Over the course of the next seven years, an average 35,000 housing units will be built each year in Colorado. If past trends persist, around 70% of those housing units will be single-family homes. From Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, it’s likely that Coloradans will see more single-family suburban developments popping up — and with them, lawns.
Conventional grass lawns ornament the vast majority of American homes, covering three times as much surface area as irrigated cornfields in the United States. Although lawns are often purely aesthetic, sometimes they are chosen for their durability; lawns hold up against cleats, dogs and kids. Lawns used frequently for games and playtime are easy to justify, especially when they are public.
But there are far too many cropped, green lawns that are neglected until a weed sprouts up or it’s time to mow. Too many lawns exist just for the sake of being maintained.
Despite covering 2% of land in the U.S., most grasses can’t survive in the West’s arid climate without constant watering. In Denver, about half of the water used by the average single-family home is devoted to lawn care. Combined with the water sprinkled onto parks, medians and golf courses, a whopping 25% of Denver’s municipal water is devoted to lawns.
Considering that the Western U.S. is in the midst of the most severe drought in a millennium, allocating billions of gallons of fresh water to grass seems like an egregious misuse of resources. The drought is so dire that the Colorado River, which provides 40 million people across the Western U.S. with water, has shrunk by 20% over the past 20 years.
Lawn maintenance is also a threat to Colorado’s pollinators and public health. Americans use approximately 70 million pounds of pesticides to maintain lawns each year. Of the 30 most common lawn pesticides, more than half are probable or possible carcinogens, and many of them are linked with birth defects, neurotoxicity, kidney damage, liver damage and more.
Many of Colorado’s yards exhibit a custom justified primarily by tradition and peer pressure.
In Colorado cities and towns, such as Colorado Springs, the glyphosate-based herbicide known as Roundup is sprayed on lawns in public parks, despite being a possible carcinogen. Lawn pesticides and fertilizers commonly run off into lakes, streams and groundwater, wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems and polluting drinking water. Pollinators, which are on the decline globally and in Colorado, are harmed when lawn pesticides contain neonicotinoid chemicals. Insecticides aimed at lawn pests don’t spare bees and butterflies.
Lawn equipment also contributes to the climate crisis and the Front Range’s bad air quality. According to the EPA, in just one year, gas-powered lawn and garden equipment produced more than 20 million tons of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Even more emissions are created when lawn clippings are disposed of in landfills. In the Front Range, gas-powered lawn and garden equipment contribute as much as one-fifth of the region’s ozone pollution.
Landscaping alternatives better suited to Colorado do exist. Replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping — termed xeriscaping by Denver Water — can reduce water usage by 30-80%. Replacing lawns with native plants can reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers. Growing native plants also patches together habitat for dwindling pollinator populations.
Colorado is a state defined by mountainous vistas, natural landscapes and abundant wildlife. Its residents are outdoor enthusiasts and free-thinkers, demonstrably not afraid to break the mold (consider the legalization of marijuana, the decriminalization of psychedelics). Yet many of Colorado’s yards exhibit a custom justified primarily by tradition and peer pressure.
Some cities, such as Aurora and Castle Rock, have passed ordinances to limit new lawns. However, statewide and in Denver, little to no progress has been made to incentivize xeriscaping.
Lawns are antithetical to the climate and character of Colorado. Colorado’s leaders should implement educational programs about alternative landscaping and introduce greater financial incentives for home-owners and developers to replace lawns.
As our state enters another year of drought, climate chaos and habitat loss, hopefully Colorado will kick lawns to the curb.
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