2014 Colorado legislation: Ellen Roberts’ new bill, ‘addresses lawn irrigation in new subdivisions.’ #COleg


From The Durango Herald (Ellen Roberts):

My first bill has been introduced, and it addresses lawn irrigation in new subdivisions when the water used is transferred from agricultural use. It would take effect in 2016. I’ve received lots of input on the bill.

Most people understand the need to address Colorado’s water shortage, especially as our state’s population grows. It’s anticipated our population will double by 2050, yet we don’t have the water supply needed to support that growth.

It has been suggested the bill is heavy-handed, and I understand that sentiment. The bill is a work in progress, and I’m committed to as many meetings as it takes to get a variety of responses and to consider suggested alternatives on this proposal.

While some view it as being a Western Slope versus Front Range approach, it’s not intended that way. It is true, though, I’m concerned about where the new water is going to come from to support the growth projected for Colorado.

Given the private property rights’ nature of Colorado water, the bill clearly allows agricultural water transfers to occur. The focus is on municipal water – half of which goes for lawns and three-quarters of that water for lawns is consumed by evaporation. If this bill is passed, Colorado would lose less water to evaporation, which is a significant consumer, particularly given the dryness of our semi-arid climate.

My constituent, Steve Harris, a water engineer from Durango, proposed the bill idea to me, and it was developed to address the widespread concern that our state is rapidly losing land in agricultural production because of municipalities buying the water rights for their growth. Food independence is even more important than energy independence, so this proposal struck a chord for me.

From The Denver Post (Vincent Carroll)

Sen. Ellen Roberts appears somewhat surprised by herself. The Durango Republican is not used to carrying bills imposing mandates on local governments, and it makes her “personally uncomfortable” that she is doing so now.

But she’s convinced, she told me, that “Colorado needs to have a conversation” about the way cities and towns purchase water from farms and ranches and what it will do to rural Colorado as our population continues to grow. So she and three other lawmakers, two Democrats and another Republican, have filed Senate Bill 17, which bars any residential development that relies on former ag water from having lawns covering more than 15 percent of its area.

You can see how homebuilders and local governments are just going to love this unprecedented meddling in their prerogatives. I’m not so crazy about the idea, either — as a state mandate. But Roberts’ goal of a major reduction in water use by developers is worth touting, and is achievable without sacrificing homebuyer appeal.

At least that’s what Harold Smethills is banking on in his Sterling Ranch development in northwest Douglas County, which will be moving dirt this year for the first 1,000 lots of what is expected to max out over time at 30,000 residents.

Smethills and his partners have spent a fortune measuring how much water is used on traditional landscaping and testing options that use much less but still appeal to a wide swath of buyers. Those buyers don’t want a purely “rocks and cactus” look, he told me recently.

Traditional bluegrass requires 25 gallons of water annually per square foot, he said. But Sterling Ranch thinks of grass “as a throw rug rather than a carpet” and will coordinate it with perennials and shrubs, he added.

Sterling Ranch has built demonstration plots that use as little as 12½ gallons and even 7 gallons per square foot annually.

“We don’t think the market is ready for the 7,” he said. “We think it’s very ready for the 12.”

If so, Sterling Ranch will use less than half the water of a traditional development even before it counts savings from its most distinctive concept: rainwater harvesting. It plans to capture rain from rooftops and storm drainage systems to reduce landscaping needs — a practice that was illegal until lawmakers passed a bill in 2009 allowing the experiment.

Rainwatering harvesting was outlawed decades ago in order to prevent it from poaching a resource that belonged to downstream users. So Sterling Ranch is involved in complex tests overseen by state officials to determine how much water actually runs off into streams or penetrates to groundwater.

“We owe the river only the water that made it to the river,” Smethills explains, adding that surprisingly little does. Still, he says, “we’re probably five or six years” from going to a water court to establish a finding.

Yet rainwater will play a big role in the project from the outset, reducing outdoor consumption by an extra third.

Sen. Roberts says she put a ceiling for lawns of 15 percent in her bill because experts say the average lawn is 30 to 50 percent of a lot, and half of a typical home’s water is used outdoors. But if that’s the case, her mandate would probably reduce consumption by less than what Sterling Ranch is poised to achieve.

And if that proves true, it’s almost certain that local communities along the Front Range will begin pushing for similar savings on their own.

Supply side land-use planning. More 2014 Colorado Legislation coverage here.

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