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Politics and Government

Water is Colorado’s most critical resource. So why isn’t it central to every local land-use decision?

A new bill in Colorado's capitol aims to better align local land-use planning with water conservation efforts laid out in the Colorado Water Plan. But is it enough?

Habitat for Humanity construction supervisor Jose Elizondo exits an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, being built by Habitat in coordination with the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative in Denver's Westwood neighborhood on October 31, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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In the early 1980s, the small city of Woodland Park started strategically planning how to protect its water supply for the future. 

“Because we have all junior water rights and a limited water supply, we knew we must be very careful about how we grow,” said Sally Riley, planning director for Woodland Park, which is home to approximately 7,500 people in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. “We’ve pretty much mapped out exactly how our 6.5 square miles are going to grow.” 

To ensure that they don’t develop beyond the limits of their water supply, Riley says the city has closely integrated its land-use decisions with local water conservation and efficiency goals that align with the Colorado Water Plan.

A new bill at the Colorado Capitol hopes to encourage more local governments to do the same. House Bill 1095 says that if a community identifies it will need more water to grow, it should also include conservation measures for its existing supply.

“In a state that hates mandates, this is a gentle nudge for communities to make sure they are planning for the future when it comes to water,” said state Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Fort Collins Democrat who is bringing the bill.

Pikes Peak and a housing development form a backdrop for a herd of about 30 pronghorn in northeastern Colorado Springs. The animals were grazing in open space between housing developments near Black Forest Road and Research Parkway. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Water Plan five years ago set the goal that by 2025, 75% of Coloradans will live in communities that have incorporated water-saving actions into land-use planning.

Currently, 24 communities have completed the Sonoran Institute’s Growing Water Smart Training, a leading program that helps communities integrate land use planning and water conservation efforts, said Sara Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. 

Leonard estimates that 15 to 20 more communities have participated in similar workshops, but many more would need to take part in order to meet the state’s goal.

“So, a lot of progress is being made on this goal,” Leonard said.

House Bill 1095 would also make permanent a temporary, partially grant-funded position in the Department of Local Affairs that assists local governments in integrating water conservation in their land use planning — though there is currently no money allocated in the bill to support the position.

“Historically, water resource planning and land-use planning have been implemented on parallel tracks. By separating these planning areas into different silos, the impacts from each on the other are not fully addressed,” Leonard said.

“With a growing population in Colorado, it is imperative to synchronize land and water planning to help planners to better understand the impact of new growth and redevelopment on future water demand in our urban areas.”

Today, Woodland Park has added dozens of regulations and ordinances into its zoning and building codes that focus on water conservation. It also limits the number of houses that can be built each year by setting a cap for how many new taps can be installed. 

“In order for the state to manage growth and be smart about growth, it needs to be dependent upon our water resources and the protection of the environment. So to me, this is a no brainer,” Riley said. 

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What the bill would do –– and what it wouldn’t

One of a dozen water bills introduced this session, ranging from water well inspections to fee exemptions, House Bill 1095 requires that if a local government’s comprehensive plan includes a water supply element, it must also include conservation policies. 

A comprehensive plan is an advisory document that outlines long-term goals for community development, and often includes guidelines for things like transportation, utilities, land use, environmental protection, recreation and housing.

But comprehensive plans are not regulatory documents. 

These conservation policies may include “goals specified in the state water plan, and may also include policies to implement water conservation and other state water plan goals as a condition of development approval, including subdivisions, planned unit developments, special use permits, and zoning changes,” the bill says.

State Rep. Jeni Arndt in the House chamber during the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly at the Colorado State Capitol on January 8, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Though state statute requires every municipality or county in Colorado to have a comprehensive plan, it doesn’t require them to include water element. But if it does, water conservation measures must be added the first time the plan is amended after the bill takes effect, but no later than July 1, 2025.

Gretel Follingstad, a Colorado-based land use planner and consultant who specializes in water resource management, said the language in the bill makes the recommendations “optional” and minimizes the bill’s potential impact. 

“If you really want a strong policy around water, and you really want the state water plan goals to come to fruition, you need a will, not a may,” she said. “Because otherwise communities won’t do it if they don’t have the funding for it or they don’t have the political will, or if they don’t feel like they have a problem.”

But just by adding water into the local comprehensive plans, it’s changing the conversation, she said.

“We can’t change the fact that Colorado uses water districts as water suppliers and that those water districts are separate entities from their community,” Follingstad said. “All we can do is to teach the community planners that water is not infinite.”

