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High desert turf wars

DAVID HOLUB/Durango Herald illustration

By Joe Hanel Herald staff writer

DENVER – Probably no other plant can inspire more passion here in the West than the humble blade of grass.

For many homeowners, a patch of lawn is a private sanctuary, a place to go barefoot and let the kids run.

And to people like Steve Harris, a Durango water engineer, every new blade of grass represents a drop of water that once was used to water crops.

Harris thinks it’s time Colorado places limits on new lawns, and his idea is getting a close look at the state Capitol.

“If you want to do conservation, limiting grass is how you do it,” he said.

The problem is known as “buy and dry” – farmers selling their water rights to expanding cities and leaving rural economies without farms and jobs. State studies predict Colorado will lose more than half a million acres of agricultural land by the middle of the century because of buy and dry.

Harris thinks the problem could have a relatively simple solution. Starting in 2016, he says, if any new housing development plans to buy agricultural water rights, then its lawns should cover no more than 15 percent of each house’s property.

Lawns are the real water hog in a house, and Harris thinks limiting them will do more good for agriculture than another forthcoming bill to require efficient plumbing fixtures within houses.

“What’s the first thing (cities) do when there’s a drought? They restrict lawn watering. It’s immediate, and it’s effective,” Harris said.

Harris took his idea to Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and they turned it into Senate Bill 17, a bill that is now under scrutiny at the state Capitol.

Roberts rounded up bipartisan sponsors to help her carry the bill – Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton; Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland; and Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. She also has the Colorado River Water Conservation District and water experts in Southwest Colorado on her side.

Roberts and her allies have been presenting the bill to the various groups engaged in Colorado’s long-running water wars – farm and ranch groups, city utilities, homebuilders – in the hopes of building support before scheduling the bill for its first hearing.

“I’ve been talking with homebuilders a lot. Being married to one, I don’t want to have any negative effect on homebuilders as they continue to recover from the recession,” Roberts said.

Homebuilders, however, question whether the bill will do any good.

The bill limits grass only on private lots, and it excludes parks and open space – the biggest grassy areas in most new developments.

Most of the new suburbs under construction now don’t follow the old pattern of rectangular lots separated by privacy fences. Instead, builders are putting up houses with “postage stamp” lawns that surround large, grassy open space areas, said Amie Mayhew, CEO of the Colorado Association of Home Builders.

“Land is expensive, so what we’re seeing for the most part on the Front Range is smaller lots, bigger homes,” Mayhew said.

Opposition is also coming from local governments.

The bill requires them to enforce the 15 percent lawn limit through their land-use codes, and the local government lobby has a long-standing opposition to mandates from Denver. Roberts is usually one of the first senators to side with local governments against the state.

“Personally, it’s a little hard for me because I am consistently in opposition to mandates,” Roberts said.

But then, this is a water bill, and the usual rules of politics don’t apply.

Water has always been the one issue in Colorado that could overcome party politics, and SB 17 offers further proof. One of Roberts’ main collaborators is Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District. Roberts was elected to the Senate by ousting Whitehead, the incumbent senator, in 2010 during a hard-fought campaign.

Whitehead said it’s been good to work with Roberts.

“I think it’s admirable that Sen. Roberts is willing to carry the bill, because as you know it has some controversy around it,” he said.

To win, Roberts, Whitehead and Harris need to make sure the bill isn’t treated like a West Slope-East Slope fight, because they will be outvoted if Front Range Democrats and Republicans unite against it.

Both Whitehead and Harris point out that the bill would apply statewide. Subdivisions like Lake Durango use converted agricultural water, although current houses there would be grandfathered and would not have to limit lawn sizes.

If nothing else, Whitehead said, the bill is spurring Colorado leaders to get serious about saving water after years of talk.

“Sometimes, it takes these kind of bills to get the conversation started,” Whitehead said.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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