Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Western Cities Begin Adapting to Life With Less Water

The Colorado River system, which supplies millions of Americans in the Western U.S. with water, has declined to just 39 percent filled in the last two decades. Many cities are already making adjustments to limit water usage.

(TNS) — Mike Petkash's shaggy black dog Brandy bounded across his backyard chasing after a tennis ball. She leapt up the tiered levels of mulch, rock and shrubbery until she found the prized ball and clenched it in her jaws.

Looking at Petkash's backyard you wouldn't suspect that it was razed by the Waldo Canyon fire, 10 years earlier.

Out of the loss, Petkash and his wife were able to rebuild their home and re-landscape their yard in a way that saves water, energy and money.

What used to be a carpet of grass is now an oasis of young trees, leafy bushes and bright flowers.

Similar scenes are taking shape in his neighborhood and neighborhoods throughout cities in the West as urban users and water districts try to conserve water from the Colorado River Basin as it continues to face its driest 22-year stretch in more than 100 years.

Urban hubs of the West are experiencing the deep shock of drought as historically dry conditions on the Colorado River persist. Some cities are taking steps to save water by ripping out turf grass, xeriscaping and investing in water reuse programs.

During the past 22 years, the Colorado River system reservoirs have declined from 95 percent full to 39 percent full, said Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science in the U.S. Department of the Interior, while the population in the basin between 2010 and 2021 grew by 2.3 million in California, nearly 900,000 in Arizona, 800,000 in Colorado, and 500,000 in Nevada — creating ripple effects on agriculture, energy and urban water use.

In April, federal officials declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, triggering emergency action to conserve and reduce water use in the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — impacting 25 million water users.

In California, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California rolled out what the Los Angeles Times called "strictest-ever water restrictions" for the region's 6 million residents, with the goal of reducing water use by 35 percent. That meant an allotment of about 80 gallons per person per day.

In Las Vegas, a state law mandating the removal of all nonfunctional turf grass by 2027 is expected to save 9.5 billion gallons of water annually as carpets of turf grass are carted off commercial and public properties, according to The New York Times.

Pat Mulroy, the legendary former leader of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has said southern Nevada has removed enough grass "to form a roll of sod that could reach all the way around the planet," cutting water use by 40 percent in the process.

Similar initiatives could soon be coming to Colorado and the other Upper Basin states. The commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation announced in June that the seven states in the Colorado River Basin must cut back between 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water use next year to preserve the river system and prevent irreversible damage.

The magnitude of such enormous cutbacks can be measured by the fact that the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — consume about 3.5 million acre-feet annually. Roughly stated, the called for conservation equals the Upper Basin's entire use.

City dwellers in Upper Basin states haven't yet seen the same level of restrictions and cutbacks as their neighbors to the south and west. Front Range cities like Colorado Springs and Denver divert Colorado River water through transmountain tunnels from up to 200 miles away into reservoirs that store the water residents drink, garden, bathe, and live on.

Though Colorado Springs and Denver rely on the Colorado River for about 70 percent and 50 percent of their water supplies, respectively, they are not seeing imminent cutbacks in use, according to Colorado Springs Utilities and Denver Water.

Colorado Springs Utilities had enough water in storage to serve the city for 2.9 years in late July, a presentation to the board showed.

Conservation and Expansion

Civilizations rise and fall at the mercy of water. Colorado has styled itself as "the mother of rivers," given its headwater status of such major waterways as the Colorado, the Arkansas, the South Platte and the Rio Grande. Although laced by streams, Colorado Springs relies on bringing water from other sources.

Pat Wells, Colorado Springs Utilities water resources and demand management general manager said the city, on average, uses 70,000 to 75,000 acre-feet of water a year. An acre-foot of water is equivalent to a football field covered in water 1 foot deep.

"Municipal water consumption in Colorado Springs has been relatively flat for the past several years ...," Wells said. "Currently, we're using about the same amount of water as we did in the mid-1980s, even though our population has grown by 92 percent."
Water is a scarce and precious resource. We all need to partner to conserve water.
Pat Wells, Colorado Springs Utilities water resources and demand management general manager

And the rapid growth of the city of nearly a half-million people doesn't show signs of slowing. City water planning extends more than 50 years out. During that time the city's population could reach 700,000 people, Wells said.

