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Pretty, ugly 

While our flagship parks get groomed for summer, our little ones gasp for air ... and water ... and fertilizer ...

It's early May. Kurt Schroeder stands on a dandelion patch in Wasson Park, a rare living island in an expanse of dirt.

This aging neighborhood park, located adjacent to the intersection of Circle and Constitution avenues, is surrounded by homes, each featuring happier turf than this supposed community asset.

Schroeder shakes his head.

"It's gone," he says. "There's nothing left."

Across the city, Schroeder, manager of Parks, Trails and Open Space for Colorado Springs, knows of neighborhood parks that look a lot like Wasson. The grass is dead. The trees are stressed. The weeds claim whatever parcels they deem suitable.

You've probably heard a lot about the plight of our parks in recent years. You may remember how the experts pushed the panic button in the winter and spring of 2010, warning that parks would be dead and brown by mid-summer. The concern was recession-spurred cutbacks that had decimated the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department budget, slashing its general fund appropriation from $19.6 million in 2008 to $3.7 million last year.

But those warnings seemed alarmist to many. Last July, a stroll through, say, Memorial Park revealed green grass, leafy trees and singing birds. Some emergency.

What many in the public didn't understand about the cuts was that big parks, like Memorial, were never affected. Even last year, with parks budgets at their lowest, sports complexes, special-event venues and high-profile "community parks" (i.e., America the Beautiful, Acacia, etc.) continued on a normal watering schedule. It was the 135 neighborhood parks that took the hit.

And many of those parks look less than lush this spring. Schroeder says about 30 percent of them are OK, 40 percent need help, and another 30 percent are in serious condition.

Grass 101

Neighborhood parks are where most people go for picnics and games of Frisbee. They're hot spots for children's soccer practices, moms' playgroups, and Easter egg hunts.

On a sunny afternoon in late May, Edward Bertalan is out kicking a ball for his two energetic German pointers in Boulder Park. The dogs need to run every day, and come summer, Boulder is the best spot near Bertalan's home to do it.

As he explains why he can't take them to nearby open space — "the rattlesnakes are back out" — the dogs run across the expanse. It's mostly mud. Their paws throw chunks of it skyward.

Anyone who has ever killed his lawn knows that grass, despite its ubiquity, is actually a rather temperamental plant. Listen to the experts for a while, actually, and you'll wonder why you even make the effort each year. Many problems can turn your lawn brown, and all of them have taken root in our neighborhood parks as of late. For example:

Water. Bluegrass, the most common grass used in lawns and in our city parks, needs quite a bit of supplemental water. According to the National Weather Service, Colorado Springs gets an average of 17.4 inches of precipitation annually. Based on those averages, Colorado State University's Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture recommends 24 to 26 inches of supplemental irrigation be applied each year to bluegrass.

In the Springs, there's a dual problem on this front. First, there hasn't been enough sprinkler water. In 2008, a dry winter led into a dry spring, so the parks department began watering early in order to save the sod. That backfired when its water budget ran out in mid-September, a month and a half short of normal time. Grass sat dry until 2009. Then, due to budget cutbacks, neighborhood parks received less than 20 inches of sprinkler water in 2009, and only 16 inches in 2010. They'll receive 20 inches this year.

To make matters worse, it's often been hot, dry and windy, a combo that parches grass and leaves it thirsty for more water than average, not less. In 2010, Colorado Springs received 9.37 inches of moisture, or just 53.8 percent of the average. This year looks bad, too, despite these last few weeks of moisture; as of May 18, the Springs had received 2 inches of rain year-to-date, 2.66 inches below average.

"The bottom line is, Mother Nature hasn't been kind to us these last few years," Schroeder says.

Meanwhile, some parks haven't even been able to make good use of the scarce water available. Dozens of city parks have irrigation systems that are decades old, and some are partially broken, or simply ineffective at evenly spreading water.

Soil composition. Grass grows better when soil is the right mix of sand and clay. Sodium content, pH, microorganisms and other factors also make a difference. Colorado Springs tends to have clay-heavy soils, which pack rock hard with use, strangling the roots of grass. In some of the newer parks, greater attention was paid to soil composition, and the grass is therefore healthier. But in older parks, the clay-heavy soils mean the grass struggles to soak up and retain the little water it receives.

