Colorado's Growth Brings A Call To Link Water And Land Planning

May 18, 2015

Colorado has experienced massive population growth in the last few years, a that trend is projected to continue. Finding enough water to meet the demands of the booming Front Range has city planners closely looking at how new developments can be built with conservation as a key component.

"The 2040 forecast for Colorado is about 7.8 million people, increasing from about 5 million in 2010," said Elizabeth Garner, the state demographer. "How will we deal with it? Where will we put them? How will we provide water resources and other resources, whether it takes 20, 30, 40, 50 years to get there?"

The bulk of Colorado's growth will happen between Pueblo and Fort Collins, said Garner, putting increased pressure on the state's already tight water supplies. That population surge is why many groups who are concerned about water resources in Colorado are calling for land planning to play a greater role in the state's water plan.

"Half of our drinking water on the Front Range is going to outdoor water use," said Drew Beckwith, a water policy manager with Western Resource Advocates.

For Beckwith, the state water plan should encourage growing cities to incorporate water conservation in their land planning decisions. Relatively simple measures like requiring increased density in new housing developments will have big water savings.

"If you put houses closer together and they have less lawn, they're going to use less water," Beckwith said.

More and more municipalities are already recognizing the need to use less irrigation water. In 2004, the City of Westminster established landscape regulations requiring a maximum of 15 gallons per square foot water use per year. Stu Feinglas, the city's water resources analyst said the results have been dramatic.

"We found that Westminster single family homes are using about 70 percent of the water we project[ed] they would need for their yards," Feinglas said.

Since 2001, Westminster has added about 12,000 people, yet the water demand has stayed the same or gone down slightly. Feinglas credits better water efficiency in plumbing fixtures and a reduction in outdoor water use. That's on an individual household basis; changes are also happening at a larger planning level.

Just east of Highway 36, north of Denver, a nearly nine-acre parcel of land will become home to 65 single-family houses. This is one of the last undeveloped areas in Westminster city limits.

Unlike older developments, principal city planner Grant Penland said these homes will have a lot less lawn.

"So part of the water conservation is [that] turf area will be reduced to 30-35 percent of landscaped areas," Penland said.

The developer for this parcel beat out other applications by factoring in water conservation. This is due to the city's specific competitive bidding process, where the city incentivizes water conservation, energy conservation, reduction in turf, and similar aspects as part of the process.

Drew Beckwith with Western Resource Advocates said the state could play a significant role in encouraging more municipalities to conserve water through similar kinds land planning practices. For him, the first place to start is the Colorado Water Plan.

"In Colorado, we have a law that says in everyone's comprehensive land use plan, you have to consider tourism," Beckwith said. "In Arizona, for instance, there's a requirement for you to have a water element of your comprehensive plan. Perhaps something like that would be appropriate in Colorado."

Currently, developers must show they can provide water for their projects, but master plans aren't required to include water as a consideration.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board said the upcoming water plan won't mandate land use policies for local government and planning agencies, but the state legislature is getting a head start on linking land planning and water use. Governor John Hickenlooper has signed into law a measure [.pdf] that allows municipalities free training in water-demand management and water conservation.

This story comes from 'Connecting the Drops' - a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at cfwe.org.