Headwaters Summer 2015: The Water/Land Use Nexus

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GROWTH Why the way and why we grow it matters matters


Colorado Color Colo rado Water Water C Congress ong ngrress EST 1958

2015 S Summer ummer Conference Conference Co Prisms of Perception: Our Image, Our Vision August 19-21, 2015 Vail Cascade Resort

Join us to examine perceptions of Colorado’s water management. We will explore our vision for the future and the opportunities that exist within land use planning, growth, and climate change. Program Information and Registration at: www.CoWaterCongress.org


Mission in Motion



New Water Fluency Course Underway

NORTHERN WATER’S BRIAN WERNER (left) led a Water Fluency class site visit in May, which included a peek at Northern’s conservation garden along with features of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.

CFWE’s newest program successfully launched in spring when we admitted 32 community leaders who desire to “speak fluent water.” This diverse group of participants includes local elected officials, regional planners, rural water operators and special district board members. All are committed to better navigating the culture and complexity of water policy and management. Over several months in various sessions, the cohort is learning through online materials, exclusive site visits and facilitated group discussions. Water Fluency participants are posing difficult questions on how to solve local and statewide water challenges, while expert speakers and instructors equip them with knowledge and tools to lead with confidence. Congratulations to the inaugural 2015 Water Fluency class for your commitment to shaping the future of Colorado! Water Fluency is made possible through the generous support and guidance of our partners—the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Special District Association of Colorado, Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, Douglas County, Jefferson County, Denver Water, South Metro Water Supply Authority, and Northern Water. Contact kristin@yourwatercolorado.org to receive advance notification for dates, location and registration for the 2016 course.


Mission in Motion


On Tour with CFWE

VINE TO WINE TOUR On July 24, join CFWE’s Water Leaders, Colorado Mesa University’s Water Center and Colorado Water Congress’ POND group to explore both vineyards and irrigation operations, and how they relate to recovering endangered species in the Grand Valley. The tour will culminate in a wine tasting.


CFWE’s tours get you out of the office for fun-filled learning blended with professional networking. In June, we biked down the South Platte River with 75 eager cyclists to explore river health and watershed planning on our fourth-annual Urban Waters Bike Tour. The following week we packed 50 policy makers and dedicated professionals on a bus for a two-day Water Efficiency Tour, which highlighted exemplary models of water conservation and reuse along the Front Range. Don’t miss your next opportunity to get out on tour with CFWE:

URBAN WATERS Bike Tour participants got an on-site overview of the Chatfield Reallocation Project from Rick McLoud of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District in June.


“The Great Divide” Film Tour CFWE is proud to partner with Havey Productions to host portions of “The Great Divide” film tour, which begins with its premiere Aug. 6 at the University of Denver’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts. “From Ancient Puebloan cultures and the gold rush origins of Colorado water law to agriculture, dams, diversions and conservation, the film will reveal today’s critical need to cross ‘the great divide,’ replacing conflict with cooperation,” say the filmmakers. Screenings and lectures will continue through November. See www.thegreatdividefilm.com for dates and locations near you.

Public Works Natural Resources Proud to support the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. longmontcolorado.gov







Developers are responding to demographic shifts and resulting trends in consumer demand. AFFORDABLE • 11

Water is still one of the lowest-priced utilities on the market, but what and how we pay is changing.



Emmett Jordan—Cattle Rancher, Graphic Artist A tribute to Headwaters’ outstanding graphic designer for the past 37 issues. BY JUSTICE GREG HOBBS


2015 President’s Award Two exemplary Colorado water leaders, one great night for CFWE and company. BY JUSTICE GREG HOBBS


Notes from the Director WATERMARKS • 7

Notes from the Editor


From the Ground Up Poised for rapid expansion, will we do what it takes to build water efficiency into new growth? Will it be enough? BY ALLEN BEST


Connecting the Dots The know-how for growing water-smart communities is there, and Colorado is gaining ground daily. BY JOSHUA ZAFFOS


Show Us the Water New homebuyers beware: Protections to ensure the adequacy of water supplies aren’t foolproof. BY NELSON HARVEY

ABOVE: Farm land transitions to housing in Weld County, north of Firestone, as documented by Google Earth on October 6, 2014. ABOUT THE COVER: Houses in a Colorado Springs neighborhood are densely packed, a move that could generate per capita water savings. Getty Images photo. H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015


O U R CO N T R I B U T O R S After mowing and watering lawns in a small Colorado town when young, Allen Best knew a little about the connection between land use and water. And while researching his story for this issue (“From the Ground Up,” page 17), he studied the residential landscapes of water-parched Albuquerque. “The sight of endless front yards of gravel left me cold,” he says. “In Colorado, we have to figure out how to strike a better balance.” Allen writes for Planning Magazine, The Denver Post, Colorado Biz magazine, and High Country News. He also publishes Mountain Town News, which can be found at mountaintownnews.net. Writing from Fort Collins, Joshua Zaffos is a contributing editor for High Country News and his recent work has appeared in Slate, Nature Conservancy Magazine and other outlets. Reporting on the integration of land and water planning (“Connecting the Dots,” page 23), Zaffos found himself conducting multi-person interviews with utilities managers, city planners, and water conservation specialists. He says, “A lot of communities recognize the walls and divisions that complicate efforts to integrate land and water planning, but several are clearly working to communicate across departments on this challenge.” More of Josh’s work can be found at joshuazaffos.com.

Colorado Foundation for Water Education Nicole Seltzer Executive Director Kristin Maharg Director of Programs Jennie Geurts Membership and Administration Coordinator Jayla Poppleton Headwaters Senior Editor and Content Program Manager Caitlin Coleman Headwaters Associate Editor and Communications Specialist

Nelson Harvey is a freelance print and radio journalist based in Denver. He has written stories about food, agriculture and the environment for publications like High Country News, 5280, Health News Colorado and others, and he was formerly the editor of Edible Aspen Magazine. While writing for this issue (“Show Us the Water,” page 31), Nelson was surprised to learn how much today’s land use decisions will affect Colorado’s water supply for decades to come. More of his work can be found at NelsonHarvey.com.

Charles Chamberlin Headwaters Graphic Designer

Matthew Staver is an editorial, documentary and commercial photographer living in Denver. He’s a third-generation Colorado native, a second-generation photographer and first to jump at an opportunity to spend some time on a farm. For this issue, he visited developments old and new in booming Douglas County (“Show Us the Water,” page 31), as well as the xeriscape garden outside Aurora’s municipal center (“Connecting the Dots,” page 23). His photographs have been published in TIME magazine, Newsweek, Smithsonian, and on the cover of The New York Times on multiple occasions. Find his work at www.matthewstaver.com.

Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr. Vice President

Greg Poschman is a native Coloradan, photographer and filmmaker, who advocates for healthy rivers and riparian areas across the state. He spent time in his home turf of the Roaring Fork Valley to document growth and water efficiency for this issue (“Connecting the Dots,” page 23). Connect with Greg and his production company, Moving Media, at greg@coloradocameraman.com.

Lisa Darling


Gregg Ten Eyck President

Eric Hecox Secretary Alan Matlosz Treasurer Nick Colglazier James Eklund Steve Fearn Greg Johnson Scott Lorenz Dan Luecke Kevin McBride Trina McGuire-Collier

1750 Humboldt Suite 200 Denver, CO 80218 303-377-4433 • www.yourwatercolorado.org

Kate McIntire

THE MISSION of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education is to promote increased understanding of water resource issues so Coloradans can make informed decisions. CFWE is a non-advocacy organization committed to providing educational opportunities that consider diverse perspectives and facilitate dialogue in order to advance the conversation. HEADWATERS magazine is published three times each year by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Its goals are to raise awareness of current water issues, and to provide opportunities for engagement and further learning. THANK YOU to all who assisted in the development of this issue. Headwaters’ reputation for balance and accuracy in reporting is achieved through rigorous consultation with experts and an extensive peer review process, helping to make it Colorado’s leading publication on water.

Reed Morris Lauren Ris Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg Andrew Todd Chris Treese Rep. Ed Vigil Reagan Waskom

Copyright 2015 by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. ISSN: 1546-0584






H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015




ee anything different in this issue of Headwaters? Our regular readers may notice that the page count has increased to allow for larger photos and more white space, the layout is slightly modified due to the vision of a new graphic designer, and we’ve increased the use of illustrations to help communicate content differently. Keeping the design fresh and readable is a high priority for CFWE, and I am very pleased with how these small changes Nicole Seltzer (second from right) leads the CFWE staff team, pictured left to right: have added up to a great final product. Jennie Geurts, Jayla Poppleton, Caitlin Coleman, and Kristin Maharg. A more substantial, though less obvious change, is the topic to which we decided to dedicate this issue. CFWE is a water education organization, so why are we focusing content on land use and development? The short answer is because water touches everything. There is a water management nexus with a multitude of other public policy issues, such as land use planning, energy development, transportation infrastructure, health care. The list goes on. CFWE’s newly revised organizational strategic plan calls for our work to “help decision makers understand water’s relevance to diverse public policy challenges by examining water through a wider lens.” In the future CFWE’s content, which includes Headwaters magazine, will ”zoom out” from water and explore how its management and protection is influenced by the other issues that face Colorado’s decision makers every day. We believe this will foster more and deeper conversations about water, and ultimately aid us in our goal to enable all Coloradans to speak fluent water! Headwaters is just one way that CFWE teaches Coloradans about water issues, but it is a centerpiece of our educational efforts. Each issue takes hundreds of staff hours, dedicated volunteer efforts from an expert peer review group, and more than $15,000 in writing, design, printing and mailing costs. Beginning with this issue, CFWE will make a dedicated effort to ask our readers to support production of this important resource through CFWE membership or, if you are already a member, additional support of our new Headwaters Fund. Headwaters, in my opinion, is one of the best water publications in the United States. As printed content becomes increasingly rare in this digital age, and as the country’s traditional media struggle to provide in-depth coverage of topics like water, Headwaters will continue to stand out for its high-quality journalism and approachable formatting. If you find value in Headwaters, please consider financially supporting CFWE to ensure it continues into the future. Finally, I would like to wish all of our readers and supporters a relaxing and fun summer. Here at CFWE, our summer plans include exciting international travel, lots of home-grown produce, time to enjoy our favorite rivers, and numerous water education events across Colorado. Make sure to read about our upcoming opportunities in the preceding pages, and visit yourwatercolorado.org to brush up on your water knowledge to impress your friends at those backyard barbecues! Thanks for your support of water education in Colorado!

Emmett Jordan

CATTLE RANCHER, GRAPHIC ARTIST After 12 years and 37 issues, Emmett Jordan has passed the torch for Headwaters’ graphic design…we pay tribute to his many contributions.


mmett Jordan lives and works east of Briggsdale on the High Plains within sight of the Pawnee Buttes. He runs an angus cattle ranch. He’s also the graphic artist who, since 2003, has designed for CFWE 37 Headwaters magazines, ten Citizen’s Guides, and one pro bono Colorado Mother of Rivers poem book. On Sunday, May 3, I travel out to his ranch to thank him for his foundational role in making water education shine for so many Coloradans. I want to see the landscape of his creative inspiration. Emmett’s place is a 1917 homestead. I meet his wife, Carrie, a sixth-grade teacher, and their teenage sons, Wyatt and Walter. Three border collies circle round me. They help Emmett work an 11,000-acre cow/calf operation, much of it on leased land. Emmett and I drive past a forgotten homesteaders’ graveyard holding victims of the World War I Spanish influenza outbreak. We walk into his favorite area, the “Wildcat,” a jagged rip of a canyon cutting into the undulating surface of the High Plains. We drop quickly through an



exposed ocean bed of mud-encrusted sea shells. A great horned owl stares at us from a far-up cottonwood nest. Resurfacing up a slide slope, Emmett shows me several tipi rings. All around us, the naked rocker arms of oil and gas wells crank back and forth. Cattle graze rotationally on plots of ground strategically rested to foster deeperrooted native grasses. “This was bison country. If you don’t have the hooves of the animals treading the ground, the earth sheds any rain that comes instead of absorbing it,” says Emmett. He stoops to pluck a few green blades poking up through the matted vegetation of a pasture fallowed for restoration. “Buffalo grass, blue grama grass,” he points out. We drive up to the Pawnee Buttes, past the waterless Keota water tower, onto shoulder lands where windmills and wind turbines catch the sky. Here and there, a



few homesteads have survived, checkerlike, but many reverted back to government ground when the 1930s drought blasted families off the plains. On the way back to his ranch, Emmett tells me his parents immigrated to California from Dublin, Ireland, in 1959. I’m astounded. Can it be that recent? It’s apparently never too late to come into this great land and begin anew. Twelve years ago Emmett, his wife, and boys moved up here from Kersey on the South Platte. No river where they now live. No irrigation. Dryland wheat, corn, or sorghum, crops you might try to cultivate, along with cattle. Way off in the distant west, you can make out Longs Peak and imagine irrigation ditches flowing out of the snowpack along the Front Range. Now picture this man seated in front of a computer pouring Colorado into everything he sees and feels when he walks out his door. Go to the archive of Headwaters magazines, each of them downloadable from the CFWE website, and enjoy his resplendent artistry. n



