Aspen takes on ‘smart’ landscaping

Jul 23, 2017

The City of Aspen has a new ordinance regulating how much water can be used for landscaping.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

The City of Aspen has long encouraged residents to cut back on water consumption: Buy an efficient showerhead, turn off the tap while you brush your teeth. But now, officials are taking that message outside.

The lush green mid-summer lawns that dot Aspen’s landscape don’t just rely on summer monsoon rainstorms. They depend on irrigation. The Aspen Water Utility statistics show that about 60 percent of residential water use goes toward landscaping, even though most sprinklers only run a few months of the year. City officials hope to change that.

“We have to look at the importance of having smart water use,” said Molly Somes of the Aspen Parks Department. “We have to protect our resources."

Aspen City Council approved a new ordinance that regulates outdoor water use this past spring. Landscape architects working on new projects are required to go through a design review with the parks department, and it sets a 7.5 gallon per square foot cap on summer irrigation.

So, will this actually save water? Nate Hines is a water planner and irrigation consultant who works in Colorado, Arizona, California and other arid western states.


“Just a design ordinance is good, but it's not a silver bullet,” Hines said.

Hines identifies three problems with water efficiency: design, management and maintenance.

Broken sprinkler heads, like this one shooting water into the air and onto the sidewalk, account for nearly a third of inefficiencies in outdoor water use, according to irrigation expert Nate Hines.
Credit Carolyn Sackariason / Aspen Public Radio

“There's a huge breakdown between how a system is designed and then how it's actually managed day-to-day, and there’s just an extraordinary amount of waste there,” he said.

At least in its pilot year, the city is only requiring efficient design. Areas of lush green grass will need to be offset with plantings of native, drought-resistant plants and grasses. It also means installing so-called “smart” irrigation systems that react to real-time weather. These can conserve up to half the water compared to older sprinklers.

Somes is tasked with taking inventory of the city’s own outdoor water use.

"I'm going to take a look at all of those parks and really kind of map out where we're doing strong, where we could do some better efforts," Somes said.

Still, large city parks, like Wagner or Paepcke in the heart of Aspen, likely won’t see native grasses replace the typical turf, like Kentucky bluegrass.

"We want to be careful not to damage the aesthetic of Aspen and the historical aspects of Aspen through this process,” she said.

That process will have implications for local landscape architects, but Patrick Rawley with Stan Clauson Associates said the new requirements won’t mean changes to his daily design work. Native grasses and smart irrigation aren’t new concepts.

"They're a matter of course for a good landscape design office," Rawley said.  

The new ordinance does mean another set of permit approvals before developers can start projects.

"This is going to be another layer of added regulations of things we already do as best practices in the profession," he said.  

Somes and other city officials admit that this will add time and expense to the development process, and the City of Aspen’s permit process is notoriously slow. Plus, Rawley said, large consumers of water, like golf courses and parks, should be included in this new ordinance.

"Saddling an individual homeowner to be the magic bullet to solve our water problem seems to be misplaced," Rawley said.     

But the value of that water is one thing that all parties agree on.

“It is the most important resource that we have,” said irrigation consultant Nate Hines. “We should treat it like a stack of gold bars.”

The city is hosting an informational meeting Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. at the Aspen Fire Station.