What Makes a Climate-Smart Community?

Leaders around the state are taking steps forward to tackle or adapt to climate change

Climate-smart communities, businesses, water districts and individuals are preparing for hotter and drier conditions in Colorado. They’re acknowledging that water is the most pressing long-term issue they will face and developing evidence-based strategies, plans and policies for resilience. These strategies come in many different forms—legislative action and policy, conservation plans, water plans, zoning regulations, building and landscaping codes, water rate setting, conservation incentives, watering restrictions, and more.

“De-silo, de-silo, de-silo,” says Jeremy Stapleton, the Sonoran Institute’s director of climate resilience. That’s one of the core lessons he tries to convey through the Growing Water Smart program, in which the Sonoran Institute and the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy help individual communities bridge gaps between water management and land use planning to increase resilience. “We need each of us, ideally, aware and acting upon our awareness to solve this issue,” Stapleton says.

How do communities get climate smart? One step is to work on demand-side water management. In the past, communities focused on meeting growing water needs by expanding their supply and securing more water, and while some of those methods have benefits, they do not address the root of the problem: growing demand. “[Demand management] is inevitable if we’re going to be resilient,” Stapleton says. For an effective demand-side approach, land use planning can be integrated with water conservation and efficiency through measures like increasing development density and implementing aggressive conservation programs. Of course, managing water demand isn’t the only element of climate resilience. Communities are also rezoning and increasing preparedness for extreme events projected to become more frequent under climate change, like flooding and wildfire. Still others are packaging such adaptations together with efforts to mitigate warming through emissions reductions.

While it is tempting to plan every last detail, leaving room for uncertainty is also a crucial step in the process of climate-smart resiliency planning, Stapleton says. “It really helps us have open, honest conversations about the futures we fear, those we want, and those that might come, despite our best efforts.”

The City of Westminster
Incentivizing municipal drought preparedness

While climate change will likely intensify municipal water needs, strategies to incentivize conservation, reuse and smart land-use planning can lessen the need. Perhaps the premiere example of such practice in the state is the City of Westminster, located in the South Platte Basin northwest of Denver. With a population of about 112,000, the city has made a name for itself with its integration of land use and water management.

Westminster’s tap fees are designed to be proportionate to each customer’s projected water use based on an analysis of utility billing accounts sampled from around the city. The analysis, begun as part of the city’s 2013 Comprehensive Plan, helped Westminster understand how water is being used and by whom, says Sarah Borgers, water resources and quality manager for Westminster. For its 2019 comp plan update, Westminster is planning an even bigger analysis of more than 33,000 accounts to “really understand” how water is being used across the city, Borgers says.

As the City of Westminster updates both its comprehensive plan and water supply plan in 2019, it is focusing on smart water use to meet the needs of new growth and development. Courtesy City of Westminster

Proposed developments can be rejected if they are projected to need more water than the city can accommodate, says Andrew Spurgin, principal planner for the city. Tap fees in Westminster are calculated separately. Indoor fees factor in the size of the meter and a water fee proportionate to the customer’s projected water use. In addition to being charged based on surface area, irrigation connections include high charges for water-intensive plants and discounts for low water use landscapes. Irrigators using reclaimed water get a roughly 20 percent discount compared to those using potable water. The tap fee and rate fee design has led to significant water savings, though the city does not have exact measurements of the program’s effects, Borgers says.

Westminster’s city planners and utility staff have worked together for a long time, most notably in the early 2000s, Spurgin says. That included the 2004 Comprehensive Plan, which was the first time the city tried to match up its land use and water supply. In fall 2018, city staff completed an update to the city’s water supply modeling effort that uses a tree ring record to extrapolate 1,000 possible futures for the city to determine “a percent reliability” that in each possible future, Westminster can supply its population with adequate water. “Based on this analysis we now know that the 1950s drought of record for Westminster was really only an ‘average worst’ drought for a 70-year study period. We will see worse droughts in the future,” Borgers says. The information could help the city make changes to its long-range planning, as well as direct short-term operational decisions, she says. Westminster will complete its new water supply plan around the end of 2019.

“We’re in a very interesting place right now, because we do have limited resources when it comes to water supply,” Borgers says. “In the next [comprehensive plan] update, we’re focusing on, how do you take those limited resources and use them to the best of our ability?”

Eagle River Water and Sanitation District
Getting water-smart in a tourist town  

The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which covers about 54,000 acres of Eagle County and includes the resort town of Vail, is working on a new era of water supply planning, spurred by more frequent and severe droughts. The district and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority have two of the most complex public water systems in Colorado and face operational challenges such as seasonal variations in supply and demand, limited space for facilities, and rugged topography, states the Eagle River Regional Water Efficiency Plan, which was released in 2018.

“We’re starting to realize our water supply is a little more vulnerable than we thought it was,” says Eagle River Water and Sanitation District general manager Linn Brooks. In summer 2018, the community saw record-low streamflows that were about 50 percent of normal, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District staff say. Streamflows were lower, even than the previous record set during the extreme drought of 2002.

The Eagle River Regional Water Efficiency Plan is taking a demand-management angle. Reduced water use will mean higher streamflows to float Eagle County’s outdoor recreation and tourism economy. Photo by Zach Mahone

The new 2018 water efficiency plan has taken the region’s water-smart work to another level by incorporating demand management in a way that works for the community. As a result of its new plan, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District is making carefully targeted appeals to its customers to reduce their water use, with the goal of keeping streamflows high enough that they remain attractive for outdoor recreators, which are crucial to Eagle County’s tourism economy.