Save the date for CFWE’s Vine to Wine Tour July 24. PAGE 2


Eyeball the growth in Colorado’s boomer and millennial demographics. PAGE 11


Dig deeper into the nuances of water pricing. PAGE 12


Find out how much of Colorado’s water goes toward different end uses. PAGE 18


Explore population change since 2000 in the ninecounty Denver metro area. PAGE 19


Check out four strategies for developing housing that saves water from the start. PAGE 22


Discover how a building —or entire community— could achieve net-zero water use. PAGE 28


Get the scoop on low-impact development and how to overcome implementation barriers. PAGE 29


Locate sources for expert guidance on the latest strategies for connecting water and land use. PAGE 30


Survey the complex web of Colorado’s varied water providers’ service areas. PAGE 33


ust before Denver’s City Council elections in May, candidates sat down with constituents to discuss views and together build a city. As they envisioned Denver’s future, attendees voiced concerns about gentrification, affordable housing, and an aging population, among others. Heads nodded in agreement as the Q & A continued— this group was in accord, and I was with them. I had spent the past month looking for housing in a competitive market. Moving only a few blocks, my rent increased 50 percent over what I paid for the apartment I took four years before—even at that, it was the best deal around. Nobody asked the city council candidates about water. We agreed that these were our issues. Other cities and counties have a different roll of concerns for decision makers to tackle. For some rapidly growing communities, water supply is at the top of that list, but how it’s addressed is determined, in part, by local visioning documents that set guidelines for future growth. These master plans, or community comprehensive plans, espouse values that run the gamut to include priorities like quiet and peacefulness; building a sense of community; fostering diversity of people and customs; protecting rural character; ensuring that new development is served by adequate infrastructure; and others. Elected officials, planners, and citizens have a lot on their minds! It’s stunning to read a master plan and to realize that it’s just scratching the surface. Some don’t even mention water. Despite our constant reliance on the resource, not all city councils, developers or homeowners are thinking about where their water comes from or how its use could be maximized through efficiencies. Sometimes we’re so consumed with other facets of life that we hardly notice when water pours from the tap. But comprehensive plans lay the groundwork for communities to continue morphing into the places they aim to be. They create sideboards to solve pressing issues—and water is one of them. Although plans cover a lot, there’s an opportunity—and some experts say a need—to increasingly consider water and land use together. Perhaps more conjunctive planning on these fronts could help communities minimize the need to procure new water supplies from other sectors or regions, which many agree have broader, less appealing consequences. Statewide, this conversation has been gaining attention. Demands on Colorado’s water supplies and predictions for growth haven’t eased, and talk of the need to make this connection between water and land use has become increasingly salient since the first draft of Colorado’s Water Plan was released last December. The revised draft, released in mid-July, was at press time expected to call for conserving 400,000 acre-feet of water per year as a state by 2050, an increase by 60,000 acre-feet over the “medium-level” goal of water conservation established in the first draft. Land use strategies that reduce water demand are one path to achieving that higher goal. If successful, Coloradans could reduce forecasted municipal water demand by enough to keep roughly 200,000 irrigated acres of farmland in production, or to avoid building an additional transbasin diversion. At CFWE, we felt the time was right to tackle some of the sensitive issues around water and growth in Headwaters, and to take a look at cases where land and water decisions are being strategically integrated. We wanted to provide a toolkit of sorts, while elevating the discussion of how entities could build on these best practices to go further. In this issue, we invite you to explore the nexus of land use and water, opportunities to merge these fields of planning, and protections to ensure the adequacy of water supplies—for both those who call Colorado home today and tomorrow.




H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015



Transition > Affordable





Water is Land

More than 1,100 acres of the 4,100-acre Stapleton redevelopment community at the site of the old Denver airport will be dedicated to parks and open space at build-out. The naturally vegetated Westerly Creek greenway (foreground) provides flood retention and water quality benefits as well as bike and walking trails, which continue into the 80-acre Central Park (midground). Construction at Stapleton has continued for more than a decade, with a total of 12,000 homes and 4,000 apartments planned at completion. While designed to save water, with closely grouped houses and modest turf coverage at residences, actual water savings on a neighborhood scale have yet to be measured.

H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015


Water is Transition

In with new urbanism, out with the picket fence BY CAITLIN COLEMAN




he American dream is changing. Remember that house on a quiet cul de sac, located miles from the office, with the white picket fence and plush green lawn? We’ve been idealizing that lifestyle and upping the size of single-family homes for the past century. Big houses still sprout in suburbs today, but with Colorado facing major demographic changes in the coming decades, trends are shifting away from that traditional suburban model and ushering along a likely shift in water use. “Change is noticeable,” says Ken Schroeppel, an instructor in urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado, Denver. “After decades of center cities losing population and struggling to capture their fair share of investment against their suburban neighbors, we’re now seeing, throughout the country and particularly in Denver, where the center city is once again back and thriving and growing.” More people are lusting after the amenities that city life provides: walkability; access to public transportation; shorter commutes; proximity to restaurants, grocery stores, bars and more—those amenities might be replacing that picket-fence dream. And Coloradans young and old are looking at housing differently when making their selections. “The [housing] market going forward will really be driven and dictated by two ends of the homebuyer population: It’s the first-time homebuyers, the young millennials, on one end and the empty-nester, active adult buyers on the other end,” says John Covert, regional director of Metrostudy, which tracks, analyzes and reports on development in 11 counties along Colorado’s Front Range. “I guess in some ways you could say that the needs [of those two generations] are similar,” says Covert. Millennials are still young, ages 15 to 35, and haven’t clearly defined their housing preferences. They’ve been set back by the recession, are often saddled with student debt, and are generally more delayed than previous generations in everything from work to marriage to purchasing a home and having a family. Those millennials that are independent are primarily renting and enjoying urban amenities, causing first-time homeownership rates to fall and people

URBAN AND MIXED-USE communities attract young and old for similar reasons. to crowd cities. “We have this generation [the millennials] that’s interested in urban environments and diversity and all sorts of cultural things,” says Schroeppel. But will those values stick when millennials are ready to buy homes? It may be too early to say. In many urban areas, Denver included, the cost of land is high, which can lead to unaffordable housing. This presents a dilemma, particularly for first-time homebuyers seeking city life but in need of extra space for their growing families. It’s a tradeoff between the expense of urban land and more suburban or rural development. “[Millenials] will get married, they will have kids, they will seek out the best schools or the best house tied to amenities or employment hubs or transportation,” Covert says. “Will they want to move out to the suburbs? That’s the conversation that a lot of homebuilders are having today—trying to crack that code and figure it out.” Developers are reacting to housing preferences by creating more mixed-use neighborhoods that offer urban-style amenities even in outlying areas. At the same time, they’re appealing to the other end of the age spectrum: Empty-nesters and aging boomers are drawn to many of the same Colorado is the 6th most non-native state in the country, with 57 percent of current residents born out of state. Source: Colorado State Demography Office



amenities as millenials. Many in this age range are also looking for housing that requires less maintenance, and perhaps costs less. “What builders are trying to appeal to is that aging buyer that’s maybe categorized as an entry-level active adult buyer rather than a high-end active adult buyer—someone that doesn’t have a large disposable income,” Covert says. In master-planned communities, the new wave of development might feature decreased lot and home size, location along transit lines, and intermixed business and residential uses. Greater housing density and smaller lots will mean smaller lawns, thus less water used for outdoor irrigation. New homes will continue to incorporate energy- and water-smart appliances, while proximity to transportation should shrink both a city’s carbon and its water footprint through decreased fuel consumption. At the same time, the shift toward city living will continue to be significant, Shroeppel predicts. Urban infill and high-density development result in even less individual outdoor water use, plus a new building in a city center can connect to existing pipes, roads, and water treatment systems, whereas developing a greenfield means building all new infrastructure. Perhaps lucky for Colorado, urban development is trending. “There’s this incredible energy right now in the city where everything is firing on all cylinders and it’s palpable,” Shroeppel says. “People want to be a part of that, so they move here and they become a part of that change.” n


Water is Affordable

By 2030, Colorado’s senior population, or those older than 65, will skyrocket, growing by 150 percent from 2010—primarily due to aging baby boomers. The needle is already moving: The senior population increased by 32 percent between 2000 and 2010, placing Colorado fourth in the nation for growth in that age group, according to a 2012 report from the Colorado State Demography Office. At the same time, the state’s population is the fourth-fastest growing in the nation. Some of that growth is from Coloradans’ own children, but young people from other parts of the country also flock here for jobs, the weather, the lifestyle—and that in-migration isn’t slowing. “Because we continue to migrate young people to the state, we will continue to stay relatively young,” says Colorado’s State Demographer Elizabeth Garner. The millennial generation, which includes those between the ages of 15 to 35, already comprises more than 25 percent of Colorado’s population, making it the largest generation in the state right now. But, says Garner, “That’s not where we’re changing. We’re growing at the old end and maintaining our youth. —CAITLIN COLEMAN

Colorado’s Population Makeup A 20-year shift sees older age groups expanding, while the young remain steady. 85+



70–74 60–64 50–54 40–44




20–24 10–14 UNDER 5




70–74 60–64 50–54




30–34 20–24 10–14 UNDER 5 200





SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau


Colorado’s Shifting Demographics

CHEAP WATER may be under-appreciated by consumers and developers, while prices that ratchet up for increased use can stimulate behavior change—and demand for housing like this WaterSense home with xeric landscaping in Colorado Springs.

Not just what, but how, we pay for water BY JAYLA POPPLETON


hey say you get what you pay for. When it comes to water service, at $3 or $4 per 1,000 gallons, sometimes less, it’s possible that we get far more. But what if, built into our utility’s pricing structure, we also wind up subsidizing the high costs of what University of Colorado economist Chuck Howe calls “scattered, shotgun development?” Or covering the cost of exorbitant water use by our utility’s biggest customers? Howe argues that the large investments utilities make to install long-distance piping associated with dispersed, as opposed to concentrated, growth patterns causes an incredible increase in the costs of public services. “If you have an expensive system, your rates are going to be high,” says Howe. The same goes for the costs of adding new raw water supply to the system to service growth and maintain reliable service, he says. “There’s an incremental cost of additional water you have to acquire to serve new customers; those costs are high.” As water utilities seek price points that not only cover today’s service costs—including infrastructure maintenance and replacement costs that are escalating nationwide—some are also aiming to defer H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015

additional costs for expansion or new water supply by motivating customers to slash demand. That’s all while adhering to industry principles of fairness and equitability in pricing. So how does a utility know if it's gotten it right? “There are different theories about how we price water,” says Tom Gould, vicepresident of Washington-based HDR, Inc., who also leads seminars on financial management for the American Water Works Association. While utilities have historically based rates on the average cost to obtain and deliver water to customers, economists argue for the incorporation of marginal costs as well as social costs, which are not easily quantifiable, says Gould. A utility must tie its capacity to deliver to peak demands, for example, even though those peaks occur inconsistently—mostly in hot, dry periods of summer when lawns are getting a drink, explains Howe. The costs of building to accommodate the peak, he says, are marginal costs. Utilities have begun to incorporate marginal costs through increasing block or tiered rates, where the highest tiers are used not only to encourage conservation, but also to account for the greater strain placed on the system by the biggest users at peak periods. Fully incorporating marginal costs, however, 11

Water is Affordable

could triple or even quadruple water rates, says Gould. Ultimately, legal precedents and utility charters require utilities to substantiate, under applicable state law, the rates they charge customers. This was seen in San Juan Capistrano, California, in April 2015 when an appellate court required the utility to justify charging its heftiest consumers $12 per 1,000 gallons at the highest tier, far more than those at the bottom. The court cited a California constitutional provision, which does not exist in Colorado, that requires utilities to base charges upon the actual cost of providing water service to a specific property. Howe argues that the higher rate was based on cost—the cost of having those big users added to the peaks. Such high rates and jumps between tiers aren’t unheard of in Colorado, where in 1996 the Colorado Supreme Court in Bennett Bear Creek v. Denver stated that the “methodology chosen by an entity empowered with rate-making authority will not be set aside unless inherently unsound,” while noting that “rate making is a legislative

function which involves many questions of judgment and discretion.” Colorado Springs Utilities, for example, has enacted significant rate increases in recent years to pay for its new Southern Delivery System, built in anticipation of growth, but also implements attention-getting block rates. For customers inside city limits who hit 18,700 gallons in monthly use, the rate is $13.20 per 1,000 gallons—almost three times what it costs for using up to 7,500 gallons in the lowest tier. For customers served outside the city, the top tier rate climbs to $19.81. Denver Water charges $2.75 per 1,000 up to 11,000 gallons of use, and $11 per 1,000 once customers hit 40,000 gallons. Elsewhere in Colorado, flat fee structures are still used, and, in some service areas with relatively minimal growth, simple systems, and plentiful supplies, customers pay as little as $1 or $2 per 1,000 gallons. While Gould acknowledges that some wealthier customers will remain indifferent to price, at least to a point, he suggests other ways to spur conservation. He points to tailored reports that compare a customer’s

water use to that of other households. “The power of peer pressure is really important,” says Gould. “Deep down, we all want to conform.” In Colorado, a handful of communities, including Fort Collins, Brighton and Greeley, already use WaterSmart software to provide this kind of customer feedback and social norming data on water bills. Meanwhile the San Juan Capistrano utility is revisiting its price structure to provide the court-mandated cost basis for its rate tiers. Reining in demand, which Gould says was the utility’s original intent, will remain a primary goal under whatever new pricing is established: “It was about getting people’s attention and changing behavior. They had no alternate source of supply…they were running out of water.” n Find out more about the nuances of water pricing in the Winter 2013 Headwaters issue focused on water utilities. Access the archive at yourwatercolorado.org

