A prolonged drought is forcing Denver Parks and Recreation to close its grass sports fields for soccer and lacrosse until April 1 — which will keep thousands of children and adults from playing their sports.
The news of the closure came only 15 days before the start of the spring season for most teams.
"Disappointing," said Aaron Nagle, executive director of Skyline Soccer Association, which has about 3,000 players ages 3-18. "We had the same conditions last year. I said we need to prepare. Then 15 days before we are supposed to start, this e-mail goes out."
Nagle sent e-mails to members of his organization, asking them to contact City Hall and push for a short-term solution for this season and to come up with a long-term plan to deal with drought conditions.
City officials, who say the fields are too vulnerable after more than a year of drought conditions, on Friday sent out an e-mail to notify organizations that fields in 80 to 100 parks will be shut down. Fields for baseball and softball will open March 18 — but not for soccer and other field sports.
"We don't have a lot of moisture," said parks spokesman Jeff Green. "(Wednesday) night's snow helped, but we will need more. If we were to let a lot of activity start up, the fields are going to get torn up and the grass will disintegrate. It jeopardizes keeping the fields open for the remainder of the season."
Denver officials sought the opinion of Prescription Root Zone, an international sports turf consulting company based in Colorado Springs. The firm's president advised the city to close the fields to allow the grass that has been dormant during winter to restore itself.
"If play is allowed on the drought-dormant grasses, the turf will be completely destroyed, and there is not enough sod in this region to replace all that would be destroyed nor the money it would take to do so," said Larry D. Musser in a Feb. 14 letter to the city.
Musser said allowing soccer to be played on the field would be "a disaster waiting to happen."
The city's golf courses are not being closed, but that could change, Green said.
"We have considered closing golf courses on rotating basis. But we are not seeing a tremendous overuse that we couldn't repair," he said.
The parks department will begin posting signs with closure information in the parks and at the fields. The closed areas will be monitored by city staff and rangers through April 1.
A message sent to sports organizations said groups that are found practicing or playing on the fields will be warned or issued citations and asked to leave the field.
The city is also delaying sending invoices to groups that have requested to use the fields for the summer. City officials will monitor the grass and moisture content daily. If conditions don't improve, the fields could be closed beyond April 1, Green said.
"March is typically our snowiest month," he said. "We are hoping that will help things."
Denver Public Schools, which has 362 acres of irrigated playgrounds and sports fields that normally consume 400 million gallons of water a year, is examining whether to shut down access to its fields. District officials will meet with Denver Water to figure out the next steps, but at this point, the district's fields are still open for the spring.
Ian Olson, who coaches his second-grade daughter's team, the Cobras, said he was planning to start practices Monday.
"I understand that the drought is impactful," he said, "but to close down the entire parks system because they are afraid of the fields getting torn up, ... you would think that they would have had a plan in place to mitigate for a shortage of water."
Bernie Woessner, whose sons have been playing soccer for Skyline for about seven years, said he wishes the parks department would help work out a solution. Now, kids in suburban communities will have access to fields, putting Denver's teams at a disadvantage.
Ultimately, he said, if the season gets canceled, a nearly 50-year-old nonprofit organization such as Skyline would have to refund all of its players their entry fees and it may not be able to survive.
"I think they could be flexible to make it work, by alternating fields," he said. "It's pretty disappointing for them to shut it down with no cooperation to figure out a solution."
Jeremy P. Meyer: 303-954-1367, email@example.com or twitter.com/jpmeyerdpost