prospective homeowners under Castle Rock’s measure, the town will provide incentives for them to do so in the form of a reduction in the water tap fee the town charges for all new residential construction. That fee, currently at $37,000 per home and set to rise by $5,000 next year, could drop to as low as $25,000 with a ready-to-go backyard.

Morgan Cullen, government affairs director for the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver, said his organization generally supports water-conservation measures like the ones passed in Aurora and Castle Rock, but he said homebuyers shouldn’t be under any illusion that the transition from lush green lawn to an array of Rocky Mountain penstemon, chocolate flower and big bluestem grass will come for free.

“There will be additional costs to complete that work,” Cullen said.

A xeriscaped front yard could run as much as $3,500 and a backyard three times that amount, he said.

Kevin Reidy, the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s water conservation specialist, said he hopes the movement started in Aurora and Castle Rock this summer and fall will continue to spread along the Front Range.

“Implementing stringent landscape codes that employ best practices and that define how your local community wants to look like for the next 15 to 20 years is way less expensive than having to go back and retrofit landscapes that are not as water-efficient or climate resilient,” Reidy said. “Across Colorado, we should be looking at where cool season turf is appropriate and where it is not. For example, kids are not playing soccer in a busy median on a major arterial road. Why would we put grass there that has to be irrigated and maintained?”

It looked like Thornton, which in August discussed following in Aurora’s footsteps, would be next. But spokesman Todd Barnes told The Denver Post the north suburban city — Colorado’s sixth-largest — has put any turf restrictive ordinances on hold.

Reidy said he’s not certain whether a turf ban for new homes will ever get support at the legislature.

“Colorado is a very local-control state and land use planning and codes are locally driven processes,” he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball to know whether or not Colorado will ever get to a statewide ban but from experience, we usually choose the collaborative, cooperative approach where we work together and incentivize efforts to solve problems.”

Yvonne Coles xeriscaped both her front and back yards of her home by herself, seen here on Oct. 19, 2022, in Castle Rock. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

This summer, Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1151, a bipartisan proposal that will pay property owners to dig up and replace their ornamental and non-native grass lawns with water-efficient landscaping. The Colorado Water Conservation Board will receive $2 million to develop a statewide replacement program by July 2023.

In the meantime, Aurora Water Manager Greg Baker said his city’s ordinance, which went into effect Oct. 1, is critical for a fast-growing city that could nearly double in population over the next few decades. Aurora, he said, just passed the 400,000 resident mark.

“As we’re a growing city, acquiring water for these developments is getting more difficult,” Baker said. “The competition is going up and the price is going up. Cool-weather turf should never have been brought to the semi-arid West.”

That’s how Yvonne Coles feels.

The four-year Castle Rock resident ripped out her turf on her own over the last few years and planted her yard with native plant species that do well in just 15 inches of rain a year, the average for Castle Rock. She loves the look and feel of her yard, which pops with different colors as the seasons move through.

“Since I switched to xeriscaping, I’ve been using 2,000 to 3,000 fewer gallons a month,” she said. “I don’t need a lawn — I don’t have kids, I don’t have pets. My grass is 100% gone.”

Yvonne Coles xeriscaped both the front and back yards of her home by herself, seen here on Oct. 19, 2022, in Castle Rock. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

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