According to a panel of water and land-use experts at last week’s Colorado Water Congress, Coloradans might have to learn to live with smaller lawns, smaller parks and other landscaping changes to help conserve water.
The state water plan outlines a “stretch goal” for municipalities to conserve 400,000 acre-feet of water annually over the next couple of decades. That goal was based on a host of suggestions from municipalities across the state and merged into one conservation goal. It’s a lofty goal — hence the term “stretch.”[…]
Matthew Mulica of the Keystone Policy Center said his organization is spearheading a “Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue.” The effort, now in its second year, looks at the potential benefits of integrating land and water planning and increasing housing density. The conversation brought to the table water providers, land-use planners and developers, public officials, and others with a stake in the matter. The group is first looking at Denver and Aurora water-service areas, and Mulica said they hope the findings will apply to the rest of the state.
They’re examining land and water planning that allows water to play a more prominent role in land-use choices; how to increase “densification” and decrease landscaping, while still maintaining the lifestyle that Coloradans enjoy; and which land-use patterns hold the greatest promise for cutting water use.
It’s not necessarily conservation, Mulica told the audience at the Aug. 20 session. When old homes are torn down and new ones built, there should be ways to change landscaping to reduce water use, he said, or to build houses that make water conservation a priority…
Marc Waage of Denver Water said the group wants to develop a “toolbox of options” for land-use planners that would include conservation-minded land-use patterns.
One model looks at the benefits of increasing residential density, including small single-family homes, changing single-family units to multi-family units, and increasing the density of multi-family housing. That’s where the comparison with Denver’s Stapleton and Highlands neighborhoods arises.
But landscaping is where the greatest opportunity for conservation lies, said Brenda O’Brien of Green Industries of Colorado, a company also known as GreenCO.
O’Brien pointed out that most of the action items in the state water plan relate to outdoor water use. The idea, she said, is to put together best-management practices in land and water-use planning. Making sure these practices are enacted will likely take state laws and local ordinances, she added.
The General Assembly will have to take another stab at changing the state’s construction defects law, according to Scott Smith of the Colorado Association of Home Builders.
Smith wasn’t as gung-ho about changing landscaping for individual homes. His industry has to anticipate what the market will look like in five to 10 years, he said, which means identifying development properties, coming up with financial partners, and making sure a project is profitable.
“Housing and community development comes from the private market, and economics drive the process,” Smith said. “Landscaping is the red-headed stepchild in the economics and financing of housing.”
But landscaping isn’t always up to the developer — it’s often left to the homeowner, Smith said. In addition, housing developments are required to provide open spaces and parks, and that tends to be even more important in high-density developments.
Smith also hinted that homeowners need to take a more active role in water conservation. The state and local building codes now require low-flow water fixtures, but he suspects residents game the system by flushing toilets multiple times or simply taking longer showers.
Then there are expectations about what parks should look like. Smith cited Colorado Springs as an example: the water utility directly bills the parks department for its water use, a rarity among municipalities. Because it has been stuck with the cost, the parks department has had to take a hard look at its water use and is going through an extensive process to redevelop parks, converting some heavily-irrigated areas to native plants.
Another area for conservation could be soccer fields, Smith said, converting grass to artificial turf. “You can’t water those fields enough,” he said. Commercial and industrial users should also play a part, he added.
“We do live in a desert. It’s hard to see that because we have made it this,” said Jim Havey, director of a new documentary called “The Great Divide.”
It explores how Colorado settlers, from early Native Americans to 20th century civil engineers, used water to create the state we call home today. 9NEWS is also broadcasting documentary film “The Great Divide” on Monday, Aug. 31, at 7 p.m. on KTVD-TV, Channel 20…
The film looks forward as well, specifically at the Colorado Water Plan. It’s the first ever comprehensive plan, attempting to guide the state towards a future where more water will be needed to deal with a predicted doubling of the population: 10 million people by 2050.
“We’ve got multiple sectors all across this state that depend on water and making sure that water is delivered with some certainty to them and reliably,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is shaping the water plan.
The pressure for more water could potentially put a strain on the state’s agriculture sector, where farmers and ranchers – who have senior water rights – could sell those rights to growing urban areas.
