Colorado is essentially out of “new” water. Can it wring water from external landscaping in urban areas? A task force will be grappling with solutions.
by Allen Best
Strolling on a recent afternoon through the older residential component of Lafayette, the one-time coal-mining town in Boulder County, I was struck by what I saw in the front yards.
These were not massive yards of mansions, but modest tracts to befit modest homes. But every second or perhaps third house had a xeriscaped yard, meaning that instead of turf, the yard consisted of a more inventive creation—and, importantly, with need for less water. I saw cactus and yuccas, sunflower stalks and rocks, especially sandstone from the nearby Lyons Formation.
Lafayette is a place that abounds with art and with artists. Whimsy and invention can be seen at every turn, from garage doors to front doors. Might Colorado’s urban landscapes have more of that mindful playfulness?
Now comes creation of a state-wide Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force charged with ways to rethink the nexus between water and urban landscapes in Colorado. Over the next year, the 21 members appointed by the state government will be responsible for identifying practical ways to advance outdoor water conservation through state policy and local initiatives.
Gov. Jared Polis in his 2023 State of the State address called out the need to prioritize the intersections of climate change, water, and housing. Creation of the task force was also informed by the recently revised Colorado Water Plan, which calls for “transformative landscape change.”
“The task force will focus on actionable recommendations like setting standards for turf-alternative ‘Colorado Scaping,’ gallons-per-square-foot water budgets, as well as evaluating land-use development, water affordability, and much more,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, in an announcement from his agency and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“There’s not one single solution to urban water conservation success in Colorado,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the state water board. “It will require a cumulative effort, everyone doing a little bit.”
In Boulder, water demand-side management consultant Peter Mayer described the task force formation as “an acknowledgement that urban landscape irrigation makes up a sizable portion of municipal water demand. Advancing state and local policies that promote native landscapes, water budgets, and efficiency with the goal of reducing supplemental irrigation is a worthwhile effort.”
At the same time, he also noted that municipal outdoor use is a comparatively small part of total water demand in Colorado. “Both sectors, ag and urban, should contribute as proportionally as possible to any further required demand reductions.”
“It’s about time,” exclaimed Ken Neubecker, a long-time water activist on the Western Slope, when told of the task force. He suggested that the 2015 Colorado Water Plan missed a beat by not moving more aggressively at outdoor water use in urban areas. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to agriculture use, but shifting local land-use regulations and attitudes will be a hurdle.
“There will always be people here who want to transform Colorado into Ohio,” said Neubecker. That is the hurdle: How do we really encourage people in communities to change their land-use regulations and their habits.”
Colorado legislators in the 2022 session started nudging the work along with an appropriation of $2 million for turf removal. HB22-1151 further instructed the Colorado Water Conservation Board to “develop a statewide program to provide financial incentives for the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with water-wise landscaping.”
As many as 22 municipal water providers in Colorado have existing turf-replacement programs. Twelve of them along the Front Range have documented a cumulative 2.4 million square feet of conversions since 2013. Denver has been at this for a while with its xeriscape program, a word that a staff member coined decades ago. Castle Rock and Aurora stand out for their measures in the last year to more aggressively restrict turf.
A fact-filled report delivered during January to the Colorado Water Conservation Board warns against expecting too much. It used the well-known landscaping restrictions in the Las Vegas area as a benchmark. Savings could be less and the price tag higher than was the case in Nevada, the report warned.
“Should Colorado still pursue removing non-functional turf? Absolutely. But removing turf responsibly to achieve lasting water savings will require a broader suite of tools. A thoughtful and Colorado-specific approach to turf removal will make all the difference for achieving the Transformative Landscape Change called for in the 2023 Colorado Water Plan,” says the analysis by BBC Research & Consulting.
Findings from the report, titled “Exploratory Analysis of Potential Water Savings, Costs and Benefits of Turf Replacement in Colorado,” include:
- Municipal water accounts for just 7% of total water use in Colorado. Of that municipal water use, 40% goes to outdoor irrigation.
Stated in another way, outdoor use accounts for approximately 2.8% of all Colorado use.
- The BBC report assumes that a quarter of Colorado’s estimated 100,000 acres of irrigated turf serves no real purpose.
