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Landscape makeover underway in Arapahoe County

Shift from Kentucky bluegrass to native prairie grass expected to save 1.5 million gallons of water a year.

A water-saving transformation is underway on a field at the Arapahoe County Administration Building in Littleton.

On Aug. 18-19, landscape crews planted hundreds of native prairie grass seeds on a 3-acre field on the west side of the building. The new prairie grass will replace the old Kentucky bluegrass as part of an effort to reduce water use in Arapahoe County.

Learn more about why Arapahoe County chose to convert this field to native prairie grass. 

“Arapahoe County officials decided a few years ago that, as part of a broader sustainability initiative, we would look for ways that we could reduce water consumption indoors and outdoors — and the grass conversion at the Administration Building is one of the projects that came out of that initiative,” said Luc Hatlestad, Arapahoe County Public Information Officer.

Landscape crews use a skid steer to plant the new native prairie grass seeds at the Arapahoe County Administration Building on Aug. 19. Photo credit: Denver Water.

The new seed planted in August came from Pawnee Buttes Seed Inc. out of Greeley and was a mix of native prairie grass seeds, including blue grama, buffalo grass, sideoats grama, western wheatgrass, green needlegrass and sand dropseed.

The seed will have a mix of short and medium height grasses around 18 to 25 inches tall and resemble what was found in the region before the days of irrigation.

The old Kentucky bluegrass field, seen here before the conversion to native prairie grasses, used an estimated 1.5 million gallons of water each summer. Photo credit: Arapahoe County.

The change means the field will look much different from the expanse of green grass that has been on the site since the 1970s. 

Instead, the project will return the field to how it looked before settlers started moving to the area and began irrigating the land.

The new grass seed will be watered for several weeks to help the seeds germinate. But once established, the grass should be able to survive solely on the moisture provided by Mother Nature. Some weeds may appear during the early stages, but landscape crews will watch over the field to manage invasive species. 

Arapahoe County plans to keep the field’s sprinklers turned off unless they’re needed during extremely hot and dry weather.

Arapahoe County estimates it will save 1.5 million gallons of water annually by transitioning away from Kentucky bluegrass, which can require up to 2.5 inches of water per week during hot summer months.

Brad Bensko, president of Elite Industries, prepares the native prairie grass seed mix for planting. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“As we've seen in the news just about every day now, the water situation out West is pretty dire in all areas, so Arapahoe County is looking for creative solutions to reduce our water consumption,” Hatlestad said. 

“We're looking forward to seeing how this project turns out, and we hope to use the grass conversion as a model for other projects down the road.”

The county’s goal with its Water Action Plan is to reduce landscape water use by 13% over the next five to 10 years from a baseline established in 2019. 

The building is served by Denver Water, which has been delivering water to Littleton since the 1960s. 

Denver Water collects half of its water from the South Platte River Basin and the other half from tributaries of the Colorado River. 

“We’re proud of the fact that the communities we serve are water conscious and making efficient changes to their landscapes and operations,” said Greg Fisher, demand manager for Denver Water. “This project is a perfect example of the type of transformation we’re looking for as part of a recently signed commitment between Denver Water and other Colorado River Basin municipal water users to significantly reduce water use.” 

Denver Water and other major water providers that rely on the drought-stricken Colorado River have committed to significant reductions in water use. Read about their plans

The agreement comes amid a two-decade drought on the Colorado River that affects 40 million people who rely on it for drinking water, agriculture, power production, landscape irrigation, recreation and more. Demands for water in the basin have exceeded available supply, reducing storage levels in Lakes Mead and Powell to critically low levels. 

Saving water also has the parallel impact of helping the county’s overall operational goals of being fiscally responsible by saving money on its annual water bill. 

Arapahoe County replaced old juniper bushes near the entrance of the Administration Building with a new garden featuring low-water-use plants native to the area. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Arapahoe County also replaced old juniper bushes by the entrance of the Administration Building with a new xeric garden featuring plants that have low-water needs. 

Grass also was removed from a median in the parking lot and replaced with mulch.

Sprinklers will remain around the existing trees growing in the median and around the building to ensure they stay healthy once the water is turned off for the rest of the field.

The turf replacement project was awarded a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for supporting the Colorado Water Plan’s goal of encouraging municipalities to reduce water use through landscape change.

Kentucky blue grass was removed from a median in the parking lot of the building and replaced with mulch. Sprinklers remain to provide water for the existing trees. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Nonfunctional grass

One of the reasons Arapahoe County decided to replace the Kentucky bluegrass was because the field was considered to have “nonfunctional” grass, which means it’s not used for sports, recreation or activities.

“Replacing nonfunctional grass with landscapes that use less water is going to be very important across the West in the future as we deal with the impacts of hotter weather and more variable precipitation,” said Austin Krcmarik, water efficiency planner at Denver Water. 

“In the case of nonfunctional grass, in most cases, if people aren’t using it, chances are they won’t miss it when it’s gone.”

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Krcmarik said other communities considering landscape changes should not rush into it. Instead, they should create a plan that includes the following steps:

  • Evaluate the wants and needs of the community.
  • Determine what plants and trees fit the community’s needs.
  • Determine what irrigation system changes are needed.
  • Make sure there is a long-term maintenance plan in place.

“It’s important for our community members to have realistic expectations for landscape changes,” Krcmarik said. “These projects take time and money but will help us reduce our water consumption in the long run. After initial establishment, they can also lower irrigation bills and maintenance costs for the customer.” 

Bensko uses a spreader to apply additional prairie grass seed to the field. Arapahoe County decided to replace the old Kentucky bluegrass because the field was not being used for athletics or recreation. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Krcmarik said as Colorado’s population grows and the climate changes, landscapes will need to be sustainable and able to do more in the future.

“We need landscapes that are naturally adaptive to drought conditions and can survive when we have to issue tighter watering restrictions,” he said. “Landscapes can help provide shade, aid in stormwater management, provide environments for native pollinators and animals and help reduce air pollution. We want people to rethink their landscapes and what Arapahoe County is doing serves as a great example.”

Irrigation will be used on the field for several weeks to help the new seeds germinate. Once the grass is established, it should survive solely on the moisture provided by Mother Nature. The sprinklers will only be used on the field during times of extremely hot and dry weather. Photo credit: Denver Water.