It’s hard to avoid getting swept up in Wendy Inouye’s enthusiasm when she talks about her garden.
“I love it!” she gushes. “I have so much joy from my garden. Every time I come out I always pause and look at it. You know that saying, take time to smell the roses? I literally do that every single day I come and go from my home.”
Inouye’s front yard at her home in Thornton, Colorado, just north of Denver, is full of “xeric” plants—shrubs and groundcovers adapted to survive in dry climates.
Inouye took out her lawn last summer and replaced it with a Colorado-friendly landscape, including red rock penstemon, hopflower oregano, and a plant called red-birds-in-a-tree. She didn’t want to waste any more water and said the grass in her front yard had no function. It was in full sun and its water needs were astronomical. By taking out 750 square feet of turf and replacing it with a variety of water-saving plants surrounded by rocks and mulch, she and her husband have reduced their water usage from 413 gallons a day to 200.
Pointing to a larger area Inouye said, “This was just one big flat piece of grass that was full of weeds.” She was tired of fighting nature, using pesticides and herbicides. Now she says, she has fun with all her beautiful flowering plants.
Ditching the “Green Carpet”
It was a lot of work for Inouye to transform her landscape even though she hired contractors to assist with turf removal and changes to her irrigation system. But she got support for her decision from the City of Thornton through a turf removal rebate program that paid her $1.00 for every square foot of turf she took out.
Water conservation and efficiency are important to every utility across the country, and especially in the West where “aridification” is occurring. That’s the term being used in the Colorado River Basin to describe the region’s transition to a water scarce environment due to climate change—a condition that will result in a shrinking supplies.
Water utilities have various strategies to get customers to lower usage. Many offer rebates for installing low-flow toilets and efficient showerheads in older homes to reduce indoor use. With outdoor use, water providers can use “cash-for-grass” incentives as Thornton did for Wendy Inouye. They can also offer free mulch, rebates for efficient irrigation systems, and audits of outside water use.
Recently the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE), a non-profit dedicated to efficient and sustainable use of water, produced an assessment concluding that utility-sponsored programs to promote sustainable landscapes save water. Tom Chestnutt, the lead author of AWE’s study, said that turf removal programs have been very successful, and they hit that tipping point causing customers to do something different with their front yards.
The idea of a “green carpet”—lots of grass in front of homes, buildings, and sometimes, even medians—has been described as an aesthetic (inappropriately, many say) imported from the East. In the West, where lawns require irrigation, some water providers see them as out of sync with a western lifestyle…
Lawns As a “Dispersed Version of a Reservoir”
[Jeff] Tejral says that Denver Water did an analysis of a cash-for-grass rebate in 2016 and it did not make sense to start one. Tejral’s group calculated the water savings and the cost of the rebates to be $75,000 dollars per acre foot of water conserved, which the agency concluded was not a wise use of its ratepayers’ funds. He said that it would make sense to spend that amount, if they were in dire straits, and a turf rebate were the last option available.
However, there may be another reason that Denver Water doesn’t have a turf removal program—lawns might be a safety net where use could be restricted in extreme drought conditions. At those times of severe need, Denver Water could drastically cut back outdoor usage which would be tolerated more easily than restricting use inside homes. Cutting back lawn watering is much easier to get customers to accept than limiting their shower times or their clothes washings.
This idea was expressed by Colorado University historian Patricia Nelson Limerick in the book she wrote about Denver Water, Ditch in Time: The City, the West and Water. As Limerick writes, Denver water managers see lawns offering a service that is far from evident to most observers. Lawns are devices that receive water that would otherwise bypass Denver unused. She adds that lawns offer a cushion if severe drought should arise, and without that cushion demand would be hardened. “Take out the lawns and water would be directed only to needs that would not be susceptible to restriction.” Limerick writes that to the late Chips Barry, former manager of the Denver Water Department, lawns looked a lot like a dispersed version of a reservoir, holding water that could, in urgent circumstances, be shifted to respond to genuine need.
In response, Tejral said that they are shifting away from viewing turf the way Barry did. He insists there are other benefits to having lawns and landscapes in general, and it’s important to manage landscapes for what is best in the long term for a lot of different purposes, which could include aesthetic. He said that Chips Barry was reflecting on where Denver was, but as it matures as a city and integrates with others, people are going to have to learn the true function of landscapes, which is complicated.