Water-Smart Growth – the Key to Colorado’s Future (Part Two)

If 2 million Colorado newcomers wind up in suburban developments, water resources in rural Colorado could be in serious trouble. In a typical Front Range suburb, most residents live on large lots with beautiful Kentucky Blue Grass lawns. Kentucky Blue Grass grows great — in Kentucky, where annual precipitation averages 40 inches a year. Here in Colorado, where precipitation is only 14 inches annually, this type of grass requires a lot of supplemental watering. Non-native lawns and trees often require a tremendous amount of water to survive – water that can only arrive by way of water transfers away from productive agriculture.

For rural Colorado to survive, “water-smart growth” is the key.

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Highlands Ranch, a sprawling suburb of Denver

In Denver, we are seeing a boom in high-density development with high-rise condos and apartments in the urban core and along mass-transit corridors. High-density living may not be so desirable to those of us who live in rural areas and enjoy our space, but high density in the cities may save our rural lifestyles. A 100-unit condo building uses a tiny fraction of the amount of water compared to 100 houses in a suburban neighborhood. It also requires far less land – land that might otherwise be in agricultural production, or left as open space.

Of course, high-density living is not for everyone, and some of these newcomers will require larger residences for their families, or opt for more traditional homes. Colorado will necessarily have to add some suburban neighborhoods to meet growth demands, but these places can be designed to conserve water. Treated water can be used for lawns and golf courses. Xeriscaping could replace thirsty East Coast plants with Colorado natives that are adapted to limited precipitation. To its credit, Denver Water (the city’s water utility) hosts a spectacular display of what a beautiful xeriscape garden can look like.

Colorado will also need to become more efficient at capturing the precipitation that does fall here. Recent changes in law allow homeowners to capture water that falls on their roofs and use that water for their plants and lawns. In urban areas with large blocks of pavement and concrete, very little precipitation is captured and put to use. Colorado Springs is a prime example of this, with most of its infrastructure designed to quickly move all precipitation into Fountain Creek where it causes flooding impacts downstream. That water could be either slowed down to allow for better retention, captured so that it recharges aquifers, or put into reservoirs for use at a later time. Colorado Springs could create more vegetated wetlands that capture water, slow it down, and even clean it. Other ideas might be to replace impermeable surfaces such as parking lots with new permeable surfaces that intermix pavement tiles with vegetated gaps through which water can seep into the soil. New neighborhoods or shopping centers could incorporate these “water-smart” techniques that use less water while at the same time improving and utilizing this resource before it hits the storm drain and runs off.

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Irrigated hay meadows in the Wet Mountain Valley - Photo courtesy of Bill Gillette Photography

Though the sheer population growth may seem daunting, Colorado has an opportunity to evolve and grow in a water-smart way that accommodates new residents without causing significant harm to productive agriculture and ranching, or the numerous recreation activities that benefit from senior agricultural water rights. Adopting methods and technologies that help increase water efficiency and retention will be critical to preserving the beauty and productivity of rural Colorado that we all benefit from and appreciate.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mike Downey is the Land Protection Specialist and Colorado Open Lands Fellow for San Isabel Land Protection Trust. When Mike is not working on protecting important and productive ranches, forests, and waters in our region, he can sometimes be found predicting the weather and informing San Isabel staff as to whether or not they should wear layers!

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