“Those farmers and ranchers who made an economic decision to move that water from their land and move it to a municipal use—that’s where the balance comes about,” said Colorado Farm Bureau President Don Shawcroft…
We want to make sure that as we move forward with a strategic plan, we’re able to deal with drought, flooding, wildfire – all the things that have been thrown at this state over the course of the last several years — in a strategic manner,” Eklund said.
The final draft of the Colorado Water is set to be finished by Dec. 10. The state is still taking public comment on it, but that will end on Sept. 17. To add your voice to the plan, go to http://coloradowaterplan.com.
Here’s the release from the Colorado River Water Conservancy District via Jim Pokrandt:
Two of the most important women in Western water leadership will be addressing the Colorado River District’s popular Annual Water Seminar in Grand Junction, Colo., that takes place Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Two Rivers Convention Center.
Headlining the event are Jennifer Gimbel, the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, the U.S. Department of the Interior; and Pat Mulroy, Senior Fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ Brookings Mountain West, as well as a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington, D.C. She retired in 2014 as General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Ms. Gimbel is well known in Colorado for her work as director at the Colorado Water Conservation Board before she moved to federal positions with the Department of the Interior that culminated with her ascendency to the post that oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado River administration. Ms. Mulroy oversaw the Southern Nevada Water Authority for 21 years where she got results as well as headlines in positioning Las Vegas for growth in the face of limited water supply.
The theme of the seminar is: “Will What’s Happening in California Stay in California?” Cost of the seminar, which includes lunch, is $30 if pre-registered by Friday, Sept. 4, $40 at the door. Register at the River District’s website: http://www.ColoradoRiverDistrict.org. Call Meredith Spyker at 970-945-8522 to pay by credit card.
The day’s speakers will draw an arc of water supply and policy concern from the Pacific to Colorado, looking at the basics of climate and weather generated by the Pacific, dire drought in California and what that means to the interior West, the still-on-the-horizon planning to deal with low reservoir levels at Lakes Powell and Mead, and finally, an analysis of Colorado’s Water Plan, still in draft form.
Klaus Wolter, a pre-eminent analyst of El Nino-La Nina conditions in the Pacific will preview the growing El Nino conditions and what they will mean for snowpack this winter. He is a research scientist at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory’s Physical Sciences Division in Boulder and world renowned in his field.
Also at the seminar, Colorado River District staff will speak to its policy initiative that new paradigm in Colorado Water Planning is how to protect existing uses, especially irrigated agriculture in Western Colorado, in the face of diminishing supplies and potential demand management necessities. Issues of planning for new transmountain diversion (TMD) remains a big focal point in Colorado’s Water Plan, but it is drought and reservoir levels that will command the system before a TMD can be honestly contemplated.
Other speakers will address irrigated agriculture’s role in water planning, efficiency and conservation planning and financing and more.
An agricultural impact statement for water transfers might become a state tool as the result of a state water plan that’s expected to be finished later this year.
“When I’ve talked about it with the agricultural community, they see it like NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and more red tape,” said James Eklund, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “But really, it’s just making sure all information about impact is disseminated.”
Eklund and John Stulp, the governor’s water policy adviser, visited with The Pueblo Chieftain editorial board Thursday.
Eklund threw out the idea of an ag impact statement as one way to evaluate how taking water from a community could change it down the road. Like many other parts of the water plan, however, it remains more of a suggestion than a directive.
The CWCB is writing the water plan on orders from Gov. John Hickenlooper, and it is due by Dec. 10. Nearly two years and dozens of meetings and hearings have gone into the document. More than 26,000 comments have been received in a process that Eklund called “unprecedented” for including public comment.
An ag impact statement would help ensure that taking water permanently out of agriculture is a last resort, but there is no way the state can ban the practice, Eklund said.
“If how development occurs becomes a Colorado question, it takes us out of being a local control state,” he said.
Instead, the water plan provides a wealth of options about alternative transfer methods that do not permanently dry up agriculture.
“Where agriculture will keep water, it will buy time,” Stulp said. “If alternative transfers are voluntary, they have options.”
