Because the future is looking a little uncertain, Durango couple Steve Harris and Lourdes Carrasco started digging up their lawn Friday afternoon.
They invited a few other concerned residents to join them, and together they made a statement:
It’s time to stop wasting water. One place to start is on lawns we don’t need.
“If the only time you walk on your lawn is to mow it, you probably have more lawn than you need,” has become the mantra of Harris, a water engineer and member of the Southwest Basin Roundtable.
On a wet day with a few badly needed sprinkles of rain falling sporadically, these concerned residents took shovels and spades to the couple’s back lawn, about 350 square feet worth. It’ll be replaced with flagstone to create a large patio area. The small front lawn will remain.
Harris dubbed this the “Lawn Gone Press Conference.”
“Steve Harris has ... gotten the topic of conservation started in the state,” said John Porter of Cortez, a member of the Southwest Basin Roundtable, which is pushing conservation. “This is putting your money where your mouth is.
“A lot of people have good ideas but don’t get around to implementing them. So I applaud his efforts.”
One lawn is literally a drop in the bucket in the overall picture, but it’s a reasonable start, Harris said. Of water used inside the home, about 95 percent is treated at a wastewater plant and quickly returned to the river system. Of water used to irrigate lawns, about 30 percent returns, and only after many months, he said.
Harris also has been active politically. In 2014 he helped state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, create Senate Bill 17, which originally would have limited the size of lawns in new suburban developments. That idea tweaked a few people on the Front Range, so Roberts rewrote it to only call for a study of water conservation. It failed.
This year Roberts and other co-sponsors were able to pass Senate Bill 8, which will create training programs to help government planners implement water conservation programs. It passed.
Former state Sen. Bruce Whitehead was among about a dozen who stood in Harris’ and Carrasco’s lawn and dug a shovel into the soil. His personalized shovel was a remnant of his failed run against Roberts in 2010, but it was symbolic. His wife, Becca Conrad-Whitehead, had decorated it for the campaign and hand-painted “Working for Colorado’s future.”
Efficiency measures, such as sprinklers that direct flow more accurately, are helpful, he said. But the key is to reduce consumption.
“As far as savings, until you take away the consumption you really haven’t saved anything,” said Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District and a roundtable member.
Here’s the crux of what concerns state water policy experts, particularly those in agriculture: As development occurs – particularly on the populous Front Range – cities buy up farms and their water rights. The water is forever lost to municipal uses, and farmland disappears. They call it “ag dry-up.”
Harris said that as Colorado’s population grows from about 5 million now to an estimated 10 million in 2050, this ag dry-up, mostly from agricultural lands in the South Platte and Arkansas river basins, will amount to 300,000 acres. Porter said that already, for example, a huge chunk of Crowley County farmland in eastern Colorado is now dry in order to serve the needs of Colorado Springs residents.
“The big discussion is how do we keep that from happening,” said Porter, who is also president of the Southwestern Water Conservation District Board.
One possible solution is that farmers could take turns every year leaving water in the ditch for municipal uses, Porter said. Or, certain crops that take an abundance of water – such as alfalfa, popular because it’s a good cash crop – can be replaced with less-needy crops such as beans.
Another plan that almost everyone wants to avoid is another huge, expensive water project that would pull water from the Western Slope onto the Front Range.
If you’re focusing on Harris’ lawn in Google Earth, you’ll have to make several clicks to see the much bigger picture of the Colorado River Basin. According to the Colorado River Water Users Association, the waters that drain the river’s 246,000 square miles serve nearly 30 million people and irrigate 1.8 million acres. Those waters produce 15 percent of the nation’s crops and 13 percent of its livestock.
A lawn is just a small, symbolic start, but Harris said he wants to get people thinking on the bigger scale.
“Anybody pulling water out of the Colorado River has to rethink.”