Conservation is not a dirty word

Bluegrass vote proves legislators are soaking it to us

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Last week's column was all wet, but this week's is as dry as a Colorado reservoir.

If you are at all like me, you've grown weary of traveling to Denver and observing that every new Chickin' Lickin' restaurant franchisee feels compelled to install a bluegrass lawn (the same goes for Burrito Bonanza, Pizza Palace and Phrankies' Phettucini Pharm). Along with the strips of green grass that border the corporate architecture, they install automated watering systems. You may have also noticed the sprawling residential subdivisions in south Denver practice a similar conservation ethic. And invariably, those sprinkling systems spew precious water onto the concrete. And you can be certain that some of that water is piped across the Continental Divide from Western Slope reservoirs that are devoted to transmountain diversion. Impoundments like Green Mountain Reservoir hoard the water instead of releasing it into the state's magnificent rivers.

I was fed up with the situation before last year's drought and now I'm even more fed up with the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. Committee members on Thursday killed a measure that would have allowed residents of the metropolis on the other side of the mountains to conserve water if they so choose.

The bill, proposed by state Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, among other things, would have absolved homeowners from restrictive covenants that in some Front Range neighborhoods require them to plant thirsty bluegrass lawns. Some covenants require them to irrigate their yards sufficiently to keep them emerald green -- even in the midst of a drought.

Let's begin at the beginning. This is the semi-arid mountain west. Bluegrass is not suited to this climate. If you must live in a perfect suburban neighborhood replete with perfect bluegrass lawns, pack up and move to Kentucky. Adios!

Weissmann's bill, which had the support of such diverse entities as the Denver Water Board and the Audubon Society, was a response to an anecdote that emerged from last summer's drought. Residents of Highlands Ranch took action to force their neighbors to live up to covenants that called on them to water their lawns to keep them green.

Weissmann's bill would not have banned bluegrass, it would have merely restored residents' option to conserve water by practicing xeriscaping.

Not coincidentally, state Rep. Ted Harvey, whose district includes Highlands Ranch, said he is philosophically opposed to bills like Weissmann's because he believes the decision to live in a subdivision that demands green bluegrass should rest with private landowners. If you want to be free to force your neighbor to water his lawn during a drought, Harvey is your champion.

Hey Ted, I'm philosophically in favor of turning off the water in your district until your constituents replace their bluegrass with gravel, buffalo grass and yucca plants.

Gov. Bill Owens has accurately pointed out that agriculture consumes 85 percent to 90 percent of the state's water, and that's where the greatest potential conservation gains lie. But it's not agriculture that is growing in Colorado. It is urban development that is demanding an increasing share of water up and down the Front Range. The Denver Post reported Jan. 19 that nearly 100 developers have announced plans to construct homes and shopping centers on more than 55,000 acres along the recently completed E-470 toll road. The highway stretches across the plains east of Denver from Park Meadows Mall in the south to I-25 and 144th Avenue in the north.

Does the Colorado General Assembly intend to sit back and watch as developers along E-470 put in place covenants that prohibit water conservation? Or will they get busy this session and craft a comprehensive bill that strikes a balance between individual property rights and the realities of living in the semi-arid west?

The last time I checked, the Legislature had nothing left in its piggy bank with which to increase water supply infrastructure. That's probably a good thing -- otherwise, we would be looking at proposals to dam rivers to keep Denver's chain restaurants green.

I have to confess, I watered my lawn last summer. But at least the yard is sodded in relatively drought-tolerant fescue. And I'm not going to stop there -- I'm going to boycott Chickin' Lickin' this summer.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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