November 3, 2015

Front Range water providers defend their turf

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Grottos pool green

A group of Front Range water providers have told the Colorado Water Conservation Board to stop denigrating lawns and civic landscapes in the Colorado Water Plan, while at the same time, Western Slope organizations are telling cities to use less water to grow grass.

“Urban dwellers are entitled to a ‘reasonable recreational experience’ in the environment in which they reside,” the Front Range Water Council wrote in a Sept. 15 letter about the water plan.

“This includes adequate irrigation supplies for yards, public parks, recreation fields, open space, etc.,” the council said. “Many urban citizens, including those of limited economic means or physical limitations, or those who simply are not kayakers, fisherman, backpackers or skiers, engage in enjoyable outdoor recreational activities ‘in their own backyard.’”

The members of the Front Range Water Council are Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Denver Water, Northern Water, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, the Southeastern Water Conservancy District and the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

The deadline for comments on the draft water plan was Sept. 17. The finished document is to be released Nov. 19 at a CWCB meeting in Denver.

Colorado Springs Utilities also sent its own letter to the CWCB, signed by M. Patrick Wells, the managing engineer for water resource planning for the utility.

“Many city dwellers value their city parks, ball fields, and backyards just as much as the scenic rivers or bucolic valleys, and they enjoy their urban environment far more often,” Wells said in his Sept. 17 letter.

But Ken Nuebecker, the associate director of the Colorado river program at American Rivers, walked across the Front Range’s lawn argument in his own comment letter to the CWCB on Sept. 14.

“While parks, ball fields and the urban forest have their place, we need to make sure that these engineered areas, which can easily be rebuilt, are not ‘protected’ at the expense of far more complex rivers systems which are not so easily ‘rebuilt,’” Neubecker said.

But lawns can lead people to nature, and to rivers, Wells told the CWCB.

“How can we expect current and future generations of citizens in urban areas to understand or appreciate the value of locally grown food in the lower Arkansas Valley or the importance of healthy rivers on the West Slope if they do not have healthy, sustainable outdoor spaces of their own to first make a connection with nature,” Wells wrote.

Wells also said “there remains too much focus on curbing outdoor water use” which “currently accounts for less than 4% of Colorado’s total water use.”

However, Andre Wille, the chair of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, suggested to the CWCB that healthy rivers may be a higher priority for many than lush lawns.

“Truly, no Coloradan believes our water supply should be satisfied by sacrificing our quality of life or the very natural environment that has brought so many of us here and supports at numerous levels our state’s vibrant and growing economy,” Wille said in an Sept. 15 letter to CWCB.

This sign, on the irrigated lawn outside the Aspen music tent, could well sum up how Front Range and Western Slope water organizations view each other.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

This sign, on the irrigated lawn outside the Aspen music tent, could well sum up how Front Range and Western Slope water organizations view each other.

The dissing of summer lawns

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead told the CWCB that the tone of the draft water plan was overly negative in regard to outdoor urban water uses.

“The assumption and tone of the plan that municipal use (particularly the roughly 3% of the state’s water use that supports urban landscaping) is somehow wasteful or less valuable than other uses of water needs to be removed and replaced with language that is respectful of all uses of water that are done in an efficient manner,” said Lochhead in a Sept. 17 letter.

Wells of Colorado Springs Utilities also said the tone of the first section of the water plan was “anti-growth and anti-city.”

“If the plan is to reflect the values of the citizens of Colorado, it must recognize and validate the values clearly espoused by the silent millions in the state who have voluntarily chosen the municipal lifestyle of single family residences with a reasonable amount of bluegrass lawn,” Wells wrote.

But the vision of a new wave of “silent millions” enjoying thirsty lawns on the Front Range creates apprehension on the West Slope.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy, which works to protect the heavily-diverted Roaring Fork River watershed, told that the CWCB that “outdoor water use is an area ripe for major conservation gains.”

“While Roaring Fork Conservancy doesn’t insist lawns are a thing of the past, local land use codes ought to mandate green infrastructure and water-efficient native landscaping in new development, and incentivize conversion for existing development,” said Rick Lofaro, the conservancy’s executive director, in a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB.

And the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs under the auspices of the CWCB, took an even stronger stance on suburban lawns and civic landscapes.

“It has been said that municipal outdoor irrigation is but three percent of the state’s water use,’ the roundtable said in its Sept. 17 comments. “Outdoor water use, however, is roughly 50 percent of municipal demands in the irrigation season. In totality, it is the municipal gap – most often described as 500,000 acre-feet — that is driving the water plan. A high conservation level closes better than 90 percent of the gap.”

Denver Water’s Lochhead comes at it from the other side of the fence.

“Denver Water serves almost a quarter of the state’s population using less than two percent of all the water used in Colorado,” Lochhead told the CWCB. “Even if we eliminated all outdoor water use (approximately half of our total water demands), we would only make a one percent change in the State’s water usage.”

Meanwhile, the Colorado River District, which represents 15 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope, acknowledged the Front Range’s sensitivity about its lawns and civic landscaping.

“The River District does not wish to ‘demonize, lawn grass, the district told the CWCB in an unsigned memo on Sept. 17. “However, outdoor landscaping is by far the greatest, single consumptive use of municipal water supplies. Accordingly, the plan must include specific, measurable goals for turf-related conservation.”

Enjoying a recreational experience on grass.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Jouranalism

Enjoying a recreational experience on grass.

Lawns aside, more water

And while Front Range water utilities tend not to intertwine their defense of lawns with a call for new water supplies, most of their letters do include direct calls for more water storage projects – new dams and reservoirs – and new transmountain diversions.

The Front Range Water Council told the CWCB that the water plan must “emphasize the need for ‘new’ storage as well as the expansion of existing facilities, and the state must advocate for policies that advance this end.”

Denver Water’’s Lochhead said that “conservation alone will not be enough to close the gap. Additional storage will be required to allow us to manage water efficiently and for multiple benefits.”

And Wells of Colorado Springs Utilities told the CWCB, somewhat deeper in its letter than the section about the virtue of lawns, that “the final plan should contain a definitive statement that a new transmountain diversion will be constructed, even if no formal concept has been proposed. Any plan that fails to include a section on new supply development … cannot be considered a comprehensive, strategic vision for meeting Colorado’s future water needs.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on the coverage of statewide water issues and the development of the Colorado Water Plan. The Post Indy ran a version o this story on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2015.

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