While water rates and pricing can send a signal to encourage ongoing conservation after a home or business is established, tap fees, or impact fees, which developers pay for establishing water service when constructing new buildings, can be leveraged at the front-end of new development as an incentive for water-efficient building and landscape design. The small community of Fountain, Colorado, south of Colorado Springs, is at the cutting edge of employing this strategy. Land in Fountain has been relatively cheap and attractive to build on, but developers were putting pressure on the city to lower its relatively high tap fees. Passed along to the consumer in the cost of home prices, the fees made the builders less competitive in the market. At the same time, many of the homebuyers were military families relocating from the East to serve at nearby Fort Carson, unaware of Colorado’s water-scarcity ethic and the steep water bills they might incur as the price for greening expansive lawns. Fountain’s utilities director, Curtis Mitchell, saw an opportunity. Working cooperatively with the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, under Mitchell’s leadership Fountain developed landscape design templates for properties and passed an ordinance lowering the water acquisition portion of its tap fee by one-half to two-thirds for developers achieving equivalent reductions in turf area. That can bring the fee for a 9,000 square-foot 12

lot down to $1,024 from $4,875, provided the developer bites at the incentive and uses turf to cover 30 percent or less of the landscapeable area. The base water acquisition fee charged to developers is calculated using the current market price for water, which Mitchell says ranges from $18,000 to $22,000 per acre-foot where he is. A usage rate of one acre-foot annually for every three single-family units is then assumed, although Mitchell says they’re moving toward being able support four. Mitchell says 50 to 75 percent of the applications that land on his desk now are from developers taking advantage of the reduced fees. As a result, some of the pressure for the utility to obtain expensive, new water supplies is being alleviated. After lots are completed, staff perform inspections before releasing a certificate of occupancy. So far, they like what they see: developers are meeting or exceeding what Fountain provided as a template. “I want to build a sustainable community that continues to look nice…We tried to keep it simple,” says Mitchell. “We want it to be cooperative. So far, we have had 100 percent compliance.” As for water savings, they will be measured this summer. “We haven’t had an irrigation season yet,” Mitchell explains. “We’ll go out this year and do some spot-checking to compare and see if we’re achieving the results we’ve set out to achieve.”





Water Efficiency Via the Tap Fee


CFWE FRIENDS AND SUPPORTERS gathered at Denver’s Space Gallery in May to celebrate water education and this year’s award recipients.

2015 PRESIDENT’S AWARD To honor the great men and women of Colorado water, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education annually recognizes two exemplary leaders who demonstrate above-and-beyond commitment to water resources stewardship and education. In 2015, CFWE is proud to honor Jim Lochhead with its President’s Award for lifetime achievement in water education and Greg Kernohan with its Emerging Leader Award. The awards were presented during CFWE’s annual reception on May 8 at the Space Gallery in Denver.

H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015


DENVER WATER MANAGER Jim Lochhead (center) receives the 2015 President’s Award from CFWE board president Gregg TenEyck (left) and vice president Justice Greg Hobbs.

Lawyer, Scholar, River Master

Jim Lochhead—2015 President’s Award Honoree When I was young the waters sang of being here before I am, of falling sweet and soft and slow to berry bog and high meadow.


onsider the geography of the Colorado River and Jim Lochhead. Arise each morning along the river in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Have your first cup of coffee in Pasadena, California, fed by the river through the Colorado River Aqueduct. Colorado and California have gone head to head over the waters of the Colorado River since the early 20th century. The entire length of the river from its source in Rocky Mountain National Park to Mexico’s delta at the Sea of Cortez reflects Jim’s personal and professional lifeline. He was born in Pasadena in the mid-20th century; Delph Carpenter was born in Greeley in the late 19th century. Architect of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Carpenter forged himself into becoming Colorado’s first interstate water diplomat. Lawyer, scholar, river master, Jim is Delph’s 21st-century successor. Growing up amidst the sunshine glory


of southern California, its beach athletics and orange grove sweets, Jim migrated upriver joining his nurse wife, native Coloradan Abby, in pursuing their small town professional practices in Glenwood Springs. When you settle in a river town, you get to know—close up and personal—how the glow and health of these communities fluctuate like snowmelt in a water gauge. When the gauge is full, all is well. When the gauge is empty, hire yourself a really good water attorney. Through tenacious credibility and leadership, Jim is among the best of them. And shape the stones to carry me when I am young and full of fight for roaring here and roaring there, for pouring torrents in the air. As a partner in a small Western Slope law firm, Jim put together water supply plans for growing communities along the Colorado River mainstem and its tributaries from the Continental Divide to the Utah border. Because the Colorado River flows east by transbasin diversion to Colorado’s Front Range and southwest to the Sea of Cortez, you don’t become a river expert except through hard work, common sense and humility. Jim served as big case litigation counsel to the Colorado River Water Conservation District in some really difficult federal cases in the 1980s and 1990s pitting the City and County of Denver against the Colorado River District, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and the U.S. Bureau



of Reclamation. At stake was the right to protect the waters of Green Mountain Reservoir, a compensatory feature of the 1937 Colorado-Big Thompson Project, for the intended Western Slope water uses. Denver attempted to usurp the ability of Summit, Grand and Eagle County communities to utilize Green Mountain releases to offset diversions on Colorado River tributaries above the 1903 Shoshone run-of-the-river hydroelectric power water right in Glenwood Canyon. Jim and colleagues won that case against Denver in a 1991 decision by the 10th U.S. Court of Appeals. A revolution in Colorado water was occurring at the same time. The federal courts upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s veto of Denver Water’s Two Forks transbasin project. The Denver Water Board doubled up. It hired Chips Barry from his position as executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, and it set his engaging embrace loose. The mystery of a Divide is this, you can stand on opposites and not lose your balance, half of you belongs to the other ocean. Chips helped renew Denver and Colorado, implementing several master water exchange stipulations negotiated by Jim and colleagues benefiting western and eastern Colorado. These agreements respect the superior right of Western Slope water uses, even as Denver Water won the ability to firm up water for its million-plus customers. Queen City meets Mountain Stronghold! Jim also proved his water diplomacy mettle as a member of Colorado’s Water Conservation Board. From securing instream flow water rights for preservation of Colorado’s environment to protecting its interstate water compact entitlements for present and future use, he excelled. He became Chips’ successor as executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, following Clyde Martz and Ken Salazar, and served as Colorado’s commissioner for the Upper Colorado River Compact Commission. His subsequent law practice partnership with the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck law firm extended his interstate reach to matters involving the Great Lakes Compact, Idaho’s Snake River Basin Adjudication, and New Mexico’s effort to comply with the Pecos River Compact with Texas.



East Slope and West Slope Colorado municipalities and water districts hired him to counsel Colorado in high risk/ high stakes negotiations involving all of the Colorado River Basin states and their many component interests. During those days and plunk in the middle of many long nights, no doubt, Jim authored a major article for the University of Denver Water Law Review addressing “An Upper Basin Perspective on California’s Claims to Water from the Colorado River.” Know them by their names: need, conflict, confusion, good will. Always the River at the heart of all possibility. One body, one spirit, many futures. Due to tough and resolute negotiations, Jim often in the center of them, cogs are not whirling off the flywheel of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. They’re grooving and synching. California has cut back from taking 5.3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually to living within its 4.4 million acre-foot share. The seven states and Mexico have negotiated shortage criteria, compelled by 15 years of drought and aggravated climate change risk. Mexico is enjoying water storage in Lake Mead. Dietary water conservation measures are taking root in willow shoots and restored riparian habitat. Transboundary environmental allies are singing the Beatles song, “Get Back!” Get some pulse flow water back into the bone-dry Colorado River channel in Mexico! It’s a picture puzzle of persistent increments that the willow flycatcher and the river-swimming Colorado pikeminnow, among the rest of us, depend upon for survival. This morning Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer of Denver Water, will enjoy a first cup of coffee at his northwest corner desk looking out to the Great Divide. Half that cup will be South Platte water, half Colorado River water. As a whole it’s all Colorado’s water. Jim will be back on the phone attempting to implement the break-through Colorado River Cooperative Agreement between Denver and a myriad of Western Slope water supply and environmental interests. Whereby, water sharing in a water-short state might have another once and future better day. Shall we dwell in the great houses of our many communities? (Excerpts from Colorado Mother of Rivers, The Mystery of a Divide, and San Juan Our Way Out Of It? by Greg Hobbs) n

GREG KERNOHAN RECEIVES the Emerging Leader Award from CFWE president Gregg Ten Eyck.

Rise and Shine

Greg Kernohan—2015 Emerging Leader Honoree BY JUSTICE GREG HOBBS


reg Kernohan helps farmers and cities address water needs while benefiting waterfowl. For more than 15 years, he has served as manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited in Colorado. He has been both entrepreneurial and innovative in leading the South Platte Wetlands Focus Area Committee, managing the Union Mutual Ditch Company, and participating for the past 10 years as a member of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, most recently as its vice-chair. Focusing on wetlands as a nexus for meeting environmental, agricultural and municipal needs, his expertise bridges many interests. Learning from leaders at the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, Greg helped develop river augmentation projects on agricultural lands to recharge alluvial aquifers while greatly enhancing waterfowl habitat. “The river augmentation credits directly benefit farmers that couldn’t pump without the credits,” Greg explains. “No-injury plans for water rights and birds, I call them.” Greg and Ducks Unlimited also brought substantial investments to this collaborative work, accessing millions of dollars through North American Wetland Conservation Act grants. These grants require significant matching funds from diverse partners, which Greg’s team leveraged into nearly $20 million in Colorado for the purposes of protecting water resources, constructing infrastructure, and providing wildlife habitat. “We’ve cooperated on over a dozen recharge projects along the South Platte, restoring and protecting 2,150 acres of wetlands capable of retiming water for augmentation.” Greg’s passion for finding new ways to manage water led him to participate in, and eventually direct, the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s FLEX Water Market grant project. Participants include the Colorado Corn Growers Association and the City of Aurora. “It’s the Corn Growers who got my supervisors’ attention. We have been at odds with some agricultural interests elsewhere,” Greg recalls, “but a solid foundation of successful projects built in cooperation with agricultural and municipal friends allowed this diverse group to navigate contentious issues and build trust.” Armed with a new degree in environmental law and policy, Greg looks forward to growing further into leadership roles that help Colorado address water resource issues. Luminescent and alive, rural and urban families shine like water off a duck’s back when they see and hear a mallard and his mate whir for a splash landing on a Ducks Unlimited wetland recharge project. n

H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015


HOUSING DEVELOPMENT pushes into farm country in Colorado’s Weld County, shown here in 2010.





From the Ground Up Colorado’s rapid growth offers a golden opportunity to merge water and land use.



