Amanda Pampuro

DENVER (CN) — Before Sterling Ranch broke ground on more than 12,000 homes on the arid eastern plains of the Colorado Front Range, developers first had to get creative about water. The planned community sits on limited supplies of groundwater, which it shares with surrounding Douglas County.

“The adage is ‘whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting,’” Brock Smethills, who took over the Sterling Ranch Development Company from his parents and now serves as president, said in an interview. “We've had to build an extraordinary amount of infrastructure to deliver renewable water.”

In the decade since Smethills joined the family business, Sterling built its first homes amid worsening drought. Knowing groundwater access was finite, the developers obtained renewable water from the Dominion Water and Sanitation District, which draws from the Platte River. Precipitation regularly refills lakes and rivers making them a more reliable and renewable water source.

Besides trading water with the City of Aurora and obtaining junior water rights, Dominion and Sterling are piloting the state’s first regional rainwater harvesting program. Though considered innovative today, the design may become the norm in the decades to come.

Complex compacts like this are often needed in places like Colorado, where the distribution of human settlement doesn’t always follow the water. The Rocky Mountains run through the state, as part of the continental divide, determining whether water flows west toward the Pacific or east toward the Atlantic.

“We have this 80/20 rule in Colorado,” Smethills said. “Eighty percent of our population is east of the continental divide with 20% of our water.”

Colorado’s most important resource is depicted on the state seal and printed on cans of Coors Light. It’s not the mountains, but the snow that collects on their rocky peaks through the winter before melting in the spring and summer to supply water to 5.8 million Coloradans, plus millions more people downstream.

Population projections put the Front Range topping 6 million people by 2040 — growth that will require 1.5 million new homes and 244 billion gallons of water annually based on current household use. This rapid expansion raises questions about future water security. Although the Centennial State recorded enough precipitation this year to clear its drought map for the first time in years, the reprieve is likely short-lived in an elevated region undergoing aridification on a warming planet.

With the economic benefits that come from a larger tax base, no one wants to talk about limiting development. Earlier this year, in fact, the state legislature actually passed a bill prohibiting local governments from enacting population caps. Instead, forward-thinking lawmakers, nonprofits and developers are instead redesigning homes and revamping zoning codes to require less water.

The movement grew out of the state’s 2015 State Water Plan, which set a goal of incorporating water conservation measures into local land-use planning for three-quarters of the state by 2025. The state is on track to meet this goal — but even fixes like this are just a drop in the bucket. Municipal water only accounts for 20% of the state’s water use. The bulk still goes to agriculture, which is undergoing its own reckoning around current water use and future availability.

“The issue of scarcity in western water is probably the most foundational issue that we're facing,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School, which is named after two environmental law pioneers. “We have to figure out how to maintain the quality of life that we're accustomed to, but we have to figure out how to do that with less.”

The Sterling Ranch development in Douglas County along Colorado's