The Next Conversation about Landscaping: Going Beyond Water Conservation and Turf 

Colorado is taking significant steps around water conservation and landscaping. Waverly Klaw, director of the Growing Water Smart program at the Sonoran Institute, was invited to participate in a state task force that recently put forward recommendations to prohibit grass in most new development and incentivize voluntary grass removal in existing development across Colorado.  

Why is this important? Because in a hotter and drier Colorado, cities and towns will face greater pressure on limited water supplies. Outdoor water can account for over half of municipal water use. Reducing the amount of water used outdoors provides one of the greatest opportunities for conservation. 

The state legislature has become more involved in these issues, with a bill in 2022 that authorized $2million for turf removal programs. This year, the legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit local governments and homeowners’ associations from installing “non-functional turf,” defined as grass not regularly used for recreation or other public purposes. 

While turf removal or prohibitions on new turf reduces water use, they don’t address the need to look at landscaping more holistically. Historically, landscaping has been an aesthetic endeavor, intended to make our homes and communities pleasing to the eye. 

Photo by J Amado Photography


But in today’s hotter and drier climate, there is a broader conversation to be had about the role of landscaping in maintaining our quality of life with significant policy implications. How can landscaping cool our environment, absorb heavy rains, and protect against wildfire? How can it sustain birds, butterflies and other pollinators whose habitat is increasingly shrinking? And how do we ensure that these green spaces are accessible to all? 

The questions go directly to the heart of Sonoran Institute’s work with local jurisdictions to explore how to reduce their demand for water through land-use planning and policies.  Landscape ordinances and design standards that include turf limits, native plants, rain and stormwater harvesting, irrigation efficiency, shade trees, and healthy soils: all can contribute to water savings while providing other community benefits. But it all begins with a jurisdiction’s general or comprehensive land-use plan, and the vision and community buy-in that these planning efforts entail. 

Sonoran Institute’s Growing Water Smart Program brings together water managers, land use planners, and others to initiate these conversations and spur action. In a subsequent blog, we will report some promising initiatives by communities that have participated in Growing Water Smart, as well as other local jurisdictions that are leading similar efforts.

Photo by Becky Duffy Creative

Written by John Sheppard, senior advisor, Margo Curgus, owner of Del Corazon Consulting, and Waverly Klaw, director of the Growing Water Smart program.