Should government be able limit the size of your lawn?

A legislative interim committee this study will convene discussions about what role the state might have in attempting to limit diversions of water from farms  for urban growth. Photo/Allen Best

A legislative interim committee this study will convene discussions about what role the state might take, if any, when water is transferred from farms to new homes. Photo/Allen Best

Should Colorado be able limit lawn sizes when water comes from farms?

 Drilling down on issue of water, agriculture & conservation

By Allen Best

It’s hard to say what proportion of a typical residential lot is covered by water-intensive turf. One guess is 40 to 60 percent after the house, sidewalks, and so forth are subtracted.

A much more Draconian limit of 15 percent was proposed in a bill introduced into the Colorado legislature this year. Sponsored by Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Republican from Durango, the bill would have applied only to new residential developments using water purchased from farms that resulted in the farms being dried up.

To nobody’s great surprise, the bill was stoutly opposed in the Legislature by homebuilders but also by towns, cities and counties, who all objected to state mandates.

But Roberts said the bill succeeded in its fundamental goal of “stimulating some serious conversation about conservation and efficiency.” An interim legislative committee this summer will study this and other ideas about conservation.

From whence does water come?

A lawyer now based in Durango, Roberts spent the early 1980s living in Grand Lake and running lifts at Winter Park. Pipelines from both towns divert enormous amounts of water, roughly 60 percent of water in eastern Grand County, to farms and cities from Denver to Fort Collins and eastward to Julesberg.

“I’m not trying to undo that—and never in a million years could we,” says Roberts. “But there’s concern on the Western Slope—legitimately—whether people on the Front Range understand that water doesn’t come from the tap. It comes from someplace else. My bill, S.B. 17, was an effort to begin that conversation about what is the best use of precious water. Because we live in high-desert like conditions, maybe we should be rethinking how we use our water.”

The idea was pitched to Roberts by Steve Harris, president of a water engineering company in Durango and a delegate to the statewide Interbasin Compact Committee. The IBCC, as the committee is called, has been meeting monthly in an effort to shape the state-wide water plan ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In ordering the plan, Hickenlooper says every conversation about water has to start with conservation.

Lawns in Parker, located in Denver's southern metropolitan area, are fed primarly by water from aquifers, although local water officials have investigated diversions from the Colorado River Basin. March/2011 photo by Allen Best

Lawns in Parker, located in Denver’s southern metropolitan area, are fed primarly by water from aquifers, although local water officials have investigated diversions from the Colorado River Basin. March/2011 photo by Allen Best

“We appreciate that admonishment,” says Chris Treese, director of external affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, who helped Roberts draft the proposal.

“I think we need to have more of a state-wide discussion about water conservation—and not just what we have done in the past, but rather the next step, the next frontier in conservation,” says Treese.

“We need to move beyond turning off your tap while brushing your teeth. While helpful, that’s very marginal in its benefit. If you’re going to make a difference, you have to go outdoors. That’s where the consumptive use is.”

Colorado River tightening

The major message from the River District has been that Colorado needs to wring greater efficiencies out of existing water supplies—because it’s not a given that more water is available from the Colorado River and its tributaries. The organization represents the Colorado River and Yampa rivers, but not river basins in southwestern Colorado.

In the eyes of the River District and others, the situation on the Colorado River in the American Southwest has become more alarming because of extended drought and, perhaps, keener understanding of the sharpening edge between supply and demand.

“We just went through 13 of the driest years in the last 1,000 based on tree-ring studies,” explains Treese. Too, levels in the two giant reservoirs, Mead and Powell, have dropped precipitously. And there’s the uncertainty of climate change, the risk it may reduce precipitation.

And then a series of studies—one by the federal government, another by the state, and the River District’s own analysis—that suggest a sharper edge between supply and demand on the Colorado River.

While Colorado has entitlements to water under the two major compacts governing waters of the Colorado River plus the international treaty with Mexico, those entitlements are predicated on native flows of water. Drought and a changing climate could change the equation—leaving existing water users high and—yes—dry.

The risk to existing users is that a new diversion will push Colorado beyond the tipping point into need for compact curtailment, forcing all users to reduce.

Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, was about 34 percent full when this photograph was taken in December 2012. Photo/Allen Best

Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, was about 34 percent full when this photograph was taken in December 2012. Photo/Allen Best

In other words, the possibility of a compact curtailment—diversions stopped in order to meet downstream commitments—is no longer seen as a distant improbability. It’s now something greater than zero.

And the studies suggest that if a compact curtailment occurs, the newest and most junior of water users will get “called out” and have to suspend diversions. Hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of diversions will have to be suspended.

“The impact will be broad and deep among existing water users,” predicts Treese.

The River District’s position is that the risk needs to be shifted, to pose less potential harm to existing users of water from the Western Slope should new major diversions occur.

The studies, notes Treese, see a risk of compact curtailment being less than 50 percent. “Before, the risk of compact curtailment was easily dismissed, because it was decades down the road,” he says. “But for the first time we are seeing a risk that is in the near term to mid term.”

This story is from the May 1, 2014, issue of Mountain Town News. See about obtaining a sample copy.  To subscribe, see red boxes at the upper-right corner of this page.

 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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