Colorado pushes to 8 or 9 million people at mid-century, as demographers say is possible, changes most certainly will occur in how our land is used. How could they not? Today’s population hovers at 5.3 million. While we may not become New York City or San Francisco, a few million more residents means Colorado’s cities, suburbs and country estates will inevitably spill onto today’s farms and pastures. But how will they spill? And how will Colorado’s existing towns and cities reinvent themselves? Those are among the questions as Colorado peers toward the bottom of its water bucket, trying to calculate how revised land use can help bridge the gap between water supplies and expectations. “Colorado cannot grow its next five million people the way it did its first five million,” Jim Lochhead, who has lived and worked on both sides of the Continental Divide, now as chief executive of Denver Water, has been known to say. That’s the challenge in a nutshell. Those next five million people will live in many places. The largest proportionate increases are expected in valleys of the Western Slope. The larger numeric growth, however, will be along the northern Front Range, from Castle Rock to Greeley and Fort Collins, where an additional 2.5 million people—or roughly the existing population of metropolitan Denver-Boulder—could make their homes by 2050, according to high-growth

population projections calculated by the Colorado State Demography Office for use in Colorado’s Water Plan. Not only will that mean new development, but 75 percent of existing housing along the Front Range could be remodeled or replaced by 2050, according to the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. It’s a golden opportunity to rethink the way we grow in Colorado. Today’s towns, cities and other domestic and commercial users account for just under 7 percent of the state’s water use. The water to accommodate millions more people could come predominantly from farms or rivers, although there are problems with both. Sales of farm water, if profitable for the individual seller, negatively affect the operation of remaining ditches and rural economies. Mechanisms to allow an expanded sharing economy between farms and cities are being explored, but with no clear resolution. As for diverting more water from rivers, Colorado’s rivers are already appropriated to the extent that we bump up against interstate compact limitations on all except for the South Platte River during winter months and, somewhat more ambiguously, the Colorado River and its tributaries, the source of 80 percent of the state’s surface water. Because the headwaters are mostly tapped out, to make additional large-scale diversions from the Colorado River Basin would require transport across several mountain ranges


H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015


and hundreds of miles to the Front Range urban corridor. Infrastructure costs would be enormous, opposition prickly, and the longterm availability uncertain. In examining 112 climate model projections, the 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study found an average 9 percent decline in long-term average flow of the Colorado River, at least partly the result of increasing temperatures, with a quarter projecting an even greater decline of 16 percent. This brings the conversation back to conservation, and how to do more with less. An assortment of water-saving activities have been embraced and promoted by the state’s water providers over recent decades with much success. However, state water planners and environmental advocates say one strategy remains largely untapped, and that is to use the mechanisms of land use planning to build in water efficiency at the outset of all the forecasted new growth.


and use planning has two levels. First, there is the visioning process, an assessment by a town, city, or county government of how the land should be used, often formalized by a community’s comprehensive plan. The resulting plan is only as good as the regulations created to implement it. This usually comes in the form of a municipal or county zoning code and subdivision and site-plan regulations. Finally, land use planning and regulations succeed only if sustained by the decisions of elected and appointed officials. They are, at times, ignored, says Greg Hoch, who has worked as a community planner first in Denver and now for several decades in Durango. In Colorado, as with other states, land use planning and water development have often been overseen by entirely different agencies or local governing boards. Hoch, for example, was a planner in Denver in the early 1970s as the Denver Water Board sold water to the fast-expanding suburbs. Hoch says that, at the time, utility staff were not coordinating closely with planners in those communities. Today, Denver Water provides water to 1.3 million people, more than double the population within Denver’s city limits. In delivering that water, the utility has no direct control over the land use patterns established by the governing bodies of Lakewood, Centennial, Arvada and other customers. In 2008, Colorado adopted a law addressing a component of this disconnection. House Bill 1141, Concerning Sufficient Water Supplies for Land Use Approval, required that building permit applications for developments of more than 50 single-family equiva-


lents include specific evidence of an adequate water supply. Local governments, however, were granted the sole authority for determining what constitutes “adequate.” As part of this “show me the water” law, consideration of conservation and demand-management measures as well as hydrologic variability was also explicitly required, points out Jim Holway, who directed the Western Lands and Communities project, a joint venture of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy and the Sonoran Institute, from 2009 to 2014. But a disconnect between water suppliers and land use planners in many, if not most, Colorado communities has persisted. Consider Larimer County. There, the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District provides water for 16,000 customers in the two cities plus portions of Timnath, Windsor, and unincorporated Larimer County, a 60-square-mile service area. “We just react to whatever has been approved by the cities,” says Mike DiTullio, the district manager. The district’s water comes almost exclusively from Horsetooth Reservoir, typically purchases of water from farms—but not necessarily the farm being displaced by residential and

How we use water Agriculture



6.7% Large Industrial*: 1.1%

Outdoor Residential

Outdoor Park and Commercial

Recreation and Fisheries†: 5.5%





30% Residential


8% Loss

23% Indoor Non-residential

*Includes: thermoelectric power generation, coal and natural gas development, snowmaking and other large self-supplied industrial † Recreational in-channel diversions account for nearly half of the recreation and fisheries water. SOURCES: Colorado Division of Water Resources Average Deliveries 2008-2014, Statewide Water Supply Initiative 2010



commercial development. “We operate in a free market,” he says. How to overcome this? “You need community comp[rehensive] plans that say water use and land use are connected,” says Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water. That level of coordination also requires staff-to-staff time, as well as leadership from elected officials, he adds. Only in the last decade has Denver begun to dissolve those barriers. Fisher predicts far more collaborative efforts between land use and water planners in the next few years, such as integrating water supply and demand considerations into land use planning through comprehensive plans and zoning. “We now have a much better understanding of those opportunities and what we are missing if we don’t establish that link between land use and water,” he says. Peter Pollock, a fellow with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, also foresees closer integration of land and water planning similar to the integration of transportation and land use planning that has occurred during the last three decades. Traffic engineers always said they could deliver transportation to whatever development patterns were approved, and they usually could. “But at some point, their strategies to continuously increase [transportation] capacities weren’t working,” says Pollock. Now, traffic and land use planners usually work together. Since the 1970s, Colorado lawmakers have occasionally debated the role of state government in enforcing thoughtful approaches to population and commercial growth. Mostly, the state has remained aloof, staying out of local affairs. This is partially attributable to Colorado’s overall political climate, but also a perceived lack of urgency. “People don’t talk about things that they don’t see as an immediate need,” says Hoch. Parched summers have a galvanizing immediacy. Such was the case of the smokefilled drought of 2002. City residents cut back their lawn irrigation and, even after it began snowing again, most of the new behaviors stuck. The draft of Colorado’s Water Plan reported that per-capita demand in the South Platte Basin, outside the metro area, has dropped by up to 30 percent since 2000. And even as the population Denver Water serves has increased more than 30 percent since 1990, total water use has decreased more than 5 percent. Can our towns and cities absorb more residents without a proportionate increase in water supplies? The evidence in Colorado, and beyond, is that water conservation strategies combined with land planning


A Decade of Growth in the Denver Region BOULDER


Jamestown Ward



Firestone Frederick Dacono


Fort Lupton





Central City


Commerce City

Black Hawk

Idaho Springs


Golden Lakewood

Bennett DENVER


Aurora Deer Trail


Lone Tree


Population Change by Census Tract 2000–2010

Castle Pines

Loss of 10 percent or more No significant change Gain of 10 to 50 percent Gain of 50 to 100 percent Gain of 100 percent or more

Castle Rock

Larkspur DOUGLAS

measures such as higher-density development can dramatically lower the arc of increased water demand. “Urban water conservation is a huge success story,” says Douglas Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School. “Denver is a great example, but so is virtually every major city in the West. It shatters the notion that population growth equals water demand growth.”


ising prices for water may be spurring increased density of development. In February, a unit of Colorado-Big Thompson Project water—delivered via Colorado’s largest transbasin diversion—sold for near $27,000, triple the price of just two years before. The unit at that time equated to just half an acre-foot, bringing the cost per acre-foot to almost $54,000. Brian Werner, spokesman for Northern Water, the quasi-municipal agency that manages the diversion, attributes the high price to growing demand for residential development. It makes intuitive sense that denser development can save water—and money. A 2010 memo by staffers at the Colorado Water Conservation Board outlined a for-

SOURCE: Denver Regional Council of Governments

mula for predicting savings. “Assuming that for single-family homes, 50 percent of the water is used indoors and 50 percent outdoors, water savings can be estimated with each increment of density increase,” said the memo. “The general rule implies that a 20 percent increase in density would yield a 10 percent per-capita water savings.” If this holds true, the nine-county Denver metro area could realize significant savings. Denver Regional Council of Governments’ Metro Vision 2035 foresees a 10 percent increase in overall density between 2000 and 2035. Already, density increased 5.3 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Council’s “Regional Snapshot: Metro Vision 2035 Goals.” By the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s figuring, that 10 percent density increase would mean a 5 percent decrease in water demand, equating Xeriscape, a term coined by Denver Water, refers to water-wise landscaping through the use of native, drought-resistant and climate-compatible plants and water conservation techniques. H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015

to 31,000 to 46,000 acre-feet in savings. Western Resource Advocates, a Boulderbased nonprofit environmental law and policy organization working in six Western states, also made the case for housing density in its report “New House New Paradigm: A Model for How to Plan, Build, and Live Water-Smart,” published in 2009. “Urban planners and water managers have long known that housing type influences water use,” said the report. In addition to citing recent examples of density’s impact on cutting water use, the report’s strongest evidence came from a 1974 study for several federal agencies by the Real Estate Research Corporation. That 41-year-old study found that “high-density planned development can save 35 percent over low-density sprawl development.” This intersection of rising water prices and increased density are combined with yet a third wrinkle: new generational preferences. In Greeley’s “2015 Annual Growth and Development Projections Report,” longrange planner John Barnett reports water prices producing greater average density of housing projects, but also suggests that with millenials, those roughly 15 to 35 years old, more inclined than earlier generations 19

to pursue happiness in multi-family housing, the stage may be set for even steeper reductions in per-capita consumption. Even advocates of tightened land use, however, don’t see an end to single-family homes with lawns. The question, says CU’s Kenney, is whether this should be the default setting. He grew up in Aurora mowing and cutting such lawns. He still does, now in Boulder, but not necessarily by choice. “When you get down to it, I don’t think it’s something many people are attached to,” he says. “I have a lawn because it came with the house I bought. It’s easier to take care of what’s there than to start over.”


estern Slope communities are insistent that land use must become a larger part of the conversation as the state continues to grow. Most striking is the statement by the Durango-based Southwest Basin Roundtable, which calls for a statewide shift in residential water use. Now, it’s commonly 50 percent indoor and 50 percent outdoor use for single-family homes when considered on an annual basis, according to a common metric used by water organizations. The Southwest Basin Roundtable maintains that this needs to be shifted to 60 percent indoors. That doesn’t mean more water use indoors, but rather a substantial reduction of outdoor use. The roundtable wants an even higher standard of 70 percent indoor use for projects enabled by additional transbasin diversions or agricultural dry-ups. In Aspen and Pitkin County, additional transbasin diversions from the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork River basins remain a lively worry. Two transbasin diversions there still have conditional water rights. Like the Southwest Basin Roundtable, local leaders in this stretch of the Colorado River‘s mainstem believe communities that would pursue transbasin diversions to enable growth should first be accountable to addressing water demand reductions when it comes to how they plan for and regulate that growth. Laura Makar, assistant county attorney for Pitkin County, says that the first draft of Colorado’s Water Plan aimed too low in its treatment of land use. “It needs to be a stronger section for the water plan,” she says. “Land use drives the timing, location, The 2009 California Water Plan Update showed that a 20 percent increase in density could yield a 10 percent water savings.


and intensity of water demands of new and existing population growth throughout the state. There will be increased population, and everything we have seen out there suggests that there will be a water supply gap. Land use planning is one of the most effective ways to decrease that gap.” A similar theme is echoed in comments made by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which includes Pitkin and four other counties along the Continental Divide, in an April 30 letter to the Colorado Water Conservation Board stressing that Colorado’s Water Plan needs to be seen as an educational tool. “Other state agencies, special districts, and municipal and county governments all have a role in closing gaps,” the letter says. Noting the many powers of local governments, it continues: “Ensuring that new development mitigates the impacts it causes is a long-standing concept in Colorado land use planning.” In response, CWCB staff say the public can expect to see many changes to the land use section (Section 6.3.3) in the second draft of the water plan, released in mid-July, and the final, due in December 2015. In some places, the water-land connection is clearly being made. Consider Castle Rock, population 55,000 and expecting to someday reach 100,000. Most water comes from pumping aquifers that, even decades ago, had begun to reveal limits. In subdivisions of three-car garages you will still find expansive lawns. But Castle Rock has tightened the faucet: no outdoor watering after 8 a.m. or before 8 p.m. Also, a rate structure based on lot size charges $16 per 1,000 gallons when a pre-determined water budget is exceeded. And like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Castle Rock now pays water customers to remove turf. Castle Rock earlier this year also adopted regulations that may be among the most innovative in Colorado. As of April, one project had snatched at the bait of reduced water system development fees, also called tap fees. The Lanterns is to have 1,200 single-family homes on current grazing lands interspersed with oak brush. To qualify for the discounted fees, the Lanterns developed a city-approved water-efficiency plan where a maximum of between 19 and 32 percent of lot size will be devoted to turf, none of it Kentucky bluegrass. Those species of grasses allowed must be able to survive on 19 inches or less of supplemental irrigation per year in addition to the 17 inches of annual precipitation. Kentucky bluegrass needs 24 to 26 inches of supplemental irrigation along Colorado’s Front Range. Inside, only



high-efficiency faucets, showerheads and toilets will be installed. “It’s not over the top or Draconian,” says Scott Carlson, a member of the family developing the property. “We try to make small, reasonable concessions across the entire water use spectrum.” The developer gets lower tap fees, giving the homeowners correspondingly lower-priced homes—and, forever more, lower water bills. Mark Marlowe, Castle Rock’s utilities director, says the water-efficiency plans are expected to result in new town lots consuming anywhere from 26 to 47 percent less water than those developed in the late 1990s. Looking ahead, the most significant growth will occur in what might be called the Colorado Boulevard Corridor of Adams and Weld counties. The street bisects the old coal-mining towns of Dacono, Frederick and Firestone before continuing on into corn and wheat fields and, a few miles later, Johnstown and Milliken. Firestone grew 436 percent during the century’s first decade, tops in Colorado, and Frederick was close behind. No slowdown is expected. Now at 12,000, Firestone expects to hit 60,000 to 65,000. “Water we need at build-out does not exist today,” says Wesley LaVanchy, the town manager. To prepare, Firestone, along with Dacono and Frederick, has a state-approved water conservation plan on file, even though it wasn’t required for water providers operating at such low volumes. LaVanchy points to successes in ratcheting down water use in town parks by 22 to 24 percent and also close scrutiny as Firestone seeks to “foster great communities but at the same time reduce our footprint.” But under such circumstances, one might wonder whether a statewide paradigm shift is needed about what constitutes build-out: Is it when the land runs out or the water?