Fertilizer. Grass needs the nitrogen in fertilizer to stay healthy. Neighborhood parks should be fertilized one to three times a year. Unfortunately, neighborhood parks haven't been fertilized since 2007. This year, they are getting the fertilizer they crave, but for much of the sod, it will be too little, too late.

Aeration. With use, the ground under grass becomes tightly compacted, forcing grass to grow its roots barely below the surface of the ground. This weakens the plant and makes it easy to rip up.

Aeration pokes holes into the ground, allowing water to penetrate and soften the soil so that grass can grow deeper roots. High-use sports fields may need to be aerated once a month. Neighborhood parks need it just two to three times a year. The last time neighborhood parks were aerated was 2008.

• Wear. It should be no secret that soccer cleats play havoc with grass. But it's not just those clumps of grass they throw in the air. It's the constant pounding on the ground that compacts soil and squishes roots.

Over the years, local sporting opportunities have grown. Currently, sports are played in the parks from early March to early November, with games on sports fields and practices in neighborhood parks. The constant barrage means that grass is harassed when it's in its fragile "dormant" state in spring and fall, and never gets a chance to recover.

Soccer is particularly troublesome for grass, and it's the nation's fastest-growing team sport.

Need green to make green

Of course, the biggest element that's been missing from our neighborhood parks isn't water or fertilizer. It's money.

"As a general statement, my budget hasn't increased in the 12 years [I've worked for the department]," Schroeder says, "but the number of neighborhood parks has increased about 30 percent."

The recession has led to the drastic cuts, particularly in 2010. "That's when things really went south for us," Schroeder says.

During that same period, prices for supplies like fertilizer and water have skyrocketed. In 2009 alone, Colorado Springs Utilities increased its water rates 44 percent.

Other obligations have also been eating into the bottom line. For instance, copper theft is once again on the rise, with thieves targeting large valves that control park sprinkler systems. Last year, 27 valves were stolen, costing about $15,000, plus labor.

The issue is so concerning that the parks department removed all 250 of its copper valves over the winter, then had to put them back this spring — leading to a delay in the sprinkler activation in many parks. When the valves were reinstalled in the Briargate area, 10 were quickly stolen.

It's all added up to an ugly situation that few people see as clearly as Larry Musser, a Colorado Springs resident and president of International Sports Turf. He travels around the country examining grass in sports fields and making recommendations based on what he finds. He also hosts 30 to 40 seminars a year on sports field maintenance.

Needless to say, he's seen a lot of torn-up turf in his time. And yet, he says, "I haven't seen anything quite as dramatic as I've seen right here in Colorado Springs."

Musser knows why bluegrass is popular; it's the only cool-weather grass that "mends." In other words, if a bare spot appears, bluegrass will eventually spread and cover up the hole. Rye and fescue grass won't do that unless a park is reseeded.

But in extremely high-use areas, Musser suggests using artificial turf. The city has one artificial-turf field (combo soccer and lacrosse) at El Pomar Youth Sports Park, at 2212 Executive Circle, and more are planned for Venezia Community Park in Briargate, an $8.7 million project expected to get under way this year after many budget-related delays.

Unfortunately, it's pricey — $6.50 to $14 per square foot, as compared to $1.50 to $3 per square foot for bluegrass with an irrigation system. And it needs to be replaced every 8 to 10 years. So most of Colorado Springs will have to stick to bluegrass, even as people use neighborhood parks for football, soccer, lacrosse and rugby practice nearly year-round.

"They're playing on it, and it can't defend itself," Musser says.

Youth and adult sports have remained popular throughout the recession, even as the parks department raised fees to offset costs. A spring season of youth tackle football, added less than five years ago, now boasts 2,400 participants. Summer softball for adults has been so well-received that the department recently added a second summer season.

All told, about 12,000 kids participate in parks department sports every year, along with 25,000 to 50,000 adults. Plenty of private and school leagues use the parks as well.

City Recreation Supervisor Gerry Strabala says he's trying to work collaboratively with Schroeder to find ways to "rest" turf on some high-use sports fields, allowing the grass to grow. But it will be hard to place limits on neighborhood parks, which are open to the public for any use on a first-come, first-served basis.

Growing hope

This isn't to say it's all bad news for city parks. The 2011 parks general fund budget has expanded back to $8.5 million — meaning the return of median maintenance, trash service and park bathroom access.

