With the Colorado River crisis deepening and the warming climate continuing to rob streams and rivers of their flows, talk in Colorado has resumed about how to limit growing water demand statewide for residential use.
A new report commissioned by the Common Sense Institute and written by Colorado water veterans Jennifer Gimbel and Eric Kuhn, cites the need for broader conservation measures such as removing non-functional turf in new development, among other things.
“Lacking statewide or regional standards, home developers are free to choose cities with less strict conservation standards,” they wrote in the November 2022 report, “Adapting Colorado’s Water Systems for a 21st century Economy and Water Supply.”
“Regional approaches are needed,” they added in their broad-ranging report. They suggest regional conservancy and conservation districts might be a vehicle in lieu of statewide standards.
Gimbel, a senior scholar at CSU’s Water Center and former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Kuhn, retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, summarized their findings last Friday in a presentation at the Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention. The water congress is a bi-partisan group representing dozens of water users across the state.
“We have to do more with less,” said Kuhn. He cited projected statewide population growth of 1.6 to 1.8 million new residents by 2050, most along the Front Range, but also the probability that the warming climate will make less water available, particularly from the Colorado River.
Kuhn warned that deliveries of water from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range are by no means guaranteed. Several Front Range water providers, including Pueblo, Denver and Northern Water have at least some water rights that are younger, or more junior than those farther downstream in places such as California, and could be vulnerable if mandatory cutbacks ever occurred. Within individual states in the West, older water rights are typically fulfilled before younger water rights during times of scarcity, though it’s yet to be seen how mandatory cutbacks would materialize across the entire Colorado River Basin.
“Curtailment of those junior users is not acceptable at any time in the future,” said Kuhn.
Earlier during the conference, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis called for a “comprehensive approach to housing to preserve our water resources.” He cited multiple benefits for revised land-use policies: reduced traffic, saved money for consumers and – most important, he added, it “limits demand on water resources.”
Polis said the Colorado Water Conservation Board will lead a task force on integrating land use and water demand. This 21-member Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force is to include representatives of 8 water utilities, 2 conservation districts, 2 environmental NGOs, with the balance to come from areas of expertise and interest such as stormwater, equity, and urban planning.
Local control, a basic precept of Colorado’s form of government, will also likely be an issue. Towns, cities and counties who are authorized to govern themselves in most cases, often resist state control in matters they believe should remain in local hands.
Aurora, if lately a shining light for turf removal and strict water conservation policies, harbors skepticism of any potential statewide mandates. “Aurora must retain control of what our city looks like,” says Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s spokesman.
Aurora is open to discussion but “it needs to be a proportional discussion,” says Baker. “We don’t want to tell agriculture how to use their water, but they account for 85% of water use in this state.”
In 2014, when Ellen Roberts, then a state senator from Durango, introduced a conservation bill, she found significant opposition.
Roberts said she introduced the bill, which did not pass, to get the conversation going in Colorado about stepped-up conservation programs. “My concern was that if we waited for that to happen naturally, it might never happen or it would be so slow it would have no meaningful impact,” she says.
This latest report was designed for the business community, says Gimbel, but with the understanding that it needed to include the water community. “It was our opportunity to tell the business community ‘pay attention, because what happens with water is going to affect our economy one way or another.’”
Allen Best grew up in eastern Colorado, where both sets of grandparents were farmers. Best writes about the energy transition in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com.
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