It’s not possible to ban future transfers, because of the nature of water rights in Colorado, Eklund said.
But the flexibility or agility to use water rights in different ways is important. Eklund insisted the water plan does not condone flex water rights that have failed to become law in the last two legislative sessions.
“When we talk to the ag community, you can get nervous looks, and they ask ‘What’s that going to mean to us?’ We can’t say your property right is the subject of our investigation,” Eklund said. “But stopping buy-and-dry, that’s going to take agility or flexibility.” The water plan won’t supersede state water law, but could expand or introduce concepts in much the same way as recent changes like instream flows, recreational in-channel diversions and storage as a beneficial use.
“We’ve done things as pilots like HB1248 (a 2013 bill allowing long-term leasing), and the danger is they become permanent,” Stulp said. “But the purpose is to give generational changes a chance temporarily.”
“We’re looking for that sweet spot where we can keep producers in agriculture,” Eklund added.
A milestone in state water planning was reached Tuesday as members of the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee unanimously endorsed the latest version of a “conceptual framework” to guide discussions between East and West Slope interests about any new transmountain diversion.
“It’s not perfect, but I think we’re in general agreement this is a good starting point, and if ever there is a transmountain diversion, there will be, no doubt, additional negotiations,” said John Stulp, chairman of the IBCC.
Today in Colorado, between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet of water is diverted each year from the West Slope to the more populous East Slope.
The latest draft of the framework, tweaked Tuesday regarding statewide water conservation goals, will now be forwarded to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for inclusion in the final Colorado Water Plan, which is to be delivered to Gov. John Hickenlooper by Dec. 10.
“I would be surprised if it would change significantly from where we’re at today,” Stulp said of the conceptual framework.
To help satisfy the concerns of some members of the IBCC, staff from the Colorado Water Conservation Board drafted an additional introductory paragraph – during a break in the meeting – about the conceptual framework to be included in the water plan.
“The intent of the conceptual framework is to represent the evolving concepts that need to be addressed in the context of a new transmountain diversion as well as the progress made to date in addressing those concepts,” the new introductory paragraph states. “The conceptual framework refers to several topics, including conservation, storage, agricultural transfers, alternative transfer methods, environment resiliency, a collaborative program to address system shortages, already identified projects and processes (IPPs), additional Western Slope uses, and other topics that are not exclusively linked to a new TMD, but are related to Colorado’s water future. The conceptual framework, like the rest of the Colorado Water Plan, is a living document and is an integrated component of the plan. Many of these topics are further discussed in more detail in other sections of Colorado’s Water Plan.”
The IBCC is made up of two members from each of the state’s nine basin roundtables, six governors’ appointees and two members of the Legislature.
Since 2013, the committee has been working on the seven core principles in the framework, which spells out under what terms a new transmountain diversion might be acceptable to the West Slope.
For example, a new project should not increase the likelihood of a call from California for more water under the Colorado Compact, or preclude future growth on the West Slope.
And it “should avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse environmental impacts where possible” and address the concept of “environmental resiliency.”
“Nothing is perfect, but I think adding environmental resiliency into the water plan – which happened because we got it into the conceptual framework and now it’s also in the body of the plan in chapter six – I think that’s a big step forward,” said Melinda Kassen, who represents environmental interests on the IBCC, and was speaking during a break in the meeting.
“And I like the fact that it’s also combined and we have a much more robust commitment and description of what we need to do in regard to compact compliance,” Kassen said. “So I think there are a lot of things in the conceptual framework that we have to work on – triggers, collaborative water management program, environmental resiliency, conservation – those are the action steps for moving forward. I think we need to move on, but I think the conceptual framework is a pretty good deal and we should take it and move on. And not just in terms of the conceptual framework, but in terms of the whole water plan. It’s a plan, and now we have to ‘do.’”
“A bunch of hoops”
Bill Trampe, a rancher in Gunnison County and a member of the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable, also supports the framework.
“For future transmountain diversions to occur, according to the framework, the proponent is going to have to go through a bunch of hoops,” Trampe said. “If the proponent is willing to take the gamble that there is enough water to merit the expense of the project, then go for it.”
