Thornton will be converting 300 acres of the city’s park’s Kentucky Blue Grass to native grasses and plants in the next 10-12 years.
Paul Burkholder, parks golf and forestry superintendent, and Emily Hunt, deputy infrastructure director, presented the item at the July 26 city council meeting.
Through the program, Naturally Thornton will convert 50% of the grass with 38 acres completed so far. With the city able to convert 25 acres per year, the project should be completed by 2034.
The city has 1,600 acres of open space lands, 600 acres of irrigated grass and 60 acres of shrub beds.
The new plants will be less water-intensive and more drought tolerant than the grass, helping conserve more water. Hunt said that conservation is the city’s best tool for water security.
The Parks and Recreation department is the city’s largest user of water, and 445 million gallons of water are required for the parks per year.
The conversion will hopefully reduce that demand by half, Burkholder said. The grass needs three feet of water each summer to keep green, with one foot usually coming from rain and the rest from irrigation.
Hunt also noted that with Thornton being in a semi-arid environment, the move is only reasonable. Not only will the action reduce water demand, but also be cost-effective with less money going to maintenance costs, pesticide use and labor, she said.
Burkholder said that with less labor needed, it can free up staff to tackle other projects in the future, like attending to weeds.
City Councilor Julia Marvin said on July 19 that residents are complaining about weeds in the city. City Manager Kevin Woods said the lack of maintenance is due to the shortage of city staff.
“Our fill rate is probably less than 50%,” he said on July 19, citing wage competition making it hard to keep and attract workers.
Marvin asked on July 26 what the city has been doing in those areas regarding weeds, since residents complained to her they are getting unruly.
Burkholder said within the first two years of implementation, weeds will grow while the grasses are starting to shape up. Down the line, they will go away.
Benefits of native grass
Burkholder explained the roots of native grasses and plants grow ten to 15 feet into the ground. With deeper roots, those plants can access water that is deeper in the soil which reduces irrigation demand.
As well, they can benefit native animal and insect species as well.
According to Mari Johnston, a natural resource extension agent at Colorado State University, native plants create miniature habitats in backyards for birds, insects and pollinators. Planting native species helps native insects because they support each other and the entire ecosystem.
“Without the pollinators, we wouldn’t have these plants. Without these plants, you wouldn’t have the pollinators and both of these things kind of serve as the base of our food webs,” White said. “By including native plant species in our gardens, we’re not only ensuring that those species continue to play their key parts in the Colorado ecosystem, but we’re providing much-needed resources to insects and to birds and other Colorado wildlife - food, shelter, materials for rearing their young.”
She noted that residents can replace their water-intensive plants with natives as well, and encouraged them to shop locally for those plants.