While approximately 95 percent of water used indoors is returned to surface waterways, only about 30 percent of water used outdoors is returned to the stream or river, according to the regional water efficiency plan. During the summer of 2018, the district made an appeal to residential customers to voluntarily cut back 25 percent of their outdoor water use, later escalating to fines for the top 7 percent of outdoor water users. The small district population—around 20,000 in off-peak tourism seasons—makes it possible for the district to personally follow up with users and coach them on bringing their use into compliance, Brooks says.

The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District’s methods are not so much about making residents use less water as helping residents waste less, with the environment as the beneficiary, says Amy Vogt, community relations specialist for the district. And, residents generally agree with the goals: The district’s takeaway from the project so far has been that their management of that water is very much in alignment with the values of the community, Brooks says.

Xcel Energy in Pueblo
Reducing emissions and water use by phasing out a power plant

Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station, located about three miles southeast of Pueblo, will send two of its coal-fired units to an early retirement by 2026. While the decision to decommission the units before their planned date frees up thousands of gallons of water used to cool the generators, it also serves as a climate-smart move for the local community and beyond by significantly reducing emissions.

Pueblo lies at the confluence of Fountain Creek with the Arkansas River about three miles east of Pueblo Reservoir, from which the city of about 112,000 draws most of its water. Comanche Station uses about 13,000 acre-feet of water per year for its three units, leased from the city. When the first two units at the station close, that amount of water will be reduced by approximately 40 percent, says Mark Stutz, a spokesperson for Xcel.

Current water use at the Comanche plant is between 70 and 80 percent consumptive, with some variability due to the weather, Stutz says. The Pueblo Board of Water Works leases this water to Xcel, revenue that helps lower water rates for Pueblo’s other customers. With 40 percent less water leased, Pueblo’s water rates could increase slightly, but it depends how the saved water is used. Exactly what will happen is not public information yet, says Alan Ward, water resources division manager for Pueblo Water—but Xcel and Pueblo Water plan to meet during the first quarter of 2019 to discuss the water situation in greater detail.

Two of the units at Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station outside of Pueblo, Colorado, will be retired by 2026, lowering emissions and reducing water use. Photo by John Wark

In addition to its water benefits, Xcel’s move to decommission will both cut emissions from Comanche’s electricity generation by 60 percent and boost solar and wind energy to 55 percent of the utility’s overall energy mix, Stutz says. In December, Xcel announced a new goal of delivering 100 percent carbon-free electricity to its customers by 2050, and an 80 percent reduction by 2030. Notably, in a news release, Xcel stated it “believes that its 2030 goal can be achieved affordably with renewable energy and other technologies currently available,” with the caveat that reaching 100 percent will require technological advances.

Xcel plans for approximately 55 percent of its generation to come from renewable resources by 2026, and plans to take advantage of federal tax credits for the renewables. Seizing the opportunity while it is available helped drive the decision to decommission the two Comanche units, Stutz says. “The drivers behind the decision were much larger than just the two units’ early retirements—economics, lower customer bills, use of new technologies for new, clean energy resources, and the fact that our customers want us to pursue renewable energy,” Stutz says. “We are well beyond the state mandate at this point.”

The Town of Lyons
Rebuilding for flood resilience

The September 2013 floods devastated northern Colorado more than five years ago. Particularly affected was the small town of Lyons on the north end of Boulder County in the South Platte River Basin, situated at the confluence of the North and South St. Vrain creeks. Residents called the 2013 disaster the worst ever in the town’s history. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed, infrastructure was damaged and the water rushed through town with such force that it changed the geomorphology of the St. Vrain corridor.

Extreme weather events happen, wrote scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and the University of Reading in a 2015 article for the journal Nature Climate Change. But, in a future where the climate is warming, extreme events are likely to be more frequent, and factors related to a warmer climate are likely to make things worse. While climate change is not solely to blame for the 2013 floods, it played a significant role: between Sept. 12-13, 2013, Denver saw its three highest total column water vapor amounts on record for September due to a “very unusual” situation in which warm water off the west coast of Mexico fed a large amount of moisture into the storm that ended up over Colorado, intensifying the storm and causing heavy rains, the article says.

After the September 2013 flooding in Lyons, residents and volunteers shifted into recovery mode, but the town wanted to build back smart. Lyons developed a plan and rebuilt in a way that should boost resilience in the event of future floods. Photo by Kenneth Wajda

With the expectation that future floods may be more frequent and severe, Lyons’ recovery effort has from the beginning included long-range resilience planning for the St. Vrain Creek. The town incorporated river restoration goals into its Long-Term Recovery Action Plan, which residents began to develop just three months after the flood, says Toby Russell, sustainability coordinator for the Town of Lyons. The plan aimed to boost resilience in the event of future floods by building new erosion infrastructure, making improvements to slow stormwater runoff throughout the watershed, working to establish an intentional floodplain with gentler slopes along the river’s re-engineered banks, and replanting native vegetation.

Prior to the flood, the St. Vrain corridor exhibited some poor flood management characteristics, like channeling close to housing, Russell says. Lyons’ attention to long-term river health exemplifies a climate-smart response to a multi-faceted disaster and the response was locally supported. In a combination of progressive action and mountain realism, over 500 townspeople—a full quarter of the town’s population—contributed in some way to the flood recovery plan, Russell says. Residents realized that prioritizing riparian health will mitigate the effects of potential climate change-fueled flood events in Lyons, saving the town money and potentially saving lives in the long run.

While an example of a community focused on resilience, Lyons isn’t the only town in Colorado preparing for the next flood or extreme event. The Colorado Department of Local Affairs has developed the Colorado Resiliency Resource Center with resources, learning opportunities, and examples of community resiliency frameworks available online at www.coresiliency.com.