Trampe’s suggested that if a project proponent takes a hard look at a potential new transmountain diversion, and does so through the lens of the conceptual framework, they may find that there just isn’t enough water to make a project viable.
Principle three of the framework deals with “triggers,” or the amount of water available in the larger Colorado River system, that may or may not allow water to be diverted to the East Slope.
“Triggers are operating parameters that determine when and how much water a potential new TMD could divert, based upon predetermined conditions within the Colorado River System,” a recent draft of the framework states. “Such parameters include, but are not limited to, specific storage elevations in one or more Colorado River System reservoirs, projected inflows at key Colorado River System locations, actual reservoir inflows over specific defined periods, snowpack levels, predictive models – or combinations of these – which would trigger certain actions and prevent others.”
In a brief interview after the meeting, Trampe said the water trends do not favor a new transmountain diversion.
“If hydrology does not improve, then the issues on the Colorado River are going to become worse,” Trampe said. “Mead and Powell continue to go down. They are not stabilized. They are not rising. They continue to go down. So if a proponent of a project looks at all of that, and still thinks there is water available, I guess there is not much we can do about it, except go through step four, the collaborative process, where we identify the risks and the ways we go about alleviating those risks to the various parties, particularly on the West Slope.”
Step, or principle, four in the framework discusses a proposed collaborative program to manage water in the Colorado River basin, and points out such a program is needed regardless of whether a new diversion is built or not.
“The collaborative program should provide a programmatic approach to managing Upper Division consumptive uses, thus avoiding a Compact deficit and insuring that system reservoir storage remains above critical levels, such as the minimum storage level necessary to produce hydroelectric power reliably at Glen Canyon Dam (minimum power pool),” the draft framework states. “A goal of the collaborative program is that it would be voluntary and compensated, like a water bank, to protect Colorado River system water users, projects and flows. Such protection would NOT cover uses associated with a new TMD.”
Trampe also pointed out that the conceptual framework is only a first screen for a potential new transmountain diversion, as any project would still have to go through existing regulatory reviews at, potentially, the federal, state and county level.
“Even if you think you can get through this process, you still have to go through the normal legal channels and permitting that is in existence today,” Trampe said. “You’re still going to have the traditional things to go through, particularly if you’ve not adopted the principles within the framework.”
The conceptual framework is not legally binding, as Colorado water law still allows for a water provider to propose a new transmountain diversion without referencing the conceptual framework. But it is seen as a way for Western Slope communities to review a proposed diversion against publicly adopted parameters.
The conceptual framework has been discussed at various other roundtable meetings around the state in recent weeks.
“I think that this gives us protections that otherwise we don’t have,” said Karn Stiegelmeier, a Summit County commissioner, during a July 27 meeting of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, shortly before that roundtable endorsed the conceptual framework.
But during the same meeting, Ken Ransford, who represents recreational interests on the Colorado Roundtable, voted against the framework.
“This agreement doesn’t have teeth,” Ransford said. “It’s not enforceable. It gives us no legal rights. And the Front Range has said they are still willing to come over here and purchase agricultural water rights as necessary to protect their existing diversions. So I keep asking myself, what are we getting out of this?”
However Ken Neubecker, the associate director of the Colorado River Basin Program for American Rivers, and the environmental representative on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, supported the conceptual framework, arguing it gives the Western Slope more protection.
“They could come over for a new transmountain diversion and ignore all of this right now, that’s just the way Colorado water law is,” Neubecker told the roundtable. “What this does do, along with the water plan, is set a high bar that they really are going to have to look at and try and comply with if they want to have a smoother road rather than a rougher road toward that end. They still have to go through permitting processes with the local counties and with the state, and the counties and the state can all look at it and say, ‘Well, where are you with complying with this? Where is your plan with point number four, point number three, whatever?’ It does give us that element of a condition, while not legally required, is something that politically would be a good thing to pay attention to.”
After the August 25th meeting in Keystone, Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, which represents 15 West Slope counties, said the framework — if deployed correctly — could help protect West Slope interests.