his is clearly just the beginning of the conversation, somewhat art and not much science. For example, what constitutes a large lot? What about what some call hobby agriculture, the five-acre horse pastures? And do the outer-ring suburbs with their three-car garages also devote more land to water-intensive landscaping—or perhaps less? Colorado lacks any repository for such information. Even Denver Water, the state’s largest water provider, does not break down water use on a per-capita basis on a neighborhood scale, which would be instructive for planners willing to compare water use by various residential land use types. It would also be


Houses or Hay?

useful for establishing baselines and setting clear water use reduction targets in planning documents. This absence was detected even in the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative report. Such data, the document noted, would be “necessary so that developers and city and county planners can understand what the best management practices and methodologies are, and reliably how much water savings they could expect.” Pitkin County and others go beyond and envision a clearinghouse for best practices.



gricultural water, which accounts for nearly 87 percent of Colorado’s water diversions and many of the state’s oldest water rights, is being targeted for use by other sectors. At the same time, ag lands are becoming urbanized. The 2014 draft of Colorado’s Water Plan estimates that irrigated acres statewide could decrease from 3.5 million today down to to 2.7 million due to both water transfers and growth. Colorado’s Water Plan, set to be finalized in December 2015, emphasizes the importance of keeping water in agriculture and protecting the industry’s viability. But given Colorado’s growth projections and existing agricultural water shortages, some ask whether it is realistic to prevent dry-up and “save” agriculture everywhere it currently exists. Even today, water for agriculture comes up short for users in all basins, with major impending threats to groundwater. At current depletion rates, the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies many rural Eastern Plains communities is expected to last less than 50 years, according to a 2002 report by McLaughlin. Likewise, the San Luis Valley’s 6,000 wells are no longer seen as sustainable, and the Statewide Water Supply Initiative 2010 estimated that as many as 80,000 irrigated acres could be dewatered to protect the water table and senior water rights holders there. In the face of competition from growth and other uses, Joe Frank, chair of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, believes the market will dictate where agriculture persists. But the power of that market to influence ag’s future could be tempered. “We at least ought to put them [all water supply options] on equal playing fields and not make dry-up of agriculture the best option out there,” Frank says. “If dry-up of agriculture is the only water supply option, then 50 percent of the South Platte’s irrigated agriculture could be dried up by 2050.” In confronting urbanization, tools like land use regulations and conservation easements can go beyond leveling that playing field and stack the deck in favor of agriculture. In Routt County, home of Steamboat Springs, a program launched in 1996 has helped fund the purchase of conservation easements on about 40,000 agricultural acres. Willing landowners, sponsored by a land conservation organization, sell their property’s development rights to the county. The property is then protected through a perpetual conservation easement, while landowners gain an appealing alternative to selling farmland for development. Weld County, Colorado’s top agricultural producer, includes

MAYTAG RANCH blends the two with its 50- and 100-acre home sites plus working cattle ranch in Fremont County; ranch participation is one amenity for owners. sections in its land development code to bolster agriculture while protecting private property rights. “Nothing in the code prevents a landowner from taking prime farm ground out of production, but there are provisions in the code that can help minimize this loss,” says Tom Parko, director of planning services in Weld County. The county recommends, for example, that lots divided in an agricultural zone be located on the corners of a property to reduce interference with crops and irrigation pivots. And since 2010, lots smaller than 35 acres can not be further subdivided without going through the county’s “re-subdivision recorded process.” This has kept some irrigated property in production and minimized land divisions, Parko says. Agriburbia and urban gardening are additional concepts that transform underutilized land into farmland, growing food close to the population base either on designated farmland, in developments, or in unused spaces such as under power lines or in vacant lots. Although local food security is advanced, it’s a different concept than maintaining large-scale agriculture and preserving rural economies. Even with strong advocates, some agricultural land will go. Frank estimates around 20 percent of the South Platte’s irrigated acres are already owned by municipalities but have been kept in production until the water supply is needed. Water-smart land use patterns that reduce per-capita water demands for new developments could slow the continuation of that trend.

Many small communities are hard-pressed to figure everything out by themselves. But even in plan-heavy mountain communities, there’s little heart for state-down mandates. That begs the question of whether you can have meaningful results without state mandates. But when Sen. Ellen Roberts, RDurango, proposed just that last year, limiting lawn sizes in projects dependent upon buy-and-dry water transfers from farms, the bill was quickly watered down. Instead, a legislative interim committee in August 2014 heard repeated testimony from water H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015


providers against a one-size-fits-all approach. Roberts was more successful in 2015 with H.B. 008. Signed into law on May 1, the bill applies to water providers serving 2,000 acrefeet or more annually who wish to seek state financial assistance and must first file a water conservation plan with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The law requires providers who submit new or updated water conservation plans to the state to include land use strategies as part of their effort to rein in water demand. The law also directs the CWCB, in coordination with the state Department of 21

Four Ground-Up Methods for Saving Water The Keystone Policy Center’s Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue is modeling four water-efficient land use patterns for new development to measure the water savings that could result. The project will also explore zoning regulations and other management levers communities could use to accomplish these patterns and lessen water demand for new growth.

SMALLER RESIDENTIAL LOTS Studies have found water savings from 10 to 60 percent with increased density of single-family residences, primarily due to the reduction of irrigated lot area. Savings continue to grow as lot sizes shrink, but taper off after reaching between seven and ten dwelling units per acre.

MOVING FROM SINGLE-FAMILY TO MULTIFAMILY DEVELOPMENT Some of the same studies noted in No. 1 suggest that multifamily units consume as much as 35 to 50 percent less water than single-family detached units.

INCREASING MULTIFAMILY RESIDENTIAL DENSITY Higher density multifamily housing also produces water savings, but the trend reverses eventually. For high-density or high-rise condominiums above three stories, cooling towers or waterintensive amenities may negate part of the water saved on irrigation.

TURF/IRRIGATION RESTRICTIONS Turf area restrictions can similarly impact water consumption through reduced outdoor use. Xeric landscape programs achieving savings in the 35 to 50 percent range are not uncommon. SOURCES: Colorado Water Conservation Board draft density technical memo, Colorado Springs Utilities, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Envision Utah, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Growing Toward More Efficient Water Use: Linking Development, Infrastructure, and Drinking Water Policies.” 22



Local Affairs, to develop and offer free trainings to local planners and water providers about what constitutes best practices in merging the two realms. Numerous providers will be impacted by the new law: Of the 70 or so water conservation plans currently on file, only a handful specifically call out land use planning strategies, says the CWCB’s technical conservation specialist Kevin Reidy, who will be updating planning guidance documents and working with DOLA’s Community Development Office to plan trainings in response to the new directive. The Keystone Policy Center is also trying to move the conversation along through its Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue. Since early 2014, the dialogue has convened meetings of 25 individuals from the land and water planning fields as well as economic development organizations. Their charge is to identify land use patterns and incentives that will save water and still deliver housing products that consumers find attractive, says the Keystone Center’s Matthew Mulica, who is leading the effort. Using customer data from Denver Water and Aurora Water overlaid with the Denver Regional Council of Governments UrbanSim forecasting tool, the Keystone Center is working to conduct model runs looking at the water demand reductions that could be achieved through various land use strategies. Alternate scenarios such as climate change impacts will be layered on as the project unfolds. Having actual, comparable data about growth and its water use implications could help overcome some of the disconnect between water providers and planning departments. The aim is not to rip out lawns from every property, says Mulica. “But for every person who would say, give me a better option, I will jump on it. I would like to frame it as choices.” Pausing, Mulica pointed to the calls for preservation of water for agriculture, for municipal growth and, of course, water in our streams. It’s politically savvy language, he says, but masks the central reality that Colorado has a zero-sum water game. “We are going to have to set some priorities, make some choices, and we need to do it in smart, strategic ways.” n See what your community’s comprehensive plan envisions for the coming years or find out about current public input opportunities by visiting your municipality’s website and locating the community planning and development section.



CONNECTING THE DOTS How Colorado can grow water-smart communities


n 2013, elected officials, water providers, planners and other staff from the fast-growing metro Denver communities of Arvada, Aurora, Thornton, Parker and Castle Rock found themselves back in school. During a multi-day land use workshop, taught by Pace University law professors, the local leaders heard about strategies for integrating land use planning and water use, a surprisingly underexplored concept in Colorado. Among the topics covered was how a community could more proactively address water demands and supplies for different segments and end users through its master land use plan. Consider: Under Colorado law, any town or county with more than 25,000 people must develop a comprehensive or master plan to guide its present and long-term land use. The plan is a road-

map to steer communities through growth and development, and typically includes sections that address housing, transportation, utilities, and, as mandated by state law, recreation and tourism. But water often goes unmentioned or gets short shrift. “There’s really not that many counties or communities that have a water resources element in their comprehensive plan,” says Drew Beckwith, water policy manager for Western Resource Advocates, who coordinated the land use workshop. “It’s traditionally not been a part of what [counties and communities] thought about.” As a result, water use, efficiency and conservation have typically been side notes, if not afterthoughts, when it comes to land planning and developBY JOSHUA ZAFFOS

H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015

ment. That was fine 50 years ago, says Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency, but as Colorado and other states have faced rapid growth and water scarcity in recent decades, integrating land use and water planning has become a missed opportunity. Cities and suburbs, mountain towns, and farming communities are now all confronted with providing reliable and clean water for growing populations. And those who are making the connection between land and water planning are devising innovative applications of land use rules—while encountering their share of policy and technical barriers—that reframe how we design, build and manage homes, office buildings, shopping centers, and entire neighborhoods. Noting that some Colorado communities are at the



forefront of land use and water supply planning integration, Dickinson says it’s time to “connect the dots.”

DENSITY RULES AND GROWTH BOUNDARIES Before cities ever considered integrating water management into land planning and zoning, they began tackling a new wave of postwar development. When the City of Boulder’s population skyrocketed from 29,000 to 66,000 during the 1960s, the university town took progressive, early action to address growth and land use. Citizens approved the so-called “Blue Line,” which limited development and the extension of water and, later, sewer services on the city’s outskirts and in surrounding higher-elevation areas. Boulder also pioneered the creation of an open-space tax in 1967, 24

used to purchase natural areas and keep them free from development. And in the late 1970s, the City of Boulder and Boulder County created an urban service area to guide new urban development in places with appropriate infrastructure, while encouraging rural and less dense development outside those lines. For Boulder, the boundaries created a clear urban-rural edge between city and unincorporated county lands. They also led to the establishment of a 45,000-acre greenbelt that includes open space and some 14,000 acres of land leased to local farmers and ranchers where building permits are limited. Hundreds of other communities have copied the approach, better known as an urban growth boundary. A side benefit of those efforts was minimizing municipal and industrial water demands in areas far from the city center. Urban growth boundaries for cities and



urban growth areas for counties are still implemented in various Colorado communities to direct growth while protecting natural areas, phasing infrastructure investment, and stimulating infill and increased density of development. Don Elliott, a director of Clarion Associates, a national land use consulting firm based in Denver, calls the water savings achieved as a result of these types of policies “a silver lining” to forward-thinking land management. Zoning, building and land use codes also help direct the type and pace of development in communities, and planners these days often think in terms of “density, diversity and design.” Zoning first defines an area as either residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural or public—such as parks and open space—in order to preserve the character and resources of an area and ensure land uses that can coexist. Tradi-


AURORA’S ENVIRONMENTAL program supervisor Karen Hancock (left) led recent efforts to incorporate more sustainable water quality measures in the city’s land use planning processes. Don Elliott provided consultation to help Hancock bring about a more holistic approach.

tionally, zoning only allowed a single use and set “maximum” densities, limiting how many houses per neighborhood or the size of buildings or developments per lot. That conventional approach has typically resulted in large lots, which usually mean big lawns that require lots of water, especially in summer when supplies are at their lowest. A shift occurred in the 1990s as developers and citizens began to seek out places where they could live but also work and shop and send their children to schools without driving to the other side of town. Mixed-use zoning enables developments to combine single-family homes, multifamily condos, shopping centers and office parks. It also results in more compact growth, enabling more flexible and conservative water use because of the higher densities of people and businesses and the mix of water demands by residential and commercial users.