- Assuming this non-functional turf has been removed, it could save 10,000 to 20,000 acre-feet of water a year. That’s roughly 2.5% to 5% of annual outdoor water use.
- It could cost $5 to $10 per square feet to remove turf. Replacing 30% of the non-functional turf in Colorado could cost $1.8 billion to $3.5 billion.
- Water budgets could save five times more water at a cost 20 times less than turf replacement rebates.
If savings from urban landscape transformation will be marginal, Colorado’s water future will be decided on the margins. What must be remembered is that Colorado’s cities, both those along the Front Range but on the Western Slope, too, are places of financial have’s but water have-not’s.
This matters because so much of the water for Colorado’s towns and cities comes from the Colorado River and its tributaries. That river, of course, is governed by a 1922 compact, and water rights older than that are not subject to the compact. The water rights for roughly half of that supplied to Front Range cities are junior to the compact. That’s true of many municipalities on the Western Slope, too.
In a time of climate change, will that water be there? Those framing the compact in 1922 assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet, but as Eric Kuhn and John Fleck laid out in “Science be Dammed,” those carving up the river in Santa Fe assumed more than 20 million acre-feet.
The Colorado River never delivered that reliability in the 20th century. In the 21st century, flows have dropped to 12.3 million acre-feet—and it could get worse, much worse, as the rising temperatures exacerbate the process of aridification already underway. Might water levels drop to 9 or 10 million acre-feet? Not out of the realm of possibility.
In Douglas and El Paso counties, there’s a similar problem. Castle Rock, Monument, and other water-providers still rely upon unsustainable drafts of aquifers.
See also: “Digging Deeper on turf removal”
Russ Sands, the water supply planning section chief at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said this task force had the endorsement of about 80% of those who attended The Colorado Landscape Summit held in November 2022. He also emphasizes that transformation of urban landscaping as the Colorado Water Plan calls for will take time.
“It’s a bit of a culture shift that requires increasing collaboration between water providers and land-use planners and will take years to achieve,” he said via e-mail. “Rate discussions, code changes, and just understanding best practices are things that are multi-year efforts we need to start now.”
He points to questions about turf replacement even beyond how much water it will save.
“When you rip up turf, what do you replace it with ? How do you fix the irrigation after that change? There are rates and codes and other regulations that drive these changes.”
Now dominated by water providers, the task force could add more experts to shift the balance.
Sands cites the Denver One Water Plan as a possible model for integrating land-use and water resource planning. That plan will set out to create a framework for collaboration and implementation of critically needed water conservation and alternative water resource policies that are coordinated with newly developed land-use plans, he says.
Doug Kemper, director of the Colorado Water Congress, also points to a conundrum for places like metro Denver, which are becoming more dense, increasing non-porous surfaces. Porous spaces are also needed for stormwater runoff.
The task force will have a representative from a stormwater district as well as from 8 water utilities, 2 water conservation districts, 2 environmental organizations, a developer, a professional landscaper, and several others.
Those members may also choose to consult with specialists in affordable housing, water rates, arborists, and others as they see fit. The team will aim to meet 4 times over the next year, wrapping up in January 2024.
The members are:
1) Greg Fisher, Denver Water;
2) Catherine Moravec, Colorado Springs Utilities;
3) Tim York, Aurora Water;
4) Rick Schultz, Castle Rock;
5) Mariel Miller, Fort Collins;
6) Drew Beckwith, City of Westminster;
7) Andrea Lopez, Ute Water – Grand Junction;
8) Jarod Biggs, Durango Water;
9) Torie Jarvis, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments;
10) Lisa Darling, South Metro Water Supply Authority;
11) Amy Moyer, Colorado River District;
12) Frank Kinder, Northern Water;
13) Paige McFarland, Centennial Water & Sanitation District;
14) Laura Belanger, Western Resource Advocates;
15) Kate Larson, Resource Central;
16) Bao Chongtoua, Mile High Flood District;
17) Waverly Klaw, (land use planning expert) Sonoran Institute;
18) Austin Troy, (urban planning expert) University of Colorado-Denver;
19) Patrick McMeekin, (developer) Hartford Homes;
20) Cinceré Eades (community expert), Denver Parks & Rec,
21) John McMahon, (landscape professional), ALCC.
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