Land use moves to center of Colorado’s water discussion
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:
• The Summer 2015 issue of Headwaters magazine, at http://www.yourwatercolorado.org/cfwe-education/headwaters-magazine/summer-2015-water-land-use .
• Section 6.3.3 of the July 2015 draft of the Colorado Water Plan, at: http://www.coloradowaterplan.com .
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.
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