Today, Boulder, Denver and other cities set “minimum” densities for neighborhoods, apartment buildings and retail centers, which reduces the sizes of lots and lawns and enables more efficient water delivery systems. Urban redevelopment or infill projects, such as Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood at the site of the former airport, are built around mixed-use growth, and they also incorporate shared parks or open space, plus ubiquitous sidewalks for “walkability” or accessible transit between home and shopping. A half-century after zoning laws divided land uses, citizens are increasingly finding mixed-use communities attractive places to live. Elliott, who works with client communities to modernize and improve their regulations and incentives on the land development, housing and sustainability fronts, says minimum density requirements, mixed-use zoning, and open-space designations all provide water savings and allow for more efficient and effective water delivery and other environmental benefits. Natural open space, for example, typically requires minimal, if any, irrigation. But, he adds, water savings haven’t necessarily been driving these policy developments. Cities, including Denver and Aurora, are accommodating smaller lots and more multifamily housing, but it’s driven by the market and affordability concerns, Elliott says. “Let’s be clear: Cities are not pushing for smaller lots to reduce water consumption. They’re pushing for smaller lots because they’re more land-efficient and because the market wants them.”

THE COMPREHENSIVE VIEW Elliott and others are promoting more directed planning efforts in terms of water. But that also requires a next wave of planning and zoning tools and applications, as well as a heightened level of cooperation between planners, water resources managers, and city-run or investor-owned utilities. A city’s zoning, building and density rules typically all fit together under the comprehensive land use plan, which establishes a near- and long-term vision for growth, with appropriate land uses often determined by a city staff of planners with guidance and direction from elected city officials and citiH E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015

zens. While Colorado municipalities aren’t required to specifically tackle water use within this document, some are recognizing the opportunity. Westminster, on the northwestern edge of metro Denver, has an advantage when it comes to containing growth on its fringes. The city of 106,000 people is landlocked, surrounded by other towns on three sides and the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the west. That means there’s a discreet area that planners can focus on when considering future development—and land use and water demands. Westminster’s home-rule status also means it can operate outside certain state statutes that constrain other cities’ authority to implement policies and plans. Staff in Westminster, including officials at the city-run utilities, have made an effort to cooperate and communicate to better consider the water management impacts of land use since at least 2001, when water resources analyst Stu Feinglas came on board. While its comprehensive master plan sets the rules for types and densities of development, Westminster also has a comprehensive water supply plan that evaluates water needs across the city. City staff use both documents to connect water use projections with development decisions using GIS software and other analytical tools. “As we developed the recent land use plan, we looked at impacts and came up with a balanced plan for the water that we have and the development we want to have for the city,” says Feinglas. “For instance, we can say we’ve allocated 10 acre-feet for this property, and so if you [want to] build at a density where you need 20 acre-feet, we go into a discussion: Where are you going to get that water from, and is it worth it to put that density in?” “It gives us the ability to make rational decisions about how we’re using our limited water resources,” adds Grant Penland, Westminster’s principal planner. If a developer requests a certain land use, such as a high-density, high water-use, multifamilyunit subdivision, the city staff is able to know whether that fits within or exceeds available water supplies for that area. If there’s a projected shortage, the developer must make up the difference. Several other communities across the 25

state are similarly tying planning documents and regulations to water demand. In Colorado’s southwestern corner, the City of Durango compared growth projections and land use patterns outlined in its comprehensive plan with its water supply portfolio and determined it could support 40,000 residents and still grow to be the community it envisions itself to be. Today, including primarily in-town residents as well as some in outlying areas, the city water utility services roughly half that. Having the big picture in mind helps when it comes time to assess applications for re-zoning or other changes to the town’s future land use map, says Durango planning director Greg Hoch. And in central Colorado, protections for the Fraser River, which runs through the ski town of Winter Park and loses substantial flows to transbasin diversions that supply Denver, have led to a slightly different approach. There mandatory regulations limit development permits in order to avoid dewatering any stretch of the river. The Grand County Water and Sanitation District, which services the town of Winter Park, was asked to determine the river’s carrying capacity given targeted flow requirements. “We hired Leonard Rice Engineers 26

to give us a number,” says Bruce Hutchins, the district manager. “They said we could serve 9,300 single-family equivalents, but during drought, at three-quarters build-out we would be drying up the river in stretches. The town didn’t like that.” Instead, 8,300 single-family equivalents was determined to be the maximum supportable development that would still leave 60 cubic feet per second in the river at the confluence of the Fraser and Vasquez Creek, and the city council passed an ordinance making the growth barrier official. Today, the town is at 2,700 single-family equivalents. And growth outside Hutchins’ district’s boundaries, which centers around the ski area itself and is served by the Winter Park Water and Sanitation District, is limited due to protections on bordering federal land.

TAPPING NEW SOLUTIONS Landscaping rules, ordinances and incentives are also better integrating water efficiency in land use planning and can show up in comprehensive plans, subdivision regulations, and site plans. Turf limits and xeriscaping rules have become increasingly common in Colorado, limiting the portion of



a property that can be occupied by a lawn, or defining permitted grasses and plants that require less irrigation, often through what’s known as a model landscape ordinance. In the Roaring Fork Valley, which stretches from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, regional water provider Ruedi Water and Power Authority and local governments released a draft Regional Water Efficiency Plan in spring 2015, which includes a model landscape ordinance to help address water use amid steady change in land use and growth in the valley. While the format is still being developed, Mark Fuller, director of Ruedi Water and Power, says the model ordinance will be a set of standards with a checklist of options encouraging the use of native drought-tolerant vegetation, limiting turf coverage and types for parcels, and establishing landscape water budgets. According to the draft plan, the initiative could cost up to $10,000 to launch, but lead to annual water savings of 80 to 100 acre-feet per year by 2050. A water-efficient landscape certification program would rate efforts among categories such as businesses, schools or homes, providing further incentive to achieve water savings.



WATER DEMAND FOR GROWTH expected in Carbondale (left) and other towns in the Roaring Fork Valley could be reduced by a regional initiative to improve water efficiency. Mark Fuller (right) of Reudi Reservoir and Power Authority says protecting the river, as the lifeblood of the local agriculture and recreation economies, is the effort’s guiding objective.

“The idea is to try to bring some consistency to how landscaping is installed and maintained in the valley,” Fuller says. The efficiency report and the ordinance steer away from regulatory directives or mandates and instead focus on education, outreach and voluntary programs to boost efficiency and conservation. Whether that approach can reap meaningful conservation savings without also implementing statutory rules remains to be seen. To avoid implementing all-out restrictions, many communities are trying to achieve results through financial incentives. Aurora Water, for example, is testing the effectiveness of new fee structure, adopted in 2014, that rewards developers who elect to put in water-saving landscaping. For developers in Aurora, the savings are especially substantial for outdoor irrigation meters, which typically service commercial and residential common areas, and for which connection fees are tiered under the new system. The outdoor use portion of the fee, calculated on a square-footage basis, is slashed in half when xeric landscaping is installed instead of bluegrass. If a developer goes a step further, installing what the utility calls “z-zone” landscaping that will require no additional irrigation after an initial three-year establishment period, the fee can be refunded entirely after those three years. For every 10,000 square feet of landscaped area, the savings reaped could tally up to $27,500 for developers implementing the z-zone option. Within the first few months after adoption, the incentive compelled five out of six developers to pursue the z-zone, resulting in 730,000 square feet of landscaped ground that will not require a permanent water supply. Most of these types of efforts and ordinances are targeting new developments with the intent of establishing water-conscious lifestyles before people ever move into their homes. For existing buildings, cities instead provide incentives and rebates— for instance, to remove turf and replace with xeriscaping or to install water sensors that can override sprinklers if the ground is already sufficiently moist.

While promising, landscaping rules are vulnerable to enforcement issues, Elliott says, since they require a utility or local government to monitor practices and ensure compliance on the back end, which can be expensive and intrusive. One way to help close the door is to implement a water budget rate structure tied to the actual needs of a landscape, where customers who use more than what is budgeted are charged premium rates. Communities in Colorado that have gone this route include Boulder, Castle Rock and Centennial. Despite the gaps in enforcement and mandates or relatively modest rate hikes, the progress is noteworthy. “Ten or 20 years ago, you would have found very few development codes that said anything about how to lay out a subdivision with turf,” says Elliott. “Now there are many that do.” Aurora is also forging ahead with waterconscious planning by developing a low-impact development draft ordinance, believed to be among the first in Colorado. The measure will encourage more environmentally sensitive stormwater management in residential subdivisions, says Karen Hancock, City of Aurora environmental program supervisor. That means using and creating “bio-retention” features, such as natural swales and permeable pavement blocks, instead of building conventional, often cemented detention ponds to collect and pipe stormwater. The green elements allow stormwater to filter back into the ground and aquifers, instead of running off hard surfaces to sewers and picking up pollutants along the way. The effort got in motion after Hancock attended the Land Use H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015

Leadership Alliance workshop, and Aurora received a $25,000 technical-assistance grant that enabled staff to work with Don Elliott to develop the ordinance. Staff hopes to show it can not only improve stormwater management but also save space by eliminating the need for a supersized detention pond. That could then give a developer another lot to build an additional home, a benefit that should lead to buy-in, Hancock says, and hopefully change business-as-usual practices. As the state’s third-largest city, with half of its 154 square miles still undeveloped, Hancock says, “We need to be thinking about this. Denver is more of a redevelopment thing; for us, it’s all greenfields, so it’s pretty critical we get this right.”

TOMORROW’S HOMES ON THE RANGE With a 62.4 percent growth rate between 2000 and 2010, Douglas County, which includes Castle Rock, Parker, Castle Pines and Lone Tree, has been the state’s fastestgrowing county so far this century. Developers built more than 2,000 new housing units in 2014 alone, and the county now has more than 308,000 people. While the population has swelled with retirees and commuter families, its water use has depleted the Denver Basin groundwater aquifer system, a finite resource. That predicament compelled Douglas County officials to examine regional water use and supply, including the land use connections that can reduce demands. The county was among the first governments to 27

tackle water use within its comprehensive land use plan. To reduce pressures on the Denver Basin, starting in 1998 the county created a water supply overlay district covering its western half. The overlay zone provides another level of zoning with added restrictions on groundwater use. “We want to make sure the water supply that any new developer brings to the table within those areas has a long-term viability component that can stand the test of time,” says Tim Murrell, Douglas County water resources planner. The creation of an overlay district tied to available water supply is an example of a community using existing land use tools to integrate water supply planning. Typical planning has worked on a broad scale, using community-wide population projections and current per-capita water use to set future water needs, says the Alliance for Water Efficiency’s Dickinson. But that approach doesn’t account for different growth and water availability trends within communities, Dickinson says, and it ignores water efficiency improvements that allow homes and neighborhoods to do more with less water. Douglas County has put itself at the forefront of 21st-century land use and water supply integration, and developers are beginning to tune in to the resulting opportunities. This fall, development will begin at a new community within the overlay zone: Sterling Ranch will include shopping areas, office space, and up to 12,000 homes over a 20year build-out, rivaling nearby Highlands Ranch in size. But the new growth will also serve as the “poster child,” Murrell says, for water-efficient development. Houses and lots will use just 0.25 acre-feet per year, onethird of the water approved for typical family properties under Douglas County standards. Homes will exclusively have WaterSense fixtures—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-sanctioned water equivalent of the Energy Star program—and xeriscaped yards with small turf areas, targeting 70 percent less irrigation than conventional neighborhoods. The community will encompass large tracts of open space, use hyper-efficient irrigation systems, and is piloting the state’s first rainwater-harvesting system for outdoor watering. The first phase will include 800 homes, a school, a church, a recreation center, and 85 acres of open space. “They are a great example of a development within the water-constrained part of [Douglas] County that fully embraced that reality and really worked hard to lower that overall demand standard,” Murrell says. “Sterling Ranch is showing it can be 28

Water Quantity Footprint and the Net Zero Water Approach WATER CONSUMPTION 90 Thousand gallons per year


Indoor Water Use Outdoor Water Use Water Suppy and Reuse Water Supply Credits

30 20 10


0 2014





done,” adds Paul Lander, landscape sustainability instructor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and water conservation expert. “It really raises the bar, not just in Colorado, but across the Southwest.” Dickinson’s organization is leading an effort to make developments like Sterling Ranch the rule, rather than the exception. Through the Net Blue Initiative, the Alliance for Water Efficiency and its partners are developing a national template ordinance that a community can adopt for water-scarce areas to require a developer to offset water use before the development could be approved. Working through planning and zoning tools, the land use rule could be an overlay district, such as that of Douglas County, and would help prevent communities from reaching critical water shortages while also ensuring that developers, planners, architects and water providers are considering water use along with land planning and community design. Examples from outside Colorado offer insight into other tools and initiatives that the state and its communities may eventually tap. The small town of Cambria, California, implemented an offset ordinance in the 1990s when a 666-home community was put on hold because of drought and an insufficient water supply. That ordinance requires developers to pay to retrofit existing homes with efficiency and conservation measures—from irrigation water sensors to high-efficiency fix-





