@WaterLawReview: Staying Afloat: States Look to Integrate Water Planning to Combat Predicted Water Shortages

Projected supply gap for 2030 via the Colorado Water Conservation Board

From the University of Denver Water Law Review (Liz Trower):

The Need for Integrated Planning

The number of people living in the water-scarce West has skyrocketed in recent decades. Colorado, for example, was home to 2.2 million people in 1970. By 2015, the state had grown to 5.5 million people (a 145% increase). Current estimates suggest Colorado will reach 8.5 million people by 2050. Cities throughout the region continue to rank among the fastest-growing in the country. Traditionally, states in the region have addressed the increasing demand for water through a combination of conservation efforts, water diversions, and even market-based re-allocations of water from agriculture to cities. However, these strategies are no longer sufficient to meet projected demands.

As a result, states and experts are increasingly scrutinizing the local government approval process for new developments. New developments ratchet up water demand, but can also present important opportunities for increased conservation—it is much easier to integrate water saving systems and technology into a new development than it is to retrofit a preexisting community. Yet, new developments have largely been left out of the water planning process because of the historical disconnect between water and land-use planning processes.

Water planning and land-use planning for new developments typically occur in isolation. This means that even in water-scarce areas, developers may not be required to ensure sufficient water supplies are available before building new communities. Instead, developers and the local land-use authorities regulating new projects can simply take it on faith that water will be available to satisfy the continued growth. In turn, water managers have responded to the increased demand by procuring additional water supplies or otherwise implementing systems to ensure supplies for new communities. While seemingly illogical, this divide or “governance gap” exists because the two areas have been historically governed within entirely separate legal frameworks.

The governance gap is two-fold: strategic water availability planning is traditionally a state function, while land-use planning for new development falls within the purview of local governments. Additionally, within local governments, water and land-use planning are often siloed. Within this existing system, state water managers and local municipalities are often driven by different goals. For example, local officials have had little reason to consider the availability of resources for the state as whole, but are often under pressure to increase new development as a means of creating job growth or an increased tax base. Additionally, even if they wanted to consider water availability, local government land-use planners are often not equipped with the expertise to make water planning decisions. The decision makers at the state and local level may be located far apart and, traditionally, had little reason or opportunity to consult each other.

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