Denver Adopts One Water

Climate change and development pressures led Denver to launch Colorado’s first One Water Plan

In September of 2021 the City and County of Denver published the Denver One Water Plan, the first and only official One Water plan in Colorado.

It lays out Denver’s new approach to water management, born of the recognition that development pressures and climate change are stressing the city’s water resources and that for a sustainable future, all the water managers and planners need to work together to take advantage of the interconnected nature of the water cycle.

The plan involves a number of entities that play specific roles within Denver’s urban water cycle: the City and County of Denver, Denver Water, Metro Water Recovery, the Mile High Flood District, The Greenway Foundation, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Collaborating on the plan was a major integration of the historically siloed management of drinking water, wastewater, recycled water, stormwater, riparian health, recreation, and other water uses.

When the city’s most recent comprehensive plan was completed in 2019 – a plan meant to set the vision and goals to guide Denver into 2040 – it identified the need to create a holistic water strategy, setting the stage for the creation of the One Water plan. In fact, prior to publishing its One Water plan in 2021, the City and County of Denver did not have a citywide, holistic plan for managing water. After two years of meetings and community workshops, under the guidance of Carollo Engineers, the Denver One Water Plan was born.

“It’s a framework for doing things collaboratively and holistically and aligning goals between all the different partners in the water cycle,” says Dave Jula, the City of Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure senior water services director, who played a leading role in the One Water planning process.

Now, two years since it was published, the Denver One Water Plan is still in its infancy, but already it is having meaningful impacts among partners who are finding efficiencies in their newfound collaboration.

Dave Jula, senior water services director for the City of Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, talks with the rest of the Denver One Water Plan OWL group at their monthly meeting in August 2023. During the meeting, the group discussed opportunities for outreach and information exchange and heard presentations, all to broaden the reach of One Water and keep OWL members in the know. (Eli Imadali)

What’s in the plan?

Denver’s One Water Plan lays out five goals to maximize benefits of water resources: promote institutional collaboration, implement multi-benefit projects and programs, foster community support, increase resilience and climate change preparedness, and implement integrated water management solutions.

“It’s really the first time that a lot of agencies have come together at once. In the past, we’d partner one by one,” says Greg Fisher, Denver Water’s manager of demand planning and efficiency. “So we would work with Parks [and Recreation] on one project and then we would work with Metro Water Recovery on another. It was very rare to get all the [water managers] together working on one project, even though clearly the benefits are so much bigger when you do.”

A major benefit of the One Water lens is how it ties water use and land use planning. Take Denver’s Green Code update, for example, which is based on the International Green Construction Code and now requires commercial and multifamily development to meet some provisions from the code. “Understanding how land use planning actually impacts not only water usage, but runoff and collection and conveyance is where we’re able to get these layers of interaction,” explains Colin Haggerty, watershed manager for the Mile High Flood District (MHFD), referring to the code.

And the various partners in the Denver One Water Plan approach it with different interests, Haggerty says. “Denver Water is very interested in [seeing] what are the needs for the irrigation side of it for water usage? And then [MHFD] is looking at what are those runoff values? If it rains, how much water is going to run off of xeriscape versus natural grass? If it rains, how much fertilizer is affecting water quality based on the type of landscaping … We’re able to have those lines of communication and understand the impacts that our decisions are making on each other.”

The plan in action

These first two years have been about information-sharing and relationship-building. “The time-frame for paradigm shifts like One Water planning has to be measured in years,” explains Kevin Reidy, senior water efficiency specialist with the Water Supply Planning Section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). So there’s been limited progress on new work that puts the plan into action. But projects are moving forward.

One collaboration that exemplifies the goals of the Denver One Water Plan is the High Line Canal Stormwater Transformation project. Owned by Denver Water since the 1920s, the 71-mile-long canal was originally built in 1883 to deliver water for irrigation. Today it has become less a water delivery mechanism and more a recreational and ecological asset. “80% of that [water] seeps into the ground. It is probably one of the least efficient water distribution systems you could ever conceive of,” says Fisher. So over the past several years Denver Water started weaning people off of water delivered via the canal, instead relying on more efficient conveyances. Today, the canal is being retrofitted into a stormwater drainage canal. This multi-benefit project is a partnership between the High Line Canal Conservancy, the City and County of Denver, Denver Water, and the Mile High Flood District, as well as 11 local jurisdictions.

“The fundamental change in the canal is this reduction of irrigation water delivery, which means there won’t be consistent water in the channel,” explains Josh Phillips, director of planning and implementation for the High Line Canal Conservancy. “So using the canal as green stormwater infrastructure is the ultimate multi-benefit project: It’s solving a stormwater challenge for the City and County of Denver while also meeting the community need of preserving this ecological amenity.”

Directing stormwater into the canal provides water to the thousands of shade trees along the recreation corridor, and improvements to stormwater infrastructure can significantly improve water quality before stormwater enters local waterways. For example, in Denver’s pilot project on the canal, berms were installed that slow the movement of water, allowing more time for stormwater to seep into the ground and for sediment to drop out of the water. Additionally, keeping water in the canal for longer durations benefits the riparian ecosystem that grew and established itself along the canal when it was used for water delivery. Since the success of Denver’s pilot project, four more agencies have formalized stormwater use along sections of the canal’s path.