To pilot the Net Zero Water Approach for the Water Innovation Cluster, the Brendle Group modeled its own baseline water footprint at its Fort Collins headquarters, then targeted reductions over a six-year span that could shrink that footprint. In addition to indoor and outdoor water savings, Brendle is testing options for using graywater indoors and banking on the eventual ability to harvest rainwater in Colorado. Water supply credits could function similarly to carbon offsets, with a market for trades. The project’s toolkit will guide participants in establishing their own baselines and achievable goals on the net-zero spectrum, while also generating dialogue about policy change—to enable rainwater harvesting, for example. SOURCE: Brendle Group

tures—and thereby create a water supply for the new homes being built. Arizona, meanwhile, requires communities’ comprehensive plans to specifically address water use and planning, a step conservation proponents would like to see taken in Colorado. And Arizona, along with New Mexico, Utah and California, is among the select group of western states that also permit residential rainwater collection to enable neighborhoods to reduce irrigation needs. Although Colorado has allowed for limited experimental rainwater harvesting pilot projects, the practice is otherwise prohibited due to its potential to interfere with others’ water rights by intercepting stormwater runoff that feeds rivers. Either step— requiring water’s consideration in comprehensive planning or allowing rainwater harvesting—would require legislation from the state General Assembly, and while a bill that would have permitted rainwater collection using the equivalent of two 55-gallon rain barrels passed the Colorado House of Representatives in the 2015 legislative session, it was later killed in the Senate. The Net Blue Initiative will incorporate several of these approaches and other innovative tools, such as graywater and even blackwater treatment and reuse systems, to calculate offsets and craft the template ordinance, which it plans to complete by the end of 2016. A similar, local effort, the Net Zero Water


Clean Water Communities


olorado’s growing population and the resulting development has altered hydrology. A summer storm brings torrents of rain pouring over roofs and across sidewalks, flooding city streets and rushing into storm drains before stirring up streams and eroding riverbeds. Though people might be rightfully rejoicing—Colorado needed that soaking rain after all—the ability to maintain water quality is as crucial as the amount that fell. As new concrete is poured and development is completed, natural groundcover is replaced with impervious surfaces, leading to increased stormwater runoff. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, polluted runoff from urbanized areas is a leading source of water quality impairments to lakes and rivers. Even as higher building density is touted as a way to boost water efficiency, it can be

a threat to clean water—but it doesn’t have to be. The EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have developed stormwater standards and require discharge permits for municipal sewer systems, mandating that urban areas create programs to improve stormwater discharge. Organizations like the Keep It Clean Partnership and Colorado Nonpoint Source Program also offer resources to raise awareness and solve stormwater problems. And land use planners and developers are finding ways to incorporate natural spaces and low-impact development methods to slow—and even filter— stormwater runoff. “You can say there’s negative water quality from density and urban development but otherwise this development would be happening on a greenfield,” says Becky

Fedak, an engineer with the Brendle Group, a sustainability consulting and engineering firm. “We’re finding ways we can encourage urban development but doing our best to manage water quality and stormwater sites to minimize our impact.” Fort Collins, Denver, unincorporated Adams County and other Colorado communities also account for the impacts of impervious surface areas through stormwater charges, where properties with more concrete or impervious area pay higher rates. In Denver, such charges are calculated based on property size and total impervious area using a combination of aerial and satellite data. Billing for impervious surfaces isn’t practiced everywhere, but stormwater management solutions, including low-impact development, are being implemented nationally and in Colorado. These solutions

aim to minimize directly connected impervious areas, giving precipitation as many opportunities as possible to soak into and be filtered by natural groundcover. Living landscapes in urban areas, for instance, act more like natural undeveloped watersheds, which improves water quality and can help reduce the number of flood events, reduce streambank erosion, and improve groundwater recharge. Important as it is, treating stormwater with low-impact development methods is relatively uncommon. Fort Collins was the first city in Colorado to mandate that some stormwater from all its development sites be treated using low-impact development. Aurora is close on its heels, working to revamp its stormwater management regulations to make low-impact development standard. —CAITLIN COLEMAN




Designed to capture and filter runoff through methods like bio swales or rain gardens, even grass buffers can serve this purpose, though their capacity is determined by the design and soils beneath the vegetation.

Green Roofs

Vegetated roof covers, like this one that tops the third-story garage at the Denver Botanic Gardens, can intercept, slow, and reduce rooftop runoff; at the same time they can reduce energy costs.

Cluster Development

New subdivisions can group their building structures on smaller lots within a portion of a property, while intentionally leaving open space to soak up stormwater.

Check out the EPA’s “barrier busting” fact sheet series to pursue low-impact development strategies in your community: http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/green/bbfs.cfm. H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015

Permeable Pavements

Various products like permeable interlocking pavement, porous asphalt, pervious concrete, grid and grass pavement all have great potential to reduce runoff across massive surface areas and, in some cases, to provide detention during flooding.


real estate’s multiple listing service, or MLS, to highlight homes that include energy- and water-efficient amenities. In cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, “green” homes now draw higher sale prices.



PACE UNIVERSITY’S TIFFANY ZEZULA led the 2013 Land Use Leadership Alliance workshop that Western Resource Advocates organized for Colorado leaders and land and water professionals. Zezula works nationally and says Colorado is ahead of the curve in connecting the two resource issues.

Initiative, is in the works through the Colorado Water Innovation Cluster, says Becky Fedak, an engineer with Brendle Group, who is developing the program’s planning toolkit. The effort will test how to achieve net-zero water use at various scales, from small businesses to water-intensive industries to city neighborhoods, working with the City of Fort Collins, Adams County, and New Belgium Brewing Company. The spreadsheetbased toolkit will help guide entities to identify appropriate strategies and goals to reduce water usage and improve water quality and stormwater management, and should be released publicly within the next year, Fedak says. Certification programs could also help guide efforts for improved water and land planning integration. The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) is a national index that scores homes based on their energy performance. Following that model, the Residential Energy Services Network and partners are developing the Water Efficiency Rating (WER) Index to provide a quick overview of a home’s water use and efficiency to homebuyers and owners, as well as builders, developers and real estate agents. Frank Kinder, Colorado Springs Utilities conservation specialist, and other state water managers helped craft the water efficiency index, which will be available at the end of 2015. “Colorado has been an early adopter,” Kinder says, when it comes to adopting 30

water-efficient new home construction and certification. He cites many Colorado cities’ and utilities’ use of efficiency rebates, their participation in WaterSense (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efficiency program), and a 2010 legislative bill that requires builders of single-family homes to provide a “water-smart” option with certified efficient fixtures to new homeowners. The WER Index would also complement an extension of the U.S. Green Building Council’s popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, known as LEED. The LEED extension evaluates environmental performance on a neighborhoodwide scale rather than just building by building. Water conservation and efficiency measures—such as reduced impervious surfaces that cause excessive stormwater runoff, mandated xeriscaping, and the installation of efficient WaterSense household fixtures—are among the steps that can earn points for a neighborhood’s certification. Patti Mason, executive director of the Green Building Council’s Colorado chapter, says developers have shown interest in the neighborhood credentials. Stapleton’s developers, for example, used the program initially to lay out the community’s master plan, although they didn’t complete the formal application process. “It’s new and it’s a little more niche and custom, for now,” Mason says. She is also helping to develop a “green features” addendum for Colorado



In May 2015, a next class of communities took part in the Western Resource Advocates-sponsored land use workshop. Two years after the first course, several of the initial participants have taken strides to craft land use rules and codes that are building on the workshop’s lessons. “I think they’re getting it, and there has been great progress,” Beckwith says of the participating cities. “If you’re not discussing water in planning, it’s unlikely you’re going to make progress.” Of course, water constraints and costs are urging along action, whether towns and officials are engaged or not. Innovative tools that support the nexus of water management and land use make both environmental and financial sense, adds Lander, especially as water prices creep higher and supplies get scarcer. Each local success story shows other communities that the process and tools aren’t “so scary.” Policy challenges, from passing binding local and state laws to implementation and enforcement, certainly pose barriers, but progress is clearly being made and elected officials, developers, planners and water providers are all increasingly recognizing the benefits. One final element will help determine the pace and success of the push to integrate land use and water management: support and engagement from the people who live here. Lander points to Sterling Ranch and says the development’s inclusion of progressive water and land planning from the get-go, with its smaller lots and even smaller lawns, will ultimately test how and if an ingrained community conservation ethic develops among residents. Says Lander, “We’re really banking that values have changed.” n Visit the Pace University Land Use Law Center for additional case studies, resources, trainings and more at www.law.pace.edu/landuse. Attend the 2015 American Planning Association Colorado Conference September 30-October 2 in Steamboat, with tracks focused on the water and land use nexus. Learn more at apacolorado.org.


Show Us the Water How will Colorado ensure its development boom is supplied in a way that’s both sustainable and protects end users? BY NELSON HARVEY

H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015



n a bright spring morning in 2006, Jack McCormick came in from watering the horses outside his rural home in northwestern Douglas County and found his wife, Lois, perturbed.


he McCormicks live on a five-acre lot 20 miles south of Denver, in a 29-home subdivision called Plum Valley Heights. They rely for water on a 700-foot-deep well that taps the Denver Basin Aquifer, a nonrenewable underground reservoir whose decline in recent decades has mirrored a boom in the South Metro area’s population. On that morning, Lois was in the shower as Jack filled the horses’ stock tank, but the flow from their well wasn’t strong enough to supply both uses at once. Suddenly, Lois’ shower ran dry. “I came in and she was pretty upset about it,” McCormick recalls. “Of course, when the horse tank was full, the shower started flowing again, but as I was filling it she lost her water!” When the Douglas County Commissioners approved the Plum Valley Heights subdivision in the late 1970s, they did so without much concern for the long-term sustainability of the individual groundwater wells that made up the development’s water supply. Back then, no law required that the sufficiency or longevity of a water supply be weighed when planning a development, and while a 1973 state law theoretically prevented the McCormicks from pumping more than 1 percent of the groundwater from beneath their land each year, the aquifer’s complex geology made that number tough to pin down. Today, much has changed in the world of land and water planning: A 2008 state law, House Bill 1141, requires local officials in Colorado to consider the adequacy of a development’s water supply before approving it, and Douglas County regulations now mandate that developers in the county’s

PRECEDING PAGE: NEARLY FORTY YEARS after their neighborhood was built, the decades-long quest to find a sustainable water supply in Douglas County’s Plum Valley Heights is reaching a happy, but expensive, ending for Jack and Lois McCormick and their neighbors. Pictured here (left to right) are Verena and Don Rogge, Ann Scheflin, Barbara and Carl Fox, and Diana Sturrock. Photo by Matthew Staver. 32

northwestern corner supply their projects with water that’s 100 percent renewable— replenished annually by snow and rain. Yet special districts, which supply water to many of Colorado’s unincorporated areas and some municipalities, lack authority under state law to decide where and how development unfolds within their boundaries. And none of these changes have helped the McCormicks, who have coped with declining groundwater levels since they bought their home in 1989 by drilling a new well and then lowering their pump four successive times. Although a renewable water supply is now in sight for them, it will come at a steep cost: Last November the McCormicks voted with 265 of their groundwater-dependent neighbors to join the Roxborough Water and Sanitation District, a Littletonbased water and sewer provider, for a fee that could climb to $60,000 per household. Roxborough is a small district that leases excess South Platte River water from the City of Aurora, then pipes it to some 3,400 homes and businesses southwest of Plum Valley Heights. Officials there say bringing on new ratepayers could help lower costs for existing customers. Still, Plum Valley Heights and its neighboring subdivisions will soon be buying water from an entity that had no involvement in their original design or approval. It’s an expensive, lastditch solution that would make most land and water planners cringe, and it begs the question: If Colorado’s population grows by three to four million people over the next few decades as the State Demographer’s Office projects, can land use planners and water providers work closely enough to ensure they’ll have the water they need to adequately support that new growth?

