A new coalition of Western city water agencies pledged to step up conservation efforts amid the 22-year megadrought draining the Colorado River. The environmental advocacy community diverged on how much to praise or blast the effort.
Water providers in Denver, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Pueblo, Las Vegas and a Southern California umbrella group all pledged to introduce or speed up programs to reduce nonfunctional turf grass by 30%, increase water reuse and recycling, and share successful conservation strategies.
Their pledge comes as climate change drains the Colorado River and all users are under intense pressure to cut what they need. Municipal water use takes up about 5% to 8% of available water in Colorado, while agriculture can take up to 85%.
“We live in a semiarid climate, and we recognize that persistent drought will continue to be an issue,” said Jennifer Jordan, a spokeswoman for Colorado Springs Utilities. “We believe vibrant communities can be sustained through more efficient landscaping and more efficient water use practices, and we can continue to accommodate growth if we are wise about our water use.”
The memorandum of understanding issued this week by the agencies, Jordan said, “demonstrates this commitment to everyone doing their part with the ongoing situation” in the Colorado River Basin.
Federal regulators have warned water users in seven states relying on the Colorado River that drought and climate change have drained at least 20% of available water in recent years, and could take 25% more without drought relief. The Bureau of Reclamation has demanded the seven states find 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water savings, or up to 25% of the river’s flow, by next year. If they don’t, they face steeper cutbacks in what they are allowed to use from Lake Powell, Lake Mead and other federal water pools.
Many large Front Range cities get more than half their water from the Colorado River, damming and diverting it across the Continental Divide.
The group memo is “a step in the right direction to help secure our water supply and protect our rivers amid the megadrought and the stark impacts of the aridification of the West. Implementation will be key, but we support these proposed measures and are encouraged that water providers recognize they need to do more to conserve water,” said John Berggren, water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates.
Critics of city water agencies that divert natural Colorado River flows for urban and suburban use were not impressed by the announcement.
The river is on the “brink of collapse,” and the cities and all others must contribute solutions, Berggren said.
“Unless Denver Water pledges to divert less water, nothing changes,” said Gary Wockner of Save The Colorado, which has fought multiple diversion and dam projects and seeks to restore more natural flows to Western river basins. “The only action that will put more water in the river is to divert less water out of the river.”
While Denver Water is promising more conservation, Wockner said, it is also deep into work on a major expansion of Gross Dam and Reservoir in western Boulder County. The bigger dam will hold an additional 15,000 acre-feet taken from the Upper Colorado River and piped under the divide for Front Range use, he said.
Denver Water did not name any specific new program to conserve more water, though along with the other agencies in the group, cited its per capita water use cuts since 2000: 36%. Denver Water did not detail whether any new conservation efforts would require large capital spending or increased rates.
“We are at the initial stages of putting these programs together but it’s true they will be expensive and complex to develop, and those are factors we are planning for,” Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said. “We hope to work closely with other utilities in the basin to learn from one another and find the most efficient ways to build these water-saving efforts, as well as work with our local communities on the best ways to move this forward.”
Aurora’s city council finalized a partial ban on new thirsty grass turf this week, and won’t allow new golf courses after a grandfathered course is complete.
Colorado Springs Utilities said its conservation efforts have cut per capita use by 41% since 2000. A sustainable water plan by the agency estimates more savings of 11,000 to 13,000 acre-feet over the next 50 years, compared to current annual demand of about 75,000 acre-feet, Jordan said. A seven-year plan for the near term will cut about 2,100 acre-feet.
There are no specific, new conservation programs to announce yet as part of the group memorandum, Jordan said, but the utility agency is working with the overall city government on “Colorado Springs Retool” to plan new regulations on using turf in new developments. The agency also has piloted a program with Colorado School of Mines to clean and reuse water for potable use — most reuse efforts so far in Colorado use recycled water for irrigation, not drinking water.
“We don’t know when we’ll bring it online but it is recognized as part of the water plan we will likely implement in the future,” Jordan said. “That demo project helped introduce the concept to our community last year.”
Colorado Springs gets the majority of its water from the Colorado River Basin, diverted across the divide through the Homestake and Frying Pan/Arkansas systems, Jordan said. Under water law, water diverted “transmountain” into another basin can be reused to extinction, while water rights staying within a basin are one-time rights, and the unused portion can’t be captured and reused.
Money to fund new conservation efforts could come through the Inflation Reduction Act recently passed by Congress. Western lawmakers are promoting $4 billion included in the act to spend on conservation in the Colorado River and a few other basins, for renting or buying water to leave in the river, or for cities to seek project grants.