From the Opinion Panel: How should Boulder reduce water use?

What is the city’s role in reducing water use and waste? Boulder and the Front Range exist in an arid climate, and there are significant water shortages in neighboring states and our own. What should the city be doing now, to ensure we have access to water in the future?

Gross Reservoir on South Boulder Creek in Boulder County, where Denver Water is in the process of raising the dam 131 feet to store an additional 77,000 acre feet of diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado River across the Divide — in the midst of an historic 23-year drought and supply crisis for 40 million people in the Colorado’s watershed (Photo courtesy of Eric Budd)

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Aidan Reed: Boulder’s water future is decided now

It is well understood that climate change exacerbates drought and water scarcity conditions, driving up temperatures and placing significant strain on existing water sources and water infrastructure. As a Front Range city, Boulder has not been spared from the drought conditions affecting the broader American southwest.

While Boulder has reduced its per capita water use by 20% since 2002 and has enough water to meet its current municipal needs, future projections indicate that the city will not be able to do so by 2050 in the “most extreme scenarios.” Demand for water in Boulder will only increase as the city’s population grows, which will require the city to develop more comprehensive measures for managing and conserving Boulder’s water supply.

Boulder’s population has grown at an average annual rate of roughly 0.99% in the past decade, which is roughly 1,086 people per year. At that rate, Boulder will have a population of roughly 140,850 people by 2050. (Editor’s note: Boulder’s population has declined four of the past five years, and Boulder County’s population decreased in the most recent census, though the state demographer expects that trend to reverse.)

To anticipate future water scarcity and accommodate the water demands of a growing city, Boulder will need to broaden its collaboration with surrounding communities’ water districts to onboard new water storage projects and initiatives. Boulder must conserve its water not only for agricultural, drinking and municipal purposes, but also for wildfire preparedness. The devastating Marshall Fire, for example, placed a tremendous burden on water systems in Louisville and Superior. As the wildland urban interface (WUI) along the Front Range expands, it will become vitally important for cities like Boulder to ensure they have adequate water resources to combat and mitigate wildfires. 

Outdoor water use accounts for almost 55% of residential water use along the Front Range, according to estimates by Colorado State University. Boulder maintains a Drought Watch Program and employs several municipal water conservation programs, including free irrigation consultations, water-wise landscape seminars, and the Grass to Garden lawn removal program, but the city must go further. Boulder should mount a public lawn replacement campaign to incentivize not only homeowners, but businesses, schools, and property owners to replace their grass with non-water intensive landscaping.

Despite its ongoing efforts to conserve water, Boulder may have drier, yellower lawns, or no lawns at all in the future. Lawn removal is only a part of municipal water conservation, but it is worth pursuing as a small price to pay for sustainable, equitable water access and enough reserve stores to adequately accommodate municipal growth and respond to wildfires in the future.

Aidan Reed is a recent Boulder resident. He is interested in politics, policy, and endurance sports. More about Aidan.

Jane Hummer: Suburban land use is killing our communities

Conservation and urgent climate action should be the primary approaches to dealing with the impending water shortage. The city (or even better, the county or the state) should provide incentives to help property owners transition their thirsty turf lawns to xeriscapes and encourage the selection of native plants and trees that need the least water in our climate.

I understand that it is hard for many people to let go of the stereotypical “American dream” home in the suburbs with a perfect green lawn, four bedrooms, two and half bathrooms and a white picket fence, but that model of living is killing our communities and our planet. We’ve been conditioned by decades of marketing and societal pressure to believe that a single-family home surrounded by green grass is the most attractive and desirable place to live. We’ll have to adjust our aesthetic preferences if we want this planet to remain habitable for humans. 

Beyond directly incentivizing the removal of turf lawns in favor of xeriscaping, the city needs to get real on climate action. That means addressing land use, not just adding solar panels. Climate change is a direct driver of our drought and water scarcity issues, and Boulder’s severe limits on residential growth and in-fill have real climate implications.

Our leaders need to speak honestly about the impact of our housing policies on energy and water consumption, traffic, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. Water scarcity is a regional issue, not a local one. Forcing people who work in Boulder to live outside of Boulder does not reduce our region’s need for water; it simply increases suburban sprawl and car dependency.

There is nothing environmentally noble about artificially limiting Boulder’s population and forcing people out into the suburbs.

Jane Hummer lives in Boulder and works as a clean energy consultant. She is a Better Boulder board member. More about Jane.

Chelsea Castellano: Boulder needs a plan to address our water crisis

What is the city’s role in combating climate change, or addressing homelessness, or mitigating fire risk? As is the case in all those scenarios, I believe that the city’s role in reducing water use and waste is to do absolutely everything we can to solve this life-threatening problem. The waning water levels of the Colorado River have gone from precarious to full-blown crisis. The city has the power and resources to enact effective solutions and facilitate the level of change needed to meet the challenge. 

The repercussions of overusing water in the Colorado River are stark. Lake Mead, the nation’s largest manmade reservoir, is more than 75% empty and dry. Lake Powell levels are now dipping so low that engineers aren’t sure they’ll be able to safely deliver hydropower in 2023, putting the stability of the Western electrical grid and the lives of millions of people at risk.

Inaction by the seven states charged with overusing water, including Colorado, has led to the federal government to step in and require that these states implement plans to reduce their water use by 15% in 2023.

Earlier in August, representatives from the seven states convened in Denver to negotiate a plan for how they are going to achieve the goal outlined by the federal government. If the seven states cannot agree amongst themselves on how to achieve the targets, the U.S. The Bureau of Reclamation has said they will impose the necessary water restrictions on the states. 

Boulder could be a leader in doing its part to conserve water. The City of Boulder would need to enact new policies to be considered a leader in water conservation. The City of Boulder has strong policies regulating resident and business energy consumption but little to no regulations on how city residents and businesses consume water.

The city could impose regulations that reduce water use from outdoor irrigation, which accounts for more than 50% of total residential water use. Showers and toilets account for over 20% of total residential water use, and the city could implement policies that reduce water waste. For example, all new construction could be required to install low-flow toilets, faucet aerators and showerheads.

Similar to how the city mandates that Boulder businesses replace their outdoor lighting to reduce energy use and light pollution, businesses could be required to replace their inefficient water fixtures over time.

If the city of Boulder meets its ambitious climate goals, will that solve climate change? Of course not. But if every city across the nation meets its climate goals, then it would have a massive impact on reducing the threat of climate change. That is why we take our climate goals seriously, and why we should seriously consider applying that same logic to our water crisis.

Chelsea Castellano is an organizer with Bedrooms Are For People and member of the city’s Landmarks Board. More about Chelsea.



Boulder Beat Opinion Panel members are writing in their own capacity. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of Boulder Beat.

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