Show me the water law


n Colorado, local governments employ a wide range of approaches to ensure that new development is served by an adequate water supply. H.B. 08-1141, also known as the “show me the water” law, requires that



local decision makers weigh the “quality, quantity, dependability and availability” of a developer’s proposed water supply, and many cities go further by requiring specific quantities of water before approving development or annexing new land into their boundaries. Cities like Greeley and Longmont, for instance, mandate that residential developers provide their city water departments with three acre-feet of water for every acre of land developed or annexed, including any water historically used to irrigate the land where they wish to build. According to Longmont Public Works and Natural Resources director Dale Rademacher, the three-acrefoot rule is designed to secure sufficient water for a variety of potential land uses and building densities while granting extra water for public uses like parks. “We’ve had that in place since the mid1950s, and it’s worked incredibly well,” says Rademacher. “It has put the city in ownership of some of the most senior water rights on the St. Vrain River, and that puts us in a very good position: If the St. Vrain gets low, the city is often able to keep diverting.” Longmont, Greeley and many other cities allow developers who can’t meet their water requirements with historic, on-site water rights to pay so-called “cash-in-lieu” fees or to provide the city with water rights from other sources. However, both Greeley and Longmont restrict the type of water they’ll accept to prevent developers from simply buying up and drying nearby agricultural lands. Longmont, for instance, will only accept offsite water from sources like Lake McIntosh, west of the city and fed by the St. Vrain, or the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, the transbasin diversion that diverts from the Colorado River headwaters in Grand County. Both make water shares available through purchase or lease agreements. In addition to providing water rights, developers in most communities must also pay into existing water systems. Greeley charges plant investment fees to help cover water treatment expenses, along with tap fees to pay for new water and sewer lines that connect to existing infrastructure. In recent months, some developers have expressed concern that high water-related fees could push development outside of city limits into unincorporated areas of Weld County, unintentionally encouraging sprawl. “The more a municipality adds up the fees, the more it drives development to the outlying areas,” says Greg Miedema, executive officer for the Home Builders Association of Northern Colorado. “In this




Steamboat Springs

Fort Collins Estes Park


Greeley Yuma



Winter Park



Glenwood Springs

Denver Vail

Carbondale Aspen




Limon Leadville

Grand Junction

Colorado Springs Delta Montrose Pueblo

Lamar La Junta Walsenburg Alamosa Cortez


Water Districts

Pagosa Springs


Water and Sanitation Districts

Municipal Water Districts

Conservancy Districts

Colorado’s Water Service Web While most Coloradans will find their water utility housed within the local city government, that’s not the case for all. Even Denver Water, which serves onequarter of the state’s residents, is an enterprise-zone, single-mission agency run by its own board, separate from the City of Denver and the other 19 municipalities to which it provides water service. In rural areas, customers are typically served by special districts, some of which provide only water and others that handle wastewater and other services, too. And while conservancy districts primarily serve agricultural customers or provide wholesale supplies to other water providers, some, such as Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction, run their own municipal delivery systems. Existing utilities and water districts are often tasked with providing water to service new growth in their boundaries, while new districts are formed to provide service in places it doesn’t currently exist. In either case, state law requires that developers demonstrate adequate water supplies are available before their developments are approved. An interactive map of all the water entitiesin the state may be found here: http://lre-projects.com/ColoradoWaterEntities/ . SOURCE: GIS data courtesy of Leonard Rice Engineers, Inc.

economic recovery we haven’t seen much wage growth, so if you continue to ratchet up the cost of development fees and everything else, home ownership could become a luxury in Greeley.” Yet Greeley officials say they’ve actually seen a steady increase in development activity within the city over the last several years, even as water-related fees have grown, and a fee study completed at the end of 2014 suggested that Greeley’s development fees

were comparable to those of nearby municipalities. While Greeley’s water-related impact fees of $11,000 per single-family unit were higher than fees in Longmont and Loveland, for instance, they were much lower than Boulder’s $16,807 in fees or Thornton’s $20,515. Whether Greeley’s water fees are high enough to push growth into unincorporated Weld County remains an open question: Although suburban-style residential development is allowed in some H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015

parts of the county, building the infrastructure to serve an unincorporated area carries significant costs of its own. And, for its part, the county could downzone to maintain a rural density if it chose. Coloradans in places like unincorporated Weld County who aren’t served by municipal water providers often buy their water from special districts, quasi-municipal taxing authorities set up to provide services that local governments don’t. Although 33

many special districts are established to serve growth in unincorporated areas of the state, others operate within municipal boundaries, carrying out public functions from fire protection to street lighting. State records show there are 77 water districts and 123 water and sanitation districts now operating in Colorado, along with an untracked number of so-called “metropolitan districts” that provide water service in addition to other amenities. “Special districts do things that governments either can’t do or don’t want to do,” says Ann Terry, executive director of the Special Districts Association of Colorado. According to Terry, special districts operate in many other states besides Colorado. “Often a city will decide that they just aren’t set up well to provide water service, so a special district will form to do it for them,” she says. Frequently, those districts are founded by developers seeking to enable water service where it doesn’t currently exist. Although special districts can levy property taxes to support their operations, they lack the authority of municipal governments to regulate land use considerations, like zoning or development density, within their boundaries. When forming, every special district must win approval from local officials—most often a city council or board of county commissioners—for its “service plan,” a basic overview of the district’s intended service area, infrastructure and financial strategy. Local officials have the power to deny a special district’s service plan if they deem it deficient, but because many of them lack expertise in water issues 34

and are eager to see special districts spur new development, these service plans don’t always get sufficiently stringent review. “The prospect of additional tax revenue is a huge motivation for county commissioners to approve special districts,” says Dick Brown, a lobbyist for the Pike’s Peak Regional Water Authority, a consortium of 15 water providers serving the area around Colorado Springs. “Local officials feel they have a responsibility to encourage economic development, and I would also think that dependent upon the size and sophistication of the county government, they may not have the staff and resources to dig very deep into these [water-related] ideas and concepts.” In an attempt to bridge this knowledge gap, many local governments require that officials consult with the Division of Water Resources when reviewing service plans, because that agency maintains comprehensive data on the water supply and commitments of every water provider in the state. “We look at two things: is the water supply adequate, and will [the service plan] prevent injury to other water users?” says State Engineer Dick Wolfe. “Our response is just advisory, but in most cases the local government will adhere to our recommendation.”

Special districts in the water supply equation


he methods special districts in Colorado use to secure their water supplies are as varied as the districts themselves. Some operate their own pipelines, treatment plants and reservoirs, while others buy excess water from municipal utilities or



share water and infrastructure with other providers. In Eagle County, for instance, six metropolitan districts originally founded by developers to serve communities like EagleVail, Avon and Beaver Creek partnered in 1984 to create the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, linking their systems to enable the movement of water throughout the Eagle Valley and ensure reliable backup water sources. “Our area has been growing for 50 years, so if our early water boards had just supplied each development singularly, it wouldn’t have turned out as well,” says Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which manages the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority. “Those



early boards had to project where they were going to be in the future and combine infrastructure to prepare for future growth.” As Colorado’s water supply gets tighter in the face of population growth, drought and climate change, the efficiency gained from sharing resources will likely become increasingly important. With that in mind, the developers behind Sterling Ranch, the new 12,000-home subdivision planned on 3,400 acres near Chatfield Reservoir, opted to create a wholesale water district when it came time to plan their water supply: the Dominion Water and Sanitation District. Rather than selling water directly to customers, Dominion will provide water to other districts in the area, including a new retail water district within Sterling Ranch,

while also partnering with surrounding districts to increase the efficiency of the area’s water supply. For instance, Dominion is helping fund the enlargement of the Roxborough Water and Sanitation District’s existing water treatment plant, an expense that Roxborough would be hard-pressed to afford on its own. In exchange, Dominion will use part of the enlarged plant’s capacity to treat water for Sterling Ranch customers. “The future of water is in leveraging infrastructure,” says Harold Smethills, president and CEO of Sterling Ranch LLC. “We have to change our thinking from building a water supply to building a water system.” Several of Sterling Ranch’s principal water sources also epitomize this collaborative approach. The project will rely on surface water H E A DWAT E R S | SUMM E R 2015

HAROLD SMETHILLS (above, right) says he already has enough water to supply the entire 12,000-home Sterling Ranch development, which will be constructed over 20 years. Beorn Courtney (left) of Element Water Consulting helped Smethills blend a water-efficient design with a flexible water sharing and infrastructure plan for the development that will be approved in phases.

In 2013, the Colorado Division of Water Resources reviewed 103 subdivision referrals and provided 295 other consultations to county planning offices on land use actions that involved water.



TEMPORARY ROADS MARK THE START of Sterling Ranch’s first phase, which will include about 800 homes. At build-out, nearly 31,000 people are expected to live on the 3,400-acre property, with 1,200 acres reserved for open space. from the South Platte River that Dominion acquired through a complicated series of trades, swapping water rights with Brighton and Aurora in exchange for a commitment from Aurora to help supply Sterling Ranch. In addition to South Platte surface water and a backup supply of groundwater from wells south of Castle Rock, Sterling Ranch will purchase water from the emerging WISE project. Short for Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency, WISE will capture reusable water owned by Denver and Aurora from the South Platte River, pipe it back to Aurora’s Peter D. Binney Water Purification Facility for treatment, then send some of it west to 10 water providers in Douglas County through the recently purchased East Cherry Creek Valley Western Waterline pipeline. When Dominion Water and Sanitation joined WISE, other Douglas County water providers were already working with Denver and Aurora to plan the project in hopes of reducing their reliance on nonrenewable groundwater supplies. To cover the additional burden that Sterling Ranch customers will place on the WISE system, Dominion has agreed to cover a share of previously incurred costs while also helping to pay for its future construction. Although Sterling Ranch was conceived over a decade ago, as a bricks and mortar project it’s relatively new. Earlier this year workers broke ground on the first of its 12 planned phases. Smethills says he already has enough water under contract or option 36

to supply the whole development when it’s completed 20 years from now, but the design of the project’s water infrastructure will be finalized over time as each new phase is approved. “The key is being able to prove the delivery system phase-by-phase, and piece-bypiece,” says Smethills. “If you had to build the infrastructure up front, what you would have is sprawl, since the only thing that could happen would be small projects with individual water supplies. There isn’t a single water provider that has its entire water infrastructure in place for the next 30 years.” In 2012, Dominion Water and Sanitation was nearly forced to become such a water provider when a state court overturned Douglas County’s previous approval of Sterling Ranch. In his ruling, Douglas County District Court Judge Paul King wrote that by agreeing to review the development’s water system in phases as the project was built, the county had violated H.B. 008-1141’s requirement that new developments prove the adequacy of their water supply up front. Concerned that designing the project’s entire infrastructure ahead of time could render them financially insolvent, Smethills and his colleagues successfully petitioned legislators for a change in state law that allows local officials to decide when in the approval process to review a new development’s water supply, and permits them to approve water plans for multi-phase projects like Sterling Ranch over time. Buoyed



by that authority, the Douglas County Commissioners in early 2015 signed off on Sterling Ranch’s first phase, which will include 660 detached homes and up to 140 townhomes. They did so after conducting the same detailed “sketch plan” and “plat” reviews of the project that they’ll do at each subsequent phase, which included signing off on detailed engineering drawings of the project’s water delivery system. The commissioners’ decision was eased by an offer Smethills made to sweeten the deal, pledging to sell 10 percent of the water he procures for each phase of Sterling Ranch to neighbors who—like the McCormicks in Plum Valley Heights—are eager to transition off of declining groundwater wells. Smethills estimates there are 700 such well owners on the periphery of Sterling Ranch, and he argues that the best way to cover the astronomical cost of bringing them a renewable water supply is—perhaps ironically—to build many more homes in northwest Douglas County and use the proceeds to pay for the necessary water infrastructure. Although Sterling Ranch’s plans to conserve water and share infrastructure with surrounding providers are creative and even ingenious, some wonder whether the fundamental form of the proposed development—single-family homes and townhomes on individual lots in the suburbs, far from the urban core—is the wrong sort of growth to be perpetuating given Colorado’s water constraints. “The broader question that people of the state need to ask is: ‘Should we be doing land development in an entirely different way because our water resources are so constrained?’” says Todd Bryan of the natural resources mediation and consulting firm CDR Associates. Bryan formerly worked at the Keystone Center, where in 2014 he helped launch the center’s Water and Growth Dialogue, aimed at assessing and quantifying the water-related implications of varying growth patterns. Results from this dialogue are expected by the end of 2015. “The goal of the project,” says Bryan, “is to change the question from ‘Where will we get the water to support new growth?’ to ‘If we knew the water use consequences of different land use choices, might we make different choices?’” n Find information about Colorado’s special districts and their service areas and plans at sdaco.org.


The West is simultaneously the driest and fastest growing region in the U.S. It’s important that we grow in a way that is smart. Western Resource Advocates is working on several fronts to integrate land use and water planning to decrease the water footprint of new development so we can meet the needs of growing communities while also protecting our amazing rivers and streams.

Land Use Planning for Water Efficiency Over the past two years, WRA has hosted a series of workshops with water utility staff, land use planners, and local elected officials. Working closely with these partners, we’re helping make new development more water-smart.

Learn more about our work and how you can help at www.westernresourceadvocates.org

Publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Headwaters magazine is made possible by the generous support of sponsors and advertisers. We would like to extend our appreciation and thanks to these sponsors for contributing financially to this issue.

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