As the city continues to sprawl and densify, Wells emphasized the importance of watering gardens and yards no more than three days a week in the morning or evening, avoiding midday heat, and planting drought-tolerant plants, grasses and trees.

"Water is a scarce and precious resource," Wells said. "We all need to partner to conserve water."

The city dedicates 30 percent to 40 percent of its water to landscaping. But Utilities wants to lower the amount of water used for irrigation. That means managing water better and shrinking the areas where turf grass exists, Lisa Pace, a conservation specialist for Colorado Springs Utilities said.

About 15 percent of utility customers are on the high end of water use, while some other users are underwatering. Ideally, users are more balanced in their watering approach, Pace said.

'Shower to Flower'

Conservation is not the only recourse for Colorado Springs. Reuse and recycling efforts are another vital tool.

Water from the Colorado River and water from other basins are eligible for recycling, unlike water from the Arkansas Basin, which can only be used once in the city before it is sent downstream for other users who also have rights to the water.

Water from the Colorado can be reused up to 2 1/2 times after its initial use, and Wells said 100 percent of the water that can be recycled is recycled. " Colorado Springs has been a leader in water reuse and recycling," Wells said.

But Utilities is trying to go further, Wells said. Last year, utilities implemented a reuse project that was able to fully reuse water that had been treated in the wastewater treatment system. The water available for reuse surpasses drinking water quality.

"That was a project that we demonstrated and the technology that is out there that in the future, we look to use," Wells said.

But gardeners like Judith Rice-Jones, a member of the Water Advisory Board for Fountain Creek Watershed and local conservation advocate, hopes to see the city make greater strides in its use of what's known as "gray water" or water that residents in Colorado have used in their sinks, bathtubs, showers or washing machines (not toilets or kitchen sinks).

Rice-Jones wants to see an expansion in what some states call "Shower to Flower" and "Laundry to Landscape" programs, where residents can use fixtures on their pipes to redirect water used in the shower or laundry machine to water one's garden or yard. To use gray water in such a way, residents must wash with non-toxic soaps and detergents.

"It just makes so incredibly much sense," Rice-Jones said, "Because otherwise, that water is just going into sewer water."

Aside from acquiring and cashing in on new water rights, Colorado Springs is trying to use the ones they do have more sparingly, not just through conservation and reuse, but through prevention of water loss and monitoring leaks using fiber-optic technology.

Vibrations from pipes can be monitored and feedback gives Utilities information that can predict pipe failures and sense pressure drops, Well said.

"The fiber network, as we build that out, just gives us a lot of technology options for smart monitoring of our water system," Wells said.

Building Up, Not Out

The beast of managing water takes a different form in Denver than Colorado Springs, according to Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water.

As Denver's population of more than 700,000 grows, the city densifies rather than sprawling outward, Lochhead said, unlike Colorado Springs.

"So we're ... relatively fixed, we're not looking at developing significant new water supplies to service that ... we've got a very robust water system, and we'll be managing the growth ... within our service area."

To manage that growth, Lochhead said Denver, like other water districts, must create models for a variety of outcomes that could play out over the next 50 years, accounting for variables like climate change, extreme drought and population growth. That isn't going to be easy, he acknowledged.

"I think under all of those possibilities, we do have gaps in our water supply," Lochhead said. "And even including conservation in there."

That's why "shoring up" existing water sources is key, Lochhead said.

To do that, Denver Water is working to expand it's existing Gross Reservoir to triple the storage capacity, a project that has been controversial with environmentalists and others. The Gross expansion could create near-future challenges since the reservoir can only be filled to 60 percent of normal capacity during construction, but Lochhead said the long-term gains are worth it.

Gross Reservoir receives Colorado River Water through the Moffat Tunnel, which also carries rail traffic. The Roberts Tunnel funnels water from Lake Dillon to the North Fork of the South Platte River. Colorado Springs is served by the Hoosier Pass Tunnel. The Alva B. Adams Tunnel carries water from Grand Lake to Northern Water's Colorado-Big Thompson project, the lifeblood of northern cities and suburbs and much agriculture.

The Gross expansion "gives better balance of water supply and builds resilience," Lochhead said. "Which is really what we're looking for longer term and in the face of climate change, we're very much focused on watershed health."

