Proposal to limit watering for lawns
Days may be decreased from three to two amid low reservoir levels
Aurora residents will have to decrease their lawn watering use by one day starting May 1 because of low water storage levels — and the city is likely the first in Colorado to make such a decision so far this year.
The reservoir levels are projected to get to about 48% capacity by mid-april, triggering the city’s Stage 1 drought restrictions. The City Council passed a declaration to move to “Stage 1 Water Availability” at a meeting earlier this month. Members also voted on first reading, 9-1, to implement a surcharge on lawn watering. A final vote is expected Monday, and the plan has received little opposition from members.
Residents will receive letters from the city’s water department alerting them to which days they can water their lawns, down from three to two — even-numbered home addresses will have different days than odd numbers and the department will advise residents to water within certain hours. Any properties that have watering variance allowances for irrigation will also have to reduce their consumption. Multifamily and commercial properties without irrigation variances will need to restrict watering to twice a week as well.
City officials say that residents’ water bills should remain the same as their bills from last summer (when they could water three times a week) even with the surcharge in effect as long as they stick to watering their lawns twice a week. If they go beyond that, they could see higher costs that will make their bills go up.
The goal is to reduce outdoor water use by 20% citywide — officials hope the surcharge will incentivize lower
use — and these restrictions would remain in effect until the City Council approves a change. If water conditions improve, city staff says the restrictions will be lifted.
The National Drought Mitigation Center has labeled large portions of Arapahoe and Adams counties — in which Aurora is located — as “moderate drought” with some less severe areas described as “abnormally dry.”
“Our drought planning is not as influenced by local drought conditions but more by our reservoir levels in our three basins,” Aurora Water spokesperson Greg Baker told The Denver Post. “Our reservoirs are at 54% of capacity (normally closer to 65% to 70% this time of year) and snowpack, which will fill those, is at 84% of (average). That’s what’s driving our declaration.”
Additionally, since 2020, Aurora’s snowpack has been well below the annual average, according to a city staff memo.
State Water Conservation Specialist Kevin Reidy said many municipalities often wait until April 1, which signifies the state’s largest snowpack of the year, before enacting more restrictions, though several cities have enacted some level of standing water restrictions. The restrictions serve as a shortterm drought response and are based on specific needs, supply levels and triggers each city has put in place.
“Restrictions are fairly common today,” Reidy said. “A number of water providers have permanent threeday water per week as their starting point.”
Steamboat Springs has permanent water restrictions for three days per week, as does Denver, according to Heather Stauffer, Colorado Municipal League legislative advocacy manager. Castle Rock has had permanent watering restrictions since 1985.
Cities looking to change customer behaviors and curb usage often look to these types of restrictions, she said.
Aurora gets its water from the Colorado River (25%), the Arkansas River (25%) and the South Platte River (50%) basins, with an additional eight to 10 million gallons from the Prairie Waters potable reuse system. “Our goals are to maintain a three-year supply whenever practicable,” a staff memo to City Council stated.
Although some areas across the state have seen high snowpack levels, that hasn’t been the case for Aurora, the city’s water manager told councilmembers. The Colorado River is above average, but the Arkansas and South Platte are not.
As of Tuesday, Aurora’s snowpack levels were 85% of the median of the last 30 years.
And “if you look at the runoff and water conditions, we’re still in the midst of a long-term drought,” Marshall Brown, Aurora Water manager, told councilmembers.
“No lawns will die,” Brown added.
“Grass is a very resilient species, almost any of the variations of the grass. Some will turn a little more brown, but they will recover and come back. And two days a week watering is enough to keep all grass species that we have alive and recoverable.”
The city is also directing homeowners associations and metro districts not to fine residents for a little brown grass in their lawns.
Aurora staff set up a formula to determine what percent of residents’ water use in the summer is from outdoor watering. Indoor water consumption will be determined by the average amount of water residents used in December, January and February — when they aren’t watering outside — as well as an additional 10% cushion. Water consumption beyond that would be considered outdoor use.
If residents stick to watering twice a week, they shouldn’t see additional charges. The surcharge would be $1.95 per 1,000 gallons for use above the 110% of the winter quarter average, Baker said. And he cautioned that residents shouldn’t just increase their watering on those two days a week — plants wouldn’t be able to just soak up that increase in water on the same day anyway.
The last time Aurora went into Stage 1 water restrictions was in 2013. The reservoirs were about as low as they are now, but they dropped quickly at the time.
“What we’ve seen here is a gradual decline for three years,” Baker said. He added that it’s likely impacted by the megadrought in the West and also indicative of climate change — more extremes, including shorter snow seasons and the snow rolling off the mountains faster, and more evaporation in reservoirs because of higher temperatures during summer months. Plants are also taking in more of the water to deal with the increased heat, decreasing water supply.
Aurora was among the first to enact watering restrictions in the early 2000s as the city’s reservoirs were “in serious crisis” in 2002-2003 at 26% capacity. That’s, optimistically, about a nine-month supply of water, Baker said.
Generally, water restrictions have been successful for water providers, according to Reidy. He credits long-term water efficiency programs over the last two decades, engaging customers.
“With all that said, restrictions can help with water supply by keeping water in reservoirs longer. … Luckily, many providers and local governments are changing how they landscape and changing their codes accordingly,” he said.
As more cities adopt climate and drought-adapted landscapes, he anticipates that restrictions could come later in the season or even be avoided because the landscapes require less water than the traditional Kentucky bluegrass variety.
Aurora has begun the move toward this by banning “cool-weather” turf grass from being installed for new golf courses or new homes.