Denver, Fort Collins among cities in national effort linking water, land, environment

Chemically, the water that nature creates is always H2O, regardless of whether it’s suspended in clouds, falling as droplets of rain, or coursing across the land in streams. It’s all one water that cycles through earth and atmosphere. People, however, tend to form water teams that focus on singular aspects of water’s role in our environment and communities.

Some managers oversee dams and reservoirs, while others treat water for drinking. Stormwater, flood control, distribution and piping, wastewater, watersheds and the environment, agricultural ditches and canals—all of these water sectors developed as specialties that don’t, necessarily, join forces or even communicate about overlapping projects and goals. That’s largely because each specialty has had to negotiate separate regulations and policies dictating the how’s and why’s of their water niche. Over time, siloes developed that hindered communities’ and water managers’ ability to take a holistic approach to water use and planning.

But by the early 2000s, a number of water professionals across the globe started to envision a new paradigm. “What if these systems could be collaborating and together break down the divides?” asks Scott Berry, director of policy and government affairs for the US Water Alliance, established in 2008 to facilitate communication and development of what have been coined “One Water” principles. The One Water movement was initiated with a utility-centric focus that sought to create dialogue between stormwater, wastewater and drinking water divisions. But the notion of One Water has since evolved to include a broader, more diverse tapestry of stakeholders, says Berry.

The goals of One Water often vary by site, but in most places, One Water initiatives link water and land planning. Whereas integrated water resource plans usually focus on water alone, a One Water ethic recognizes water’s integration with broader landscapes. Communities can then put that ethic into action by developing a formal One Water plan, which aims to have all of a watershed’s major players at the table in order to craft more sustainable water systems. This means that local governments; private businesses; developers; farmers and agricultural industries; transit authorities; nonprofit organizations; drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, flood and watershed managers; land use planners; environmentalists; and others can all collaborate to share needs and solutions that help finite water resources go farther and achieve multiple benefits for communities and environments.

This country’s largest cities have led the movement to attempt One Water frameworks, with Los Angeles creating its influential One Water plan in 2018. Other cities, such as New York, Seattle, Honolulu and Denver have followed. And now, surveys conducted by the US Water Alliance indicate that about 80 communities across the country are currently pursuing One Water plan development. Most, including Denver, are managing the interrelated aspects of their water systems in a more collaborative way to improve resiliency in the face of climate change and to stretch water resources to serve growing human populations.

“Collaboration can be unwieldy,” acknowledges Berry. But it can also avoid costly and wasteful inefficiencies in spending, and it may even help tackle social injustice. “One Water approaches can address the ways that different neighborhoods have historically received different treatment, and can propose durable solutions that are integrated and equitable,” says Berry.

It’s up to each community to identify a set of objectives that address local priorities: One city might emphasize stormwater reuse, while another might elevate water quality higher on its list.

Colorado Plans and Visions

In September 2021, Denver became the first Colorado entity to pursue integrated One Water strategies through the publication of its One Water plan.

A Denver resident who asked that her name not be used washes her car in the Berkeley neighborhood July 12, 2019. It is one of dozens of neighborhoods in Denver whose water is delivered via lead service lines.

A Denver resident who asked that her name not be used washes her car in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood July 12, 2019.

Denver collaborators include those involved in water and land use on many levels: the city’s water and wastewater providers, urban drainage and flood control, various representatives from different departments within the city and county governments, the state, and those who are looking out for the river itself. And they prioritized action items that include promoting water reuse, encouraging overlap between land use and water planning, and developing water policies that support sustainable practices.

Work implementing Denver’s plan is just getting off the ground with monthly meetings among the plan’s collaborators who share ideas, outreach opportunities, and areas where their work overlaps.

For example, the 39th Avenue Greenway project in the Cole and Clayton neighborhoods of north Denver predates the city’s One Water plan (it was completed in 2020) but exemplifies the kind of multi-benefit project that the plan will prioritize. Flood control was the development’s marquee goal, but the design also installed pollutant-filtering green spaces to improve environmental health and playgrounds for families that had historically been underserved by city parks and recreational facilities.

Of course, One Water approaches don’t have to be all-encompassing, as Denver’s is. “You don’t have to do everything, everywhere, all at once,” explains Berry.

Colorado’s leaders are calling for sweeping visions at the state level but not necessarily looking to blanket the state with full-on One Water plans. In the 2023 update to the Colorado Water Plan, the authors urge communities across the state to follow in Denver’s footsteps by including water in “every city and county’s comprehensive plan in ways that embrace the One Water ethic and support inclusion in water and land use planning at the local level.”

“The local level is where the important planning decisions are made for a more sustainable and water-conscious future,” says Kevin Reidy, senior state water efficiency specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the agency that led the development and update to the state water plan and supports water plan goals with project funding and direction. The new 2023 water plan specifically calls out the “One Water ethic” for all communities across the state – going beyond a goal in the initial 2015 Colorado Water Plan, which said that 75% of Coloradans would live in communities that had incorporated water-saving actions into land use planning. The state hasn’t yet conducted a formal survey to measure communities’ progress.

