What does a failed Colorado River agreement mean for Boulder?

Image by Felix via Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023

Boulder is one of the many cities that relies, at least partially, on the Colorado River for water. So what does it mean that the Western states — tasked with planning how to voluntarily reduce their use of the beleaguered system — failed to reach an agreement?

Not much. At least not yet. 

“We’re not making any significant changes to our planning efforts,” said Kim Hutton, water resource manager for the city of Boulder. “We’re waiting to see the direction it heads.”

If federally mandated reductions hit the Colorado River in the near future, Boulder’s water service will probably not change. That’s partially because Arizona has been and will likely continue to be the focus of the majority of cuts.

But it’s also because of Boulder’s ample water supply, ongoing conservation efforts and long-range planning. 

“We’ve got a diverse water supply,” Hutton said. “That helps with our resiliency.”

The Colorado River is one of three places Boulder draws water from, and makes up about one-third of our supply. While that sounds like a lot, Hutton said there is flexibility built in.

“We have the ability to use more water from Boulder Creek sources in a given year, but we don’t,” she said. If less Colorado River water became available, “we could make some adjustments in the future, to use more Boulder Creek supplies.” 

Most years, Boulder has more water than it can use. The excess is leased for agricultural purposes. Depending on what happens with climate change, that may not always be the case. 

Boulder’s long-range planning includes modeling different climate change scenarios. While “some actually show there will be more precipitation (and) some show there will be less, all the models show it will be warmer,” Hutton said. 

More heat equals more evaporation, which means more water will be needed to keep vegetation alive. Add to that projected job and population growth, and suddenly Boulder’s once-ample supplies could become inadequate.

“Under many of the climate change scenarios, we’re able to meet our projected future demands,” Hutton said. “But it’s not the case under all climate change scenarios.”

Boulder hasn’t run low enough on water to trigger restrictions since 2002. That was before the current drought plan and water conservation programs were in place. 

The updated drought plan, adopted by city council in October, identifies how much water can be used, and for what, depending on the severity.. Essential needs — drinking and other indoor uses, firefighting and emergency uses — are preserved even under the most severe drought conditions, with the majority of restrictions on outdoor use such as washing cars, filling up swimming pools and watering lawns. 

Some in the community are already calling for changes to the way Boulder allocates water for lawns. Each property is given a “customized water budget” based on how much “irrigable area” is there (i.e. how much water the grass and/or other vegetation on the property needs).

Use 0-60% of your budget, and pay the lower rates; 61% and above is a higher rate. But because the budgets are based on the size of the parcel, people with large lawns don’t pay higher rates despite using more water — so long as they stay within their personalized budget. 

The rate structures have been in place since 2007, and were intended to provide a “financial incentive to encourage people to use within their budget,” Hutton said, but also allow them the water they need to keep their lawns alive; they were specifically written with Kentucky bluegrass in mind.

“That’s a point of discussion in the community: Should we be supporting bluegrass? It seems logical and reasonable to me that if we’re in a very hot climate, one comparable to Pueblo or Albuquerque, we are probably not going to want to maintain the landscaping we have. if we find ourselves in some of these more extreme climate conditions, I think we’re going to need to change our landscaping.”

But, she noted, “that’s a policy question,” one for elected officials and/or the voters to decide. Ditto for any changes to the way Boulder charges for water.

Staff are doing what they can within the current system, including sponsoring turf replacement for low-income residents and encouraging the commercial sector to reduce its outdoor water use. The city is currently in the process of updating its water efficiency plan, required by the state every seven years. 

That may result in more equity-focused changes. A survey is planned this spring to gather community feedback on what they’d like to see before the water efficiency plan update concludes this year. 

Nearly all conservation efforts target outdoor use. “We have had programs that target indoor use off and on,” Hutton said, “but we’re frankly finding that indoor plumbing codes are becoming more stringent, forcing more water-efficient fixtures to be put on the market and really doing a lot to reduce per capita indoor water use.” 

Since 2001, Boulder has actually reduced per capita water use by 30%, from 190 to 130 gallons. Though that rate of decrease is projected to slow somewhat, Hutton said, “we are still anticipating additional per capita water savings,” though overall use may grow due to population and job growth.

The bottom line, Hutton said, is that Boulder is OK for now.

“Under current climate conditions, we’ve got an adequate supply,” she said. “We’ve got a diverse water supply that helps with our resiliency, and we are constantly monitoring conditions. 

“We understand climate change is happening, and we’re doing the assessments we need to to make sure we have the water we need into the future.”

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle or on Mastodon at toot.bldrweb.org/@shayshinecastle

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