One Water, Demystified

The One Water movement promises to make water supplies do more for communities and the environment—if stakeholders can break down existing siloes and integrate their efforts—but it’s far from a one-size-fits-all solution.

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.

One Water is, in a nutshell, a commitment to holistic water management that acknowledges water’s interconnected role in land use, environmental conservation, and sometimes even social justice (because people of all economic circumstances deserve healthy drinking water and settings). One Water acknowledges that water is finite and seeks to ensure resilience and reliability when meeting both community and ecosystem needs.

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.

Guided by resident input, the award-winning 39th Avenue Greenway project at the edge of Denver’s RiverNorth neighborhood is an example of One Water in action. The project restored a discontinued rail corridor to improve the aesthetic, create an accessible recreational amenity, and provide stormwater conveyance and filtration as well as 100-year flood protection for the area. (Blake Gordon, Courtesy DHM Design)

“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.

One Water’s potential benefits are great, but real-life implementation is just now getting started across the country, including in Colorado. Here’s how this state’s leading governments are planning for One Water progress.

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.

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. Denver’s plan is such a comprehensive philosophy developed by so many varied decision makers who touch all aspects of water that it urges integrated planning and multi-benefit outcomes on nearly every level. (Read more about the Denver One Water Plan in “Denver Adopts One Water” on page 19.)

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.

Localities can identify top priorities and follow One Water principles to address discrete problems. For example, North Carolina’s Jordan Lake community collaborated on a One Water plan that helped stakeholders comply with water quality standards and get involved with the creation of new nutrient regulations. Their first task focused on collaborative policy development. “It’s still part of the One Water approach to prioritize and accomplish things more piecemeal,” says Berry. Those projects simply express the overarching One Water philosophy that communities establish from the outset. “In this case, One Water is both the destination and the journey,” Berry adds.

And 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 set the objective that by 2025, 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. But Reidy notes that 68% of Colorado’s population is represented by municipalities that have attended the “Growing Water Smart” workshops, hosted by the Sonoran Institute and Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy and financed by the CWCB, which help local leaders learn about integrated land and water management—a central One Water tenet.

Through its Colorado Water Plan Grant Program, the CWCB prioritizes projects that exemplify One Water principles of conservation and reuse. “We have funded direct potable reuse pilots and other initiatives that provide capacity to create landscape transformation programs and enact water-wise landscape codes,” says Reidy. Some of those projects advance goals outlined in the Denver One Water Plan, and they represent real-world examples of integration.

One CWCB-funded project created a small reuse plant on wheels. This direct potable reuse mobile demonstration trailer helped Colorado Springs Utilities test and develop advanced water purification technologies to be able to treat wastewater to drinking water standards, known as direct potable reuse. Next, the trailer relocated to Aurora Water, which also used it to confirm treatment strategies for direct potable reuse. Most recently, the trailer moved to the South Platte Renew treatment facility in Englewood for additional testing.

Another grantee, Boulder-based nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, published a white paper along with WaterNow Alliance on ways to finance the removal and replacement of large-scale, thirsty turf grass, replacing it with water-wise landscaping, and developed several pilot projects. And with CWCB support, the organization has partnered with several communities statewide to develop landscape codes that can serve as a framework for other communities as they adopt similar ordinances.

“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 to 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.”

The Water Provider Question

Fort Collins is demonstrating that water providers can become One Water advocates. But local One Water movements don’t have to start with utilities. They just need to have an impassioned leader or team to take it on. That’s how integration has developed in Arapahoe County.

“Usually an idea to solve a problem does start with one person, one department, one division,” says CWCB’s Reidy. “But the process must rapidly open up to other actors in order to solve the integrated nature of the problem.” In Arapahoe County, the initiator was the Public Works and Development department, which wanted to steward the region’s explosive growth and knew it needed updated studies for proper management. Loretta Daniel, the county’s long range planning program manager, is shepherding a water supply study that marks the first local effort to combine water and land planning by mapping groundwater reserves and how they influence the development potential on the surface acreage.

“Our study will include some of the One Water principles such as reuse, bioswales and other best management practices, and updating landscape regulations including implementing turf quantity restrictions,” says Daniel. Because Arapahoe County is not a water provider, Daniel says she can’t fully implement the One Water paradigm. But the dialogue with those providers has been illuminating. “Through our study, we can see what the water providers are currently doing or planning to do, and have conversations about the One Water principles,” says Daniel.

Then again, One Water movements are such integrated collaborations among the various entities that serve an area, Daniel and Arapahoe County may just be the leaders that the region’s water providers need to more broadly adopt One Water.

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.

The report that the institute is about to submit for publication this fall offers cities 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. For example, research is finding that judicious use of green space can reduce temperatures in urban environments; therefore, cities that are experiencing urban heat islands, such as Phoenix, Arizona, might pursue a One Water approach to integrate landscape planning with energy use and related cost savings—because rising ambient temperatures make it more expensive to cool buildings’ interiors.

As One Water plans evolve, they will rely on data, policy, and technology to evolve as well, and in some cases they will drive these evolutions. Data—from sources such as local utility operations and the One Water Solutions Institute—can assess the benefits of completed projects and inform improvements for the future.

Pilot projects are testing adjusted policies that would allow for emerging systems that do more with limited water supplies. For example, Colorado is evaluating the use of rainwater harvested at the Sterling Ranch housing development southwest of Denver. Currently, rainwater capture there is limited to the same amount of water native plants would have consumed pre-development. Water captured beyond that must be augmented, or replaced, meeting certain conditions to protect other water rights holders in the drainage from being affected. Sterling Ranch and other developments intend to use the captured rainwater at communal spaces, such as regional parks, that also offer other recreational amenities in addition to feeding efficient irrigation systems for the property. Implementing such designs on more than a pilot scale currently requires special water court approval and will come with additional terms and conditions the developers will have to meet.

Still another factor is technical: One Water communities need innovative ways to treat and transport water. These systems may not yet exist, but the growth of One Water initiatives across America’s biggest cities may embolden investors to spend on emerging technologies.

Perhaps the hardest aspect of One Water, and the most meaningful, is its reliance on neighborly collaboration. In other words, the movement is about more than One Water: It’s about one community.

A freelance writer living in Steamboat Springs, Kelly Bastone covers water, conservation and the outdoors for publications including Outside, AFAR, 5280, Backpacker, Field & Stream, and others. She is a regular contributor to Headwaters magazine.

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