The boat dock in the community of Heeney sits on dry land due to low water levels at Green Mountain Reservoir on Sept. 9, 2018. The reservoir, which backstops Western Slope water supplies during drought years, was only 55 percent full. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

Tackling Colorado’s water woes at the local level

As more controversial storage projects pop up across the state, the bill reminds local governments –– especially communities that hold junior water rights –– to not just find ways to increase their storage capacity, but to also find innovative ways to use existing supplies more efficiently.

Colorado’s population is predicted to reach 8.7 million people by 2050 –– a more than 50% increase from 2015. That will further strain the state’s already limited water resources, which are increasingly challenged by the long-term drying out of the West, referred to as aridification. 

In July, the Colorado Water Conservation Board released a technical analysis and update to the state’s supply and demand projections. The update examined water supply under five scenarios, with the two biggest drivers for water supply gaps being population growth and a warming climate. 

The scenarios project that municipal and industrial water users may see water supply gaps ranging from 250,000 to 750,000 acre-feet by 2050. Approximately one acre-foot can support the needs of two families of four to five people a year, according to the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University.

“It’s unlikely that conservation efforts can completely close the gap,” Arndt said. “But it can certainly help.”

Colorado Counties Inc., which lobbies on behalf of the state’ county governments, testified at the bill’s Feb. 3 hearing before the the House Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committee that its members worry the measure could open the door to formal regulations. 

“We wanted to make sure the bill remains permissive, which it does,” said Daphne Gervais, a CCI lobbyist. “This kind of legislation really just makes us nervous, because we don’t know if it’s the first step that is leading to others.”

Gervais also added that counties and local governments already have the authority to include water planning in their land-use planning process. A 1991 law requires water utilities with a demand of greater than 2,000 acre-feet annually to have a water conservation plan. 

“I’m glad we have that, but that’s not a substitute for a five- or 10-year visionary master plan,” Arndt said. 

For Follingstad, comprehensive plans are crucial tools for communities envisioning the future. And that they can provide a policy framework for zoning and development regulations.

“If those ideas and that process is bringing awareness to the fact that water is scarce and will become more scarce,” Follingstad said, “it’s going to change how people use water.”

Avoiding the worst case scenario

Sweetwater Lake bordering the Flat Tops Wilderness in Garfield County. (Todd Winslow Pierce, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Even though the bill doesn’t give local governments more authority, advocates hope it helps bring water conservation into the land-use conversation at the beginning of the community planning process, not the end. 

“So, basically, utilities have been expected to come up with a supply to meet the demands,” Follingstad said.

“But when you insert population growth that’s beyond the capacities of many watersheds and water systems, and you insert climate change, which is making water, especially in the West, especially in Colorado because of the Colorado River compact, much more scarce — that’s not a sustainable system.”

Follingstad helped create the Growing Water Smart handbook — a guidebook that helps local governments integrate water conservation measures into their land use planning.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

Since 2017, Colorado’s Water Conservation Board has worked with the Sonoran Institute and Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy to host Growing Water Smart workshops in communities across Colorado. The next workshop is May 6-8 in Breckenridge.

The training focuses on reducing the demand for water by utilizing three key strategies: decreasing water use by modifying consumption behaviors; using technology and optimizing building or site designs to use less water; and increasing water recycling.

She says Colorado lags behind other states in terms of integrating water conservation into land use plans. And that lack of governmental guidance has created a false sense of security for some communities.

“There is going to be a time in the future where just because you have the water rights doesn’t mean you know that you will get the water,” Follingstad said.

“The states are going to have to go back to the drawing board at some point, to put it in a nice way, because eventually, we’ll have to allocate water in a more equitable and accountable way.”

Follingstad says she understands why counties wouldn’t be enthusiastic about the bill.

“They don’t want to lose any freedoms, and they also probably don’t want the headache of collaborating with municipalities. But if they did, even if it wasn’t regional plans but it was county plans, that would make them better and more resilient,” she said.

Colorado, as a headwater state and member of the Colorado River Compact — the legal framework that allocates water from the Colorado River Basin to seven states and Mexico — should set an example of how to be good stewards of our water supplies, Follingstad said.

“Everybody has to do something in order to create sustainability,” she said. “And this is a way of making sure that towns and communities across Colorado, No. 1, understand that there is a state water plan and that the goals in that plan are real and serious and have consequences. And two, that there is a way at the local level that they can make a difference.”

If signed into law, the bill would take effect on Aug. 5.

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