Legislating lawns

Grass-limiting measure will prompt critical conversation

The age-old challenge to provide water to the growing number of users in Colorado always has provoked a Front Range-West Slope showdown. And because the latter has the water and the former disproportionately demands it, the dynamic is unlikely to ever diminish. Given that context, Sen. Ellen Roberts’ proposed bill to limit Front Range lawn sizes as a caveat for purchasing agricultural water rights makes perfect sense. The practicality and politics are another question.

Roberts’ bill would require that new subdivisions allow no more than 15 percent of each lot to be covered in grass, where water rights for the development will be purchased from agricultural uses. The notion is completely reasonable — necessary even — given the water equation in Colorado, but this mechanism for achieving wiser water use could be problematic.

As Roberts rightly points out, “Colorado is a high-altitude desert,” and calling that to developers’ and water rights holders’ attention is an important task for lawmakers at all levels. However, a statewide attempt to limit how development occurs in localities is sure to provoke a firestorm from homebuilders and local governments who would prefer not to have the state dictate what sort of development cities and counties allow.

It sets up a classic struggle over local vs. state control — a tricky equation when it involves water, a critical resource that is not equally distributed throughout the state. Nor is that distribution proportional to the population centers — a fact that puts Coloradans at regional odds with one another.

The measure’s origins and sponsorship underscore the regional and resource challenges it embodies. Roberts worked with her predecessor in the Senate, Bruce Whitehead, a Democrat and longtime director of Southwest Water Conservation District, to develop the bill which is co-sponsored by Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Democrats Ed Vigil of the San Luis Valley and Brighton’s Sen. Mary Hodge.

The geographical distribution of the sponsors, Hodge notwithstanding, tracks with water resources.

Those legislators are right to seek protections for those limited resources and suggesting wise use in exchange for water-rights transfers is absolutely in the state’s interest. Whether that goal can be achieved with Roberts’ measure is a matter of just how vehemently developers oppose it — and just how protective of their building code jurisdiction localities are.

Regardless of the fight that is sure to follow, Roberts and her co-sponsors have set a bold agenda for debating a serious issue that has complicated Colorado’s intrastate relationships for decades. That is a discussion that must happen and must produce results that will not necessarily be comfortable for all sides. The factors in the equation make it so.

Good for Roberts for establishing a crucial starting point for an even more essential conversation. She has named the issue well, and framed it appropriately. How it unfolds in the Legislature will be of critical interest for all Coloradans for generations to come.