Denver's reservoir stores reached 92 percent of capacity in July after late spring rains helped boost runoff. No water restrictions are anticipated to kick in this summer, but continuing to increase efficiency and conservation is necessary to keep Denver Water on track.
If Denver or Colorado Springs conserved more would that really help the system? And the answer is no, it would make no difference.
Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water
Thanks to conservation efforts, "We're using well over 80 percent less water than we did when this drought began," Lochhead said. "We're using about the same amount of water that we did in the 1970s, despite having about 600,000 more people in our system."

Lochhead emphasized that to maintain access to Colorado River water, all water users must contribute to reductions in consumption, but he pointed to Lower Basin states for major cuts.

Last year, Denver Water diverted roughly 140,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, Lochhead said, compared to, California's biggest user, the Imperial Irrigation District, allocated at 2.6 million acre-feet.

"If Denver or Colorado Springs conserved more would that really help the system?" Lochhead asked. "And the answer is no, it would make no difference."

But Lochhead said Denver Water is "committed" to conservation and recycling efforts.

When it comes to recycling, Colorado River Water is the only source eligible for recycling, since users downstream have rights to water from the South Platte River Basin that feeds Denver reservoirs.

"So for us to commit to expanding that (recycling) we would need to be assured of having some level of continued Colorado River water available," Lochhead said.

As for conservation, furthering leak monitoring technology, water user education and rebates are strategies Denver water employs.

What About Grass?

Meanwhile, in Aurora, the state's third-largest city, Mayor Mike Coffman is seeking support for a water conservation ordinance that would limit turf grass, preventing its use in medians, curbsides and for aesthetic purposes, among other restrictions, including residential yards.

The city of Colorado Springs is considering a rule that would limit the amount of high-water use grass that can be planted around new homes to 25 percent of the yard. The Colorado Springs City Council has not voted on the rule, but several members of the board have been publicly critical of it.

Transforming landscapes with low-water plants is another vital component, but Lochhead said grass is still valuable for urban landscapes.

"The turf that is coming under a lot of criticism is critical to underserved communities, in disadvantaged communities within our service areas," Lochhead said. "That's where people play, that's where they recreate, that's part of their their lifestyle."

In The Yard

After the Waldo Canyon fire, Mike Petkash xeriscaped his yard.

Xeriscape or dry landscaping is a type of landscaping designed for dry climates that uses less water.

The word xeriscape can often be heard incorrectly as "zeroscape" and can spark the idea of no water or no plants, Judith Rice-Jones, a local water conservation advocate, said. That can sometimes lead to residents putting rocks in their entire yard, which Rice-Jones warned increases heat.

"They can increase the ambient temperature by as much as 8 to 10 degrees," Rice-Jones said. "So, what happens is the water savings they get from not watering their yard, they end up having to get air conditioning."

Petkash said he and his wife visited Colorado Springs Utilities Conservation and Environmental Center at 2855 Mesa Road to get a sense of how to make their yard waterwise and easy to manage.

The Conservation Center showcases more than 30 types of gardens using a variety of well-adapted and native plants that Colorado Springs residents can model after.

"We're one of the most difficult places to landscape because of our elevation," Pace, the Utilities horticulturist, said. "We're south of Denver but we're almost 1,000 feet taller ... so we have more extreme temperature changes."

After Petkash's visit to the conservation center and re-landscaping, he relied much less heavily on grass and his sprinkler system and instead installed rubber tubes beneath mulch to water his plants with a drip irrigation system.

"It's way more efficient and doesn't let anything evaporate once you throw mulch over it," Petkash said. "It just keeps the water in there, so you never see any water, yet everything works out pretty good."

Pace said before ripping out grass and transforming a yard residents should understand how to manage their water to reduce their use.

"So many times, the enemy of water conservation is bluegrass," Pace said. "And really, if we all could just manage the water, we could save a lot of the water that we apply to our landscapes. That's really the first step."

Pace said following the city's water-wise rules such as not watering more than three days a week, using smart controller nozzles that apply water slower and drip irrigation systems like Petkash's are ways to manage that water.

Colorado Springs also offers rebate programs like the one Petkash used to install water-efficient toilets and a washer in his house.

"It was funny, because this house is bigger, yet the utilities went down after we built this house," Petkash said. "Just because (of) all the stuff we did to make it more energy efficient."