Like the High Line Canal transformation, many of the projects featured in the Denver One Water Plan were underway before the plan’s existence—providing inspirational examples of the benefits that a One Water approach can achieve. All the partners emphasized that the water infrastructure and planning projects the One Water plan addresses tend to require years of planning and years of implementation, meaning that it’s too soon to expect completely new projects to have been the result of the plan.

The major early benefit of the plan has been from the formation of the One Water Leaders, or OWL, group. This group, made up of representatives of the original partnering agencies, as well as some newly involved groups, gathers monthly to ensure the institutions are in close communication. Those meetings are attended by representatives of diverse branches within the City and County of Denver such as the Department of Aviation which manages the airport,  Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, Parks and Recreation, Community Planning and Development, Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency, and Public Health and Environment.

“Providing the space for these different partners to collaborate on a regular basis has been so beneficial,” says Jula, “Let’s all get in the room together – that water cooler discussion can happen now.”

This sentiment was echoed by Perry Holland, director of comprehensive planning at Metro Water Recovery: “You actively have people meeting regularly to talk about opportunities. Previously, these discussions would happen because something specific would come up on a project, but to have regular conversations about it, I think is a real benefit.”

A streetside planter in north Denver filters stormwater to trap pollutants before they can make it to the South Platte River. This type of nature-based solution is a goal in the Denver One Water Plan, which calls on city planners to “integrate stormwater into the built environment in a socially, economically, and environmentally beneficial way by using low-impact development/green infrastructure to improve water quality, reduce runoff, and mitigate the risk of urban regional flooding.” (Courtesy Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure)

In addition to the “office-hours” effect of the monthly OWL meetings, Jula cites the educational benefit of having gone through the extensive One Water planning process with both government officials, partners and the community. “Now, [stakeholders] hear ‘One Water’ and they say, ‘That’s great. This is part of that? This was recommended in that? Great.’ You tie it to the comp[rehensive] plan too, and these two things really help get [projects] through the city efficiently.”

While there is concern in the Denver area related to water supply, drought, growth and the larger water scarcity issues playing out across the western United States, Jula explains that the last several decades have also brought increased attention to the South Platte River, which runs more than 12 miles north-south through the city. “We’ve had a long sordid history with the South Platte River. We treated it like most major cities have, as our open sewer, our dumping ground, our environmental toxic waste site. But over the last few decades we’ve invested a ton of money into revitalizing it and restoring it.”

Cue the Waterway Resiliency Program which has been in the works for more than a decade. The city, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other partners are investing more than $500 million to restore ecosystems along 6.5 miles of the South Platte River’s course through the city. The work will also reduce flood risks along the river and key tributaries, Weir Gulch and East Harvard Gulch. The One Water planning paradigm asks the city and its partners to find other benefits to layer onto this project, such as green infrastructure, public education, policies to protect riparian areas, and more. And the monthly OWL meetings will ensure that as this major infrastructure project moves forward, all the potential partners will already be in communication about ways to add on benefits.

One way the city hopes to make progress on policy directly linked to the One Water Plan’s recommendations is through its new Healthy River Corridor Study. This study, published in June 2023, looks at the 12.5- mile stretch of the South Platte River that runs through Denver to identify land use strategies that could protect the investments being made in the river’s ecosystem. “There are all of these development pressures on the river,” says Jula, “but we don’t have very strong policies tied to land use when it comes to water in the city.” The next step would be to take the study results and turn them into policy, perhaps as ordinance or zoning.

Another major project the Denver One Water Plan highlights is the National Western Center campus redevelopment. Led by the National Western Center Authority and various partners including Colorado State University Spur, the major redevelopment features a number of water-related improvements. The property has half a mile of South Platte River frontage whose restoration creates potential for parks and trails. The center’s collaboration with Metro Water Recovery made it possible to install sewer heat recovery technology, which uses heat from wastewater to both heat and cool the CSU Spur campus, saving energy. This project is the largest of its kind in the United States and benefits both CSU Spur and Metro Water Recovery. Spur saves on energy use and Metro benefits by having heat removed from the wastewater entering their system, which helps the wastewater treatment facility meet its discharge permit conditions related to water temperature. While this project predates Denver’s One Water plan, the OWL group hopes their regular meetings will allow future projects to find similar benefits across agencies.

And there may be opportunities for similar work and projects across the state. The CWCB was an early supporter of Denver’s planning effort and continues to support its implementation.

“The CWCB would like to see One Water initiatives proliferate across Colorado,” Reidy says. “That will most likely look different in other areas, but cities that focus on a more integrated water resource planning viewpoint, including the integration of water efficiency, land use planning and alternative water supplies, will be critical to Colorado’s water future.”

Olivia Emmer is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Carbondale, Colorado. Her writing has been featured in Fresh Water News, Aspen Daily News and the Sopris Sun. Emmer specializes in stories about the environment. 


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