Developing Colorado with Water Conservation in Mind

Jun 10, 2015

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 water conservation as a key component.  With the second draft of the State Water Plan scheduled for release in July, many water advocates are hoping to see the issue of land use addressed.

Colorado has experienced massive population growth in the last few years, and that trend is projected to continue.

State Demographer Elizabeth Garner says the population of Colorado is forecast to grow by more than 2 million by 2040 to approximately 7.8 million people. Garner says those projections are important for land use and water planners as they consider how to provide resources for the growing population.
Credit Maeve Conran

"The 2040 forecast for Colorado is about 7.8 million people, increasing from about 5 million in 2010," says Elizabeth Garner, the state demographer.  Garner says more than 2 million of that growth will happen between Pueblo and Fort Collins, putting increased pressure on the state's already tight water supplies.  "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?"

That growth in population is why many groups who are concerned about water resources in Colorado are calling for land planning to play a greater role in the water plan.

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

Beckwith says the state water plan should encourage growing cities to incorporate water conservation in their land planning decisions, and that 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."

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.  The results have been dramatic, says Stu Feinglas, the city's water resources analyst. 

"A recent study we did," says Feinglas, "we found that Westminster single family homes are using about 70% of the water we project[ed] they would need for their yards."

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.

This almost 9-acre parcel of land just off Highway 36 just north of Denver will be home to 65 single family detached houses. This is one of the last undeveloped parcels of land in city limits, and unlike older developments, it will have a lot less lawn.
Credit Maeve Conran

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 says these homes will have a lot less lawn.  "So part of the water conservation is [that] turf area will be reduced to 30-35% of landscaped areas," says Penland.

The developer for this parcel beat out other applications by factoring in water conservation.  Penland says 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 says the state could play a significant role in encouraging more municipalities to conserve water through similar kinds land planning practices, and 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," says Beckwith.  "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 says 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.  On May 1st, Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law a measure that allows municipalities to avail of free training in water-demand management and water conservation.

In Colorado Springs, planners point to a natural resource section of the city's zoning code, which includes water conservation principles.  Colorado Springs Utilities offers incentives for individual actions as well.

Connecting the Drops is a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, with support from Aurora Water. Find out more at