Water providers have shifted their focus
by Allen Best
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the primary water-policy agency for the state, met last week in Westminster, and afterward I had dinner with a friend. The friend, who has long worked in the environmental advocacy space, spoke of some matter before the board, and added this: “Twenty years ago this conversation never would have happened.”
Water politics in Colorado have undergone a Big Pivot. As the century turned, environmental issues had made inroads into the conversation, but water development remained a dominant theme. Then came the drought of 2002, which more or less changed everything. So has the growing realization of how the changing climate will impact the already over-extended resources of the Colorado River.
Instead of a deep, deep bucket, to be returned to again and again, the Colorado River has become more or less an empty bucket.
Those realizations were evident in a panel discussion at the Colorado Water Congress about water conservation and efficiency. Jeff Tejral, representing Denver Water, spoke to the “changes over the last 20 years” that have caused Denver Water and other water utilities to embrace new water-saving technology and altered choices about outdoor water use.
Denver Water literally invented the word xeriscaping. That was before the big, big drought or the understandings of climate change as a big, big deal. Twenty years ago, the Colorado Water Congress would never have hosted panels on climate change. This year it had several.
Tejral pointed to the growth in Denver, the skyscrapers now omnipresent in yet another boom cycle, one that has lifted the city’s population over 700,000 and which will likely soon move the metropolitan area’s population above 3 million. That growth argues for continued attention to water efficiency and conservation, as Denver—a key provider for many of its suburbs—has limited opportunities for development of new supplies. “The other part of it is climate change,” he said. “That means water change.”
Denver Water has partnered with a company called Greyter Water Systems on a pilot project involving 40 homes at Stapleton likely to begin in June or July. It involves new plumbing but also water reuse, not for potable purposes but for non-potable purposes. John Bell, a co-founder of the company, who was also on the panel, explained that his company’s technology allows water to be treated within the house and put to appropriate uses there at minimal cost.
“It makes no sense to flush a toilet with perfectly good drinking water, and now with Greyter, you don’t have to,” he said.
For decades Denver has had a reuse program. Sewage water treated to high standards is applied to golf courses and other landscaping purposes. Because of the requirements for separate pipes—always purple, to indicate the water is not good for drinking—its use is somewhat limited.
A proposal has been moving though the Colorado Department of Public Health rule-making process for several years now that would expand use of greywater and set requirements for direct potable reuse. The pilot project at Stapleton would appear to be part of that slow-moving process.
Greyter Water Systems, meanwhile, has been forging partnerships with homebuilders, the U.S. Department of Defense, and others in several small projects.
“It seems like 40 homes in Colorado is a small step,” said Tejral, “but a lot of learning will come out of that, which will open the door for the next 400, and then the next 4,000.”
There are limits to this, however, as water cannot be recycled unless it’s imported into a basin. Water users downstream depend upon releases of water from upstream. Water in the South Platte River Basin is estimated to have 6 or 7 uses before it gets to Nebraska.
In the Eagle River Valley, the streams gush with runoff from the Gore and Sawatch ranges, but there can be pinches during years of drought. That area, said Linn Brooks, who directs the Eagle River Water and Sanitation Districts, has a population of between 35,000 and 60,000 between Vail and Wolcott, “depending where we are during our tourist year.”
Water efficiency programs can make a big difference in what flows in the local creeks and rivers. Brooks pointed to 2018, a year of exceptionally low snowfall. New technologies and policies that put tools into the hands of customers reduced water use 30% during a one-month pinch, resulting in 8 cubic feet per second more water flowing in local creeks and rivers. During that time, Gore Creek was running 16 cfs through Vail. It flows into the Eagle River, which was running 25 cfs. “So saving 8 cfs was really significant,” she said.
Many of Eagle Valley’s efficiency programs focus on outdoor water use. That is because the water delivery for summer outdoor use drives the most capacity investment and delivery expenses. “Really, that is the most expensive water that we provide,” Brooks said.
Tap fees and monthly billings have been adjusted to reflect those costs. One concept embraced by Eagle River Water and Sanitation is called water budgeting. “Our hope is that water budgeting will continue to increase the downward trend of water use per customer that we’ve had for the last 20 years for at least another 10 years,” she said.
Eagle River also has tried to incentivize good design. The district negotiates with real estate developers based on the water treatment capacity their projects will require. “That is a way to get them to build more water-efficient projects, especially on the outdoors side,” explained Brooks. “When we execute these agreements, we put water limits on them. If they go over that, we charge them more for their tap fee. That can be a pretty big cost. We don’t like to do that, but we have found that in those few cases where new developments go over their water limits, we have gone back to them and said, we might have to reassess the water tap fees, but what we really want you to do is stay within your water budget.” That tactic, she added, has usually worked.
In this concept of water budgeting, she said, “I don’t think we have even begun to scrape the surface of the potential.”
Outdoor water use has also been a focal point of efforts by Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the agency created to deliver water to customers from the trans-mountain diversion at Grand Lake. Municipalities from Broomfield and Boulder north to Fort Collins and Greeley, even Fort Morgan, get water from the diversion.
Frank Kinder was recently hired away from Colorado Springs Utilities to become the full-time water efficiency point person for Northern. Part of the agency’s effort is to introduce the idea that wall to wall turf need not be installed for a pleasing landscape. Instead, Northern pushes the idea of hybrid landscapes and also introduces alternatives for tricky areas that are hard to irrigate. The ultimate goal falls under the heading of “smiles per gallon.” Some of the district’s thinking can be seen in the xeriscaping displays at Northern’s office complex in Berthoud.
Kevin Reidy, who directs water conservation efforts for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the Colorado Water Plan posited a goal of reducing water use by 400,000 acre-feet. Don’t get caught up in that precise number, he advised. “It’s really about trying to figure out a more stable water future for our cities,” he said.
Readers might well be confused by an agency named “water conservation” having an employee with the title of “water conservation specialist.” The story here seems to be that the word conservation has changed over time. In 1937, when the agency was created, water conservation to most people meant creating dams and other infrastructure to prevent the water from flowing downhill. Now, conservation means doing as much or more with less.
On why Eagle River Water takes aim at outdoor use
The amount of water used outdoors is generally twice that used for indoor purposes, and only about 15% to 40% of water used outdoors makes its way back to local waterways.
None of this water is returned to local streams through a wastewater plant. Most of the water is consumed by plant needs or evaporation; what is leftover percolates through the ground and may eventually make its way to a local stream.
— From the Eagle River Water website
This was originally published in the Feb. 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots.