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Land use must consider water supply, speakers say

Water Information Programs discusses water, land use

Land use choices and water use are connected. So how come water people and land use planners don't work together as water supply becomes more at risk and state population keeps growing?

That was the focus of a water and land use forum on Oct. 23 at the La Plata County Administration Building. It was organized by the Durango-based Water Information Program (WIP).

Denise Rue-Pastin, the director of the program, cited predictions that global population will reach 10 billion by 2050.

"Some of the information being presented is kind of a downer," she warned. "Hopefully you (participants) will be armed with the information you need to make really good decisions." She showed maps of global water shortage areas, including in the U.S., areas of growing food demand, and regions where wars are being fought over water.

Water quality is another issue.

Rue-Pastin also cited statistics for the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to parts of seven states plus Mexico. A 1922 compact governs how water is shared among the seven states. Back then, the Colorado delivered around 16.5 million acre feet per year to around 5.5 million people, she said. Now it's delivering around 13.5 million AF to 40 million people.

She cited the Colorado Water Plan aimed at addressing water supply gaps as state population grows to a predicted 10 million.

The final plan must be presented to the governor by Dec. 10. She cited the familiar statistic that 80 percent of state population is on the Front Range while 80 percent of the water is on the West Slope, and 80 percent of water use in Colorado is for agriculture.

Drew Beckwith, water policy manager for Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, said, "On the Front Range, we talk a lot about sprawl," with the poster child being the huge Highlands Ranch development near Denver. "We can't keep doing that if we want to have a Colorado that we want to live in."

The Colorado Water Plan "doesn't say a lot about what we should be doing," although it lists ideas such as development that does not increase water demand, referred to as net zero, Beckwith said. "The divide between water planners and land use planners is sometimes a challenge." There are efforts to come up with estimates of how increased density might affect water use, he said.

The Water Plan will tout a goal to have 75 percent of state population living in communities that have incorporated water saving actions, Beckwith said. He asked for comments.

One participant said we need information about saving water, but said Western slope residents don't want to be told what to do with their water.

Another participant added: "This looks like it's very urban-oriented, and 80 percent of our water use is ag. There's a lot of need for improvement there."

Beckwith asked about statewide land use planning or including water in land use reviews. A man said, "By not addressing water, you are burying your head in the sand."

John Shepard, planning manager for Archuleta County, said, "Any time you have a state mandate, you're eliminating a large portion of the rural population because they already think you're out to get them."

But there was general agreement among participants that the state could attach requirements when it hands out grants to local governments.

The Water Plan includes regional implementation plans from nine water basin roundtables. Beckwith cited the Southwest Basin Roundtable assertion that it's not agriculture that is increasing water use, it's municipal growth. "There's a goal to increase the percentage of inside (versus outside) use. On the Front Range, about half is outside, for bluegrass. The indoor use goes back to the river. Outdoor is gone. The long-term goal is 70 percent inside."

Beckwith continued, "This has huge implications for land-use planning. ... People like their grass. They aren't embracing that we live in a high desert."

Forum speaker Barbara Green commented, "The old parts of Durango look like Denver. People like that stuff."

Beckwith said, "The challenge I see is for you in the southwest (part of the state) to say we don't want any more trans-mountain (water) diversions, you need to lead by example."

Shepard cited subdivision covenants and homeowner associations that require outside landscaping, and the HOA will sue for non-compliance.

That's illegal under a state law passed a couple years ago, Beckwith responded.

Rue-Pastin raised another issue. "I know of a water utility that got rid of their water conservation because one of their directors said, 'If we don't use it, we'll lose it.'"

Beckwith added that some utilities depend on the income from selling more water, but, "When you need more supply and conservation is the cheapest alternative, it makes sense."

County staff member Susan Hakanson said she got interested in water issues about 20 years ago in Glenwood Springs when a commissioner said development would stop when they ran out of water, "then they approved a development where everyone had cisterns and hauled water."

In her presentation, Green discussed the experience of the Colorado River headwaters counties, Summit and Grand, where 99 percent of water diversions to the Front Range come from. More than 65 percent of the natural flow is diverted from Grand County, she said. "There are two projects in the works that could make that 85 percent."

She continued, "To the people there, it's gone, 100 percent consumed. And it's the highest quality water, leaving the lower quality water. It increases treatment costs. ... There was less reliance on ag because of dry-up from the diversions. A lot of ag land is left in Grand County without water because that was bought by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy" for the northern Front Range.

Colorado doesn't have a water supply gap now except in localized areas, Green said. "The future gap will all be from more Highlands Ranches."

Officials from the headwaters counties pressed to get land use into the Colorado Water Plan, she said. "Initially the state said there was no relation. The headwater crew said you are planning for a (supply) gap from that many people coming. You are guaranteeing that growth by planning for it and guaranteeing that other areas won't grow because you've taken the water."

Green and Beckwith listed ways to link water and land use:

. a system to allocate water taps

. impact fees on building permits

. use of state authorized 1041 powers to protect water supplies from diversions

. comprehensive/ master plans that encourage denser development and water conservation

. landscaping codes

. more development restrictions in areas with less groundwater

. prohibitions on outside water use, as in Summit County

. requirements for water efficient appliances.

Green cited the need to go beyond "aspirational" master plans to implementation in land use regulations.

Beckwith said, "At the end of the day, it depends on what your community cares about."