Also, last November, voters approved a change to the Trails, Open Space and Parks tax that will allow 15 percent of those funds to be used for park maintenance for the next two years. With the increase in revenue, neighborhood parks will be given 20 inches of water and regular fertilization, aeration, and mowing this season.

Another program is strengthening those gains. In 2010, Utilities put together a conservation plan for "large potable irrigator water" users, that included revamping or replacing decrepit (and less than efficient) irrigation systems in 24 city parks — at a cost of $423,942 plus labor.

The plan also allowed the city to pay a discounted rate for park water based on a complicated formula that takes into account how much water parks usually need, as well as historic rainfall and weather patterns, and sets a limit for water use in parks for a year. Stay below the limit — about 80 percent of the water that parks really need — and the city pays a discounted rate. Exceed the limit, and costs could as much as double. (Hence, the parks department can't rub too close to that water limit, because a broken water main or a leak could mean inadvertently exceeding it.)

"So there's a carrot and there's a stick," Schroeder explains.

Many newly elected City Council members say preserving the city's parks is one of their foremost priorities — some even think that a great parks system will help attract new business to the community and grow the economy. And the El Paso County Board of Commissioners is considering putting a question on the November ballot that would ask voters for a small sales tax increase (just over a tenth of a cent per dollar), dedicated to parks maintenance.

The effort — which faces a commission that has seemed cool to other ballot questions so far — is led by the Great Parks-Great Communities citizen coalition. If approved, it would bring in around $9.4 million annually, with the lion's share going to Colorado Springs.

"[Residents] would see mainly a lot of the repairs and deferred maintenance taken care of," says Bill Koerner, advocacy director for the county's Trails and Open Space Coalition. "They would see greener parks because it would provide more water."

A tale of two parks

Schroeder steps out of his SUV and scans the area.

Look up, and Boulder Park is beautiful. Towering, mature cottonwoods and pines reach budding branches toward the sky.

Look out, and Memorial Hospital is visible near a softball diamond. A newer-looking playground sits empty.

Look down, and the ground is hard as a rock.

It's early May, and Schroeder can't help but think that this grass didn't look nearly so bad last summer. But the stress of a dry, windy winter combined with all those cleats in fall and spring was too much for this turf, and it succumbed. And while the sod here is mostly mend-happy bluegrass, it won't spread to fill more than a 5-foot hole.

Boulder makes the worst-of-the-worst list for city parks.

Musser, who has come along for the ride today, looks around and shakes his head. "This has to be, at a minimum, reseeded, fertilized and regraded," he says.

There will be an attempt to resuscitate some neighborhood parks this year. Schroeder plans to put extra love into parks with the newly revamped irrigation systems, which were paid for via the Utilities conservation program last year. Boulder was one of those parks. And so this year it will be reseeded, possibly multiple times. It will be aerated multiple times.

Schroeder insists he's not playing favorites. It's just that the parks with working sprinklers are the most likely to benefit from the pampering. And even lucky parks like Boulder will have tough odds, since they won't get what they most need — a break. When a park is reseeded, it shouldn't be walked on for two to three months.

"I just don't have that luxury with the number of uses we've been having," Schroeder says.

On a return visit in late May, green grass is sprouting on the edge of Boulder, but the center of the park remains a massive dirt patch.

To the north and east, Wasson Park has some grass, but ugly dead patches dot the landscape, and even the healthiest portions of turf are being taken over by weeds. Dandelion seeds dance along in the late-day breeze.

Wasson is a huge park by modern standards. It features basketball courts, a playground and a softball field. But its irrigation system may be the worst in the city. It was designed for a time when Colorado Springs was smaller and had more water, meaning that there was a higher flow level through the pipes. In the modern era, the flow level is lower, and sprinklers don't shoot out far enough to overlap.

It, like all parks, should see some improvement through mid-August, as new grass seeds germinate and grow stronger. But it will get reseeded once and aerated just once this summer. And while some parks will get new or upgraded sprinkler systems via Utilities' ongoing conservation program (which this year is operating with a more modest $200,000), Wasson probably won't.

It's just such a big park, Schroeder explains, that a new system would be a huge expense.

"Do you do two or three parks that are smaller," he asks, "or one big park like that?"

stanley@csindy.com


Trees are suffering, too

If the grass is dying, you can bet that the city's trees aren't in the best condition, either.

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