Petkash is also taking advantage of a 2016 change in the law that allows Colorado residents to collect two rain barrels (110 gallons) worth of water from roof runoff to water lawns, gardens and other outdoor use.

"I'm going to tap into this right here," Petkash said pointing to pipe in his gutters above a huge gray barrel at the corner of his house. "Then I can water other plants."

Petkash isn't done remodeling his yard, though. Every year, he and his wife try to make a new addition. One of the latest is a pine tree at the top of his property. Petkash said at first, he struggled to care for the tree so he took a photo of it to a tree nursery.

"The guy looked at it and the brown needles and said, 'You're overwatering it, don't ever water that pine tree again.'" Petkash said. "I haven't watered that pine tree since."

Now the needles don't show any signs of brown; instead, they reflect a bluish shade of green in the summer sun.

Finding Sources: Homestake Reservoir II

Water in the West is a finite and shrinking resource, so as Front Range cities grow, they are exploring options to expand water rights.

One proposal Aurora and Colorado Springs are jointly considering to capitalize on unrealized water rights is known as Homestake II. The Homestake II project would require building a second reservoir in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area that would divert more than 20,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water a year to the two cities.

The idea is that Colorado Springs and Aurora have untapped water rights from the Colorado River in Eagle County.

"We do have additional conditional water rights that we're looking to perfect and build additional infrastructure for at some point to kind of collect our remaining water rights entitlements," said Wells, Utilities' general manager.

But the construction of the Homestake II project was struck down in 1988 by Eagle County commissioners. Since then, environmental advocates such as the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund and other groups, have fought against the cities collecting their water rights, because the construction of a dam could pose a threat to wetlands in the wilderness that activists such as Jerry Mallett, founder of Colorado Headwaters, argues are "irreplaceable."

"The wetlands in that area is one of the most valuable wetlands in the state," Mallett said.

The wetlands serve as an aquifer that stores and replenishes underground water, which is crucial in drought years, the Colorado Headwaters website reads.

Colorado Springs Utilities is still in testing phases to evaluate the feasibility of building such a dam.

"We're working with both Aurora and several Western Slope partners to explore ways to develop our remaining conditional rights and their conditional water rights in kind of an environmentally responsible, cost-effective and formidable manner," Wells said.

If the Homestake II project were to move forward, Mallet said his group and other environmental activists would pursue a lawsuit arguing that water rights can only be collected as long as the supply lasts. That means if the water supply has shrunk by 20 percent, so should an entity's water rights, Mallett said.

"If we're taking more water than we were allowed to, given the depletion in the Colorado River," Mallett said, "that will be the largest water lawsuit that has just slammed the state of Colorado."

A Heavy Lift, Together

Conserving 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water is not a feat any one state from the Colorado River Basin can do alone. It will take all of us, said John Berggren, a water policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the West's resources.

"So the Bureau of Reclamation's announcement of saying that we need an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of conservation by 2023 ... was staggering," Berggren said. "I did not expect them to make that announcement, and it really caught me off guard — the scale."

But Berggren said most people don't disagree that the cuts need to come. The disagreement is over where those cuts will come from and how they will be made. Berggren said the largest reductions will likely come out of agriculture rather than cities, because agriculture is where the greatest consumption takes place.

On average, 70 percent of the water from the Colorado River Basin is consumed by agriculture, with the other 30 percent dedicated to urban and industry uses, said Bart Miller, Western Resource Advocates healthy rivers program director. And in Colorado, Miller said that number is even higher, with 87 percent of water dedicated to agricultural uses.

But Berggren warned that decreasing agricultural uses must be executed mindfully.

"That needs to be done in a way that is proactively thinking through the impacts to agriculture, and making sure that those agricultural economies and communities are not significantly hurt from this effort," Berggren said. "And actually could maybe be empowered through a significant investment of resources to help those communities pay for the conservation that's needed to achieve this large 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of additional conservation."

While agriculture may bare the brunt of the cuts, Miller said all users are responsible for saving the Colorado River.

"The Colorado River was originally divided up in 1922," Berggren said, agreeing. "I think 100 years later, in 2022, it's time that we update the river management for how it reflects our values today.

"If not for the Colorado River," Berggren said, "we don't have all the cities and towns and farms and all the great resources and the river itself, the recreation, the ecosystems, the values that the river itself present.

"Without the river, we don't have all of that."

(c)2022 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
From Our Partners