“The West Slope is better off under the conceptual framework if, and it’s a big if, we follow through and have the discussions that are contemplated by the framework,” Kuhn said. “If it just sits on the shelf, it’s worthless for us.”
The first of the seven principles in the framework states “East Slope water providers are not looking for firm yield from a new transmountain diversion, and the project proponent would accept hydrologic risk for that project.”
That means that a Front Range water provider who proposes a new transmountain diversion must understand that there may not be water to divert every year, depending on snowpack, weather and the amount of water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the latter because of legal minimum water guarantees for downstream states.
“It’s not just, is there enough water, it is whether there is enough reliable water,” Kuhn said of the core principle. “If you are a community, and you are providing water to people, it’s not good enough to have water three out of four years. People want water four out of four years.”
Which may mean, Kuhn said, that a big new diversion project is not worth pursuing.
After the meeting, Kuhn wrote a memo to the River District’s board of directors, in which he spelled out the divide evident at the Keystone meeting over the appropriate levels of water conservation that should be expected of municipal water providers.
“The IBCC met on Tuesday August 25th in Keystone,” Kuhn wrote. “The primary area of discussion (and conflict) was conservation. A separate IBCC committee on conservation developed what we now refer to as the stretch goal. Under the most simplified explanation, the ‘stretch goal’ is stretching the medium goal of 280,000 acre-feet of statewide conservation savings to 400,000 acre-feet. The goal timeline is 35 years, from now to 2050.
“The framework committee tried to incorporate this into the seven point framework in principle 6, but we did so in an awkward way,” Kuhn wrote. “The bottom line is that the South Platte and Metro roundtables are having second thoughts about the stretch goal. I heard three concerns: First, they could become part of the federal permitting process. Second, they’re not really attainable at this time. And third, they will undermine the ability to finance and operate new projects. The more our customers conserve, the less money they pay.
“We ultimately agreed to ‘soften’ the language, but the underlying tensions remain,” Kuhn wrote. “The West Slope roundtables remained united behind achieving the stretch goals, but expressed concern about smaller entities (which under the rules are not covered if they use less than 2,000 acre-feet per year).”
Clamoring for water
But to water interests on the Front Range, a new transmountain diversion is seen as an important tool to meet growing water demands, and getting the conceptual framework into the Colorado Water Plan is seen as a victory.
“It seems to me we’ve got a tremendous opportunity,” said Sean Cronin, the executive director of the St. Vrain & Left Hand Water Conservancy District in Longmont, during an Aug. 11 meeting of the South Platte Basin Roundtable in which he urged the roundtable members to endorse the conceptual framework.
“We have been clamoring for a transmountain diversion since the very first day of the roundtable,” Cronin said. “We now have a transmountain diversion framework sitting in a statewide water plan that’s nearly to the point of being approved and adopted.”
After Tuesday’s meeting in Keystone, IBCC member Wayne Vanderschuere, who oversees water planning for Colorado Springs Utilities, said a new transmountain diversion “needs to be in the cards,” especially to slow the practice of buying water from agricultural operations to meet growing municipal demands.
“The Colorado River has its own unique challenges irrespective of transmountain diversions, that everyone needs to take ownership of,” Vanderschuere said, referring to the state’s obligations under the Colorado Compact. “So we need to address that. But we also have an obligation to responsibly develop our portion of the compact entitlement, and to the extent we can do that, we should pursue that.”
Vanderschuere also praised the state’s existing array of transmountain diversions.
“The current transbasin diversions and the associated storage with them have done more to booster the economic, environmental, and environmental resiliency of Colorado than any other thing I can think of,” he said. “The storage, the flatwater recreation, the whitewater recreation, the environmental habitat, the economic benefits of having that water available, east and west, for recreation, for municipal and industrial – huge. Colorado would not be where it is today without those transbasin diversions that are currently in place. So we have to acknowledge that that’s been a huge success on all fronts.”
View from the CWCB
At a meeting on Aug. 21 in Vail of the Colorado Water Congress, John McClow, the general counsel of the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, and a board member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, described the conceptual framework, and the “historic conflict” in Colorado over transmountain diversions, for a ballroom full of members of the state’s professional water community.
“The most pressing question I’ve heard throughout the Western Slope is ‘What are we going to do about new transmountain diversion?’ All of the Western Slope roundtables addressed it to some extent in their basin implementation plans,” McClow said. “The South Platte Roundtable, the Metro Roundtable, talked about it in their plans. But those collective comments still reflected what I believe was conflict on the issue. It is a historic conflict – east versus west – and it’s been going on before Colorado was a state. What I’m happy to report is that the IBCC took it upon themselves to try and find a solution to that conflict.
“That group worked for over a year putting together seven principles that would create a framework around which a new transmountain diversion could be developed. It is not an agreement, it is not a regulation, it is not mandatory, but it confronts reality on every aspect of what will be necessary to consider in the event that a proponent wishes to pursue a new transmountain diversion. It’s couched in terms of seven principles, and each of them addresses one element of it. Some go a little bit beyond the strict interpretation of a transmountain diversion.
“What’s most important to remember is that it is not a rule,” McClow said. “What it does is set forth the obstacles that would occur in the event that a proponent were considering one, that it is to say, the physical and legal availability of water in the basin of origin, which is addressed by Colorado water law. But it reaches beyond that to say that if the new development occurs within the Colorado River system, which is what we’ve always identified as our source of new supply, we have to look beyond the state boundary and look at the big river system because of our obligations to other states on the Colorado River.
“We have to be careful that in developing that additional water, we don’t overdraft our entitlement under the Colorado River Compact and Upper Colorado River Compact. This framework provides a process to address those issues. And further, to say we have to have some means of evaluating the possibility of diversions by this new project through triggers. And without defining the triggers, its says there are places you need to look to figure out when and how much water could be diverted by a new transmountain diversion.
“The principles go beyond that and look at issues such as West Slope – East Slope collaborative benefits from a single project, it talks about conservation standards for the proponent of a new transmountain diversion, it talks about environmental and recreational sustainability within the state.
“I hope that we, the conservation board, will adopt this framework and incorporate it into the water plan so that we can remove this controversy because Colorado can’t move forward in conflict, we’ve got to move forward with consensus,” McClow said. “And this is a burning issue, Front Range and West Slope, and I’m hoping that for once in our history we can sit down and say ‘We’ve agreed on how this can actually happen, should it be possible, as long as it is done reasonably and responsibly and reflects the reality of our circumstances at the time.'”
The seven principles b the draft conceptual framework:
1. East Slope water providers are not looking for firm yield from a new transmountain diversion (TMD) and the project proponent would accept hydrologic risk for that project.
2. A new TMD would be used conjunctively with East Slope supplies, such as interruptible supply agreements, Denver basin aquifer resources, carry-over storage, terminal storage, drought restriction savings, and other non-West Slope water sources.
3. In order to manage when a new TMD would be able to divert, triggers are needed.
4. A collaborative program that protects against involuntary curtailment is needed for existing uses and some reasonable increment of future development in the Colorado River System, but it will not cover a new TMD.
5. Future West Slope needs should be accommodated as part of a new TMD project.
6. Colorado will continue its commitment to improve conservation and reuse.
7. Environmental resiliency and recreational needs must be addressed both before and conjunctively with a new TMD.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published a shorter version of this story on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, as did the Post.
Not long ago, mentions of growth control as a tool to reduce water demands tended to be written off by Colorado water insiders as too complicated, outside the control of water providers and anti-economic development.
However, as the state’s water leaders have continued to debate how to meet the water needs of a growing population, the problems associated with getting more water from farms and West Slope streams have loomed larger, while the barriers to addressing water demand through land use strategies appear to have shrunk.
The link between water demand and land-use patterns occupied prime space on the agenda at last week’s summer meeting of the Colorado Water Congress, an entire issue of the Summer 2015 issue of Headwaters magazine, and its own subsection (6.3.3) in the July 2015 draft of the Colorado Water Plan. And House Bill 008, passed in 2015, requires land use strategies to be included in the water conservation plans that are required for large water providers to get financial assistance from the state.
While it’s been obvious for many years that big, green lawns require more water than apartment patios and rock gardens, the socially and politically acceptable tools for guiding growth in a less thirsty direction have been much less evident. Now, local governments and water providers with urgent water supply concerns are taking the lead in developing and implementing these tools in Colorado.
Communities south of Denver have been tapping groundwater faster than it can be replenished and are scrambling to get on a more sustainable water supply path. Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, reported to the Water Congress crowd that in addition to re-using their groundwater supplies and participating in a regional water re-use project with Denver and Aurora, South Metro communities are beginning to address water demand in the land development process.
Douglas County has a water section in its Master Plan, which promotes infill development and the preservation of rural and open space. Castle Rock is offering lower tap fees to developers that limit turf areas and install other water-efficiency measures in new developments and is seeking to reduce water demands in existing homes by paying residents to rip out grass. Residents of Castle Rock and Highlands Ranch face higher water rates if they exceed a customized “water budget,” and Parker requires rain sensors on irrigation systems.
A long-standing barrier to relying on conservation as a “new” water supply is the perception that people’s behavior is too fickle to be relied upon for future planning. Building conservation measures into land development through measures such as increasing density and establishing low water-use landscaping from the beginning can take away some of that uncertainty.
Better data on exactly how much water use comes with each style of development can also help. The Keystone Policy Center is working with Denver, Aurora and other local governments through the Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue to combine existing water use data with modeling tools to better quantify the water demand changes that could come with different land use patterns.
The fact that increased population does not necessarily lead to proportional increases in water use is already clear. As Allen Best points out in the summer Headwaters issue, Denver Water’s total water use has decreased by 5 percent since 1990, despite the fact that the population it serves has increased by more than 30 percent during the same period.
As our understanding of the link between water use and different land use patterns, pricing strategies and landscaping requirements becomes more precise, it may be possible to further de-couple population growth from increasing water use. This, in turn, could significantly reduce the need for irrigated agriculture and West Slope streams to supply more water for urban growth, without the need to erect any fences at the border.
To learn more about efforts to integrate water and land use planning in Colorado, see:
Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. This article is part of a series coordinated by the Water Center in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
Some might think the upcoming state water plan is a recipe book for an elegant 10-course dinner.
Turns out something else is on the menu.
You know, that old tale where a boiling rock becomes a tasty, fulfilling and nutritious dish as everyone adds a little something to the mix.
That’s the upshot of a three-day meeting of the Colorado Water Congress where the water plan served as the centerpiece of discussion. Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered up the water plan in 2013, a tumultuous weather year that featured drought, huge wildfires and floods. The document is expected to be completed in December, but even then will serve more as a cookbook than rule book or guidebook.
“The early discussion was, is this a textbook or a novel?” said Travis Smith, a Rio Grande basin member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board that is writing the state water plan.”We provided the textbook. I was interested in the novel that told the stories (of water).”
The plan has to be digested one bite at a time, Smith said. He advised Water Congress members to pick a chapter that interested them and read it, then add their own comments to the stew.
John McClow, who represents the Gunnison River basin on the CWCB, picked the section that discusses a collaborative framework for interbasin transfers — an idea that few from the Gunnison basin would have discussed 10 years ago.
The Interbasin Compact Committee still is seasoning that portion of the plan, so the current set of instructions already is outdated, he said. When it’s done, it will remain only a suggestion.
“We’re close to finding consensus about how a transfer could occur,” McClow said. “But it’s not a rule. It spells out the obstacles.”
Those obstacles are finding the balance among municipal water needs, protecting the Western Slope environment and satisfying Colorado River Compact needs with downstream states.
Patti Wells, representing Denver on the CWCB, dug through the ingredients already tossed in the pot and didn’t really like the taste.
While most of the people in Colorado have chosen to live in cities, their use of water — particularly for outdoor watering — has been described in terms of a problem, rather than a benefit, Wells said.
She pointed out that lawns and gardens reduce urban heat islands, improve water quality, increase property value and provide a place to play.
“That’s not to say we can’t use water wisely, but there is a value to people using water for outside uses,” she said.
By couching everything as a problem, it could be tougher to find solutions.
“Instead of trying to avoid the train wreck, we’re trying to figure out where to build the field hospitals,” she said.