“With more One Water planning happening there can be a growing awareness, cataloging of best practices and tools that make adoption easier as well as documenting case studies that can help achieve a larger vision,” says Reidy. “Ultimately, that vision is strongest when it can integrate water conservation, land use and community values around water.”

Water Integration in Fort Collins

One community that’s begun to yoke synergies is Fort Collins.

This northern Colorado city is unusual in that, in contrast to how things work in Denver, it owns and operates all three traditional water utilities: drinking water, stormwater and wastewater. But each had become siloed, to the point that various arms of the system often competed for funding and purpose. Two years ago, the city hired a consultant to conduct an assessment of the water system, and the resulting recommendation was to align the utilities under a One Water framework.

Jason Graham was hired a year and a half ago to oversee the transformation, and although his job title, executive director of water, doesn’t reference One Water, that movement nevertheless guides his efforts with Fort Collins’ water services at the management level and regionally. That means achieving more overlap between planning, engineering and operations—sectors that had been working in a vacuum, without awareness of what one another was doing. It also requires a landscape-level view of Fort Collins’ water system, upstream to downstream. “The goal is to develop One Water from Cameron Pass through Fort Collins to the South Platte,” says Graham.

The effort is still in its early stages. The leadership team and group structures are established, and now, those teams are about to start defining the city’s strategic principles and priorities for integration. “Given what we have planned, we’re leading the One Water movement certainly within Colorado, and we’re one of the national leaders that people haven’t yet heard about,” says Graham.

The potential overlaps extend far beyond the utilities, to include businesses, developers, neighborhoods, parks, golf courses, citizens, elected leaders and their equivalents in the adjacent county. “Promoting that engagement is a big part of One Water, because that’s what creates a balanced approach to addressing water issues,” says Graham, who has already begun dialogues with area agricultural providers and neighboring water providers.

Surrounding Fort Collins’ urban boundary is an area served by about 20 different water utilities that respond independently to their communities’ widely varying attitudes toward growth—and Graham plans to have conversations in order to explore potential collaborations with all of them.

“Whether our development code and our policies on xeriscaping can be supported by those other water providers, that’s very tricky,” Graham explains. Some citizens support growth while others oppose it—and that struggle links in topics such as affordable housing and social equity, Graham notes, because if you stifle housing creation in a locale that already experiences rising property values, you price out lower-income residents. So while limiting growth may look good from a water-use standpoint, it can also heighten social inequities.

“It can be daunting,” Graham acknowledges. He doesn’t yet know what the limits will be for local collaboration, or how big is too big when it comes to the number of stakeholders involved. “But regardless of whether we can leverage all that, there is a need to have these conversations,” he concludes. And the future benefits of pursuing integration seem worth the present uncertainty, whether surrounding communities work with Fort Collins or not.

He also expects to enjoy cost savings for rate-payers once formerly separate budgets and projects are aligned. “One area would conduct a study that no one else knew about, but now, that one study can do more by serving all buckets,” he explains.

Integration also promises to make Fort Collins more resilient in the face of regional water pressures. “Looking at the Colorado River Compact and the future of northern Colorado, we want to be strategic about the resources that we have,” Graham says. The time for inefficiency has passed. Says Graham, “The community is ready for this conversation to happen. We’re the stewards of this conversation and the protection of this resource.”

Roadmaps for Future One Water Communities

On the campus of Colorado State University, just a few miles from Jason Graham’s office, Mazdak Arabi, PhD, is putting the final touches on a report that’s likely to help many communities across the country understand and embark on One Water integration. The research was performed at Arabi’s One Water Solutions Institute, established within CSU to develop science-driven, evidence-based pathways to water integration. Marrying pure science with practical application is “extremely rewarding for me and the other folks in the One Water Solutions Institute,” says Arabi.

Dr. Mazdak Arabi, a professor at Colorado State University, is also director and founder of the One Water Solutions Institute. The institute, housed in CSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is focused on addressing water sustainability challenges by facilitating the adoption of One Water strategies. (Eli Imadali)

The report cites a ladder that they can climb to approach One Water ideals. “It’s a self-assessment framework, not a competitive comparison,” Arabi emphasizes. But, like similar rubrics used by Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) to recognize sustainable construction, the forthcoming self-assessment describes three levels of One Water involvement: Onboarding, Progressing and Advancing. Each level describes specific actions that municipalities can follow to identify where they’re at and how to progress.

There is no ultimate state of One Water perfection. Even the most accomplished “level three” municipalities, those who have made the most One Water advances, will continue to self-monitor and engage their communities in pursuit of ongoing innovation. That quest promises dividends for entire communities, says Arabi.

“At the core of our research, we’re looking at ways to make a community more livable, more resilient to changes in population or climate or other pressures,” Arabi explains.

This story first appeared in Fall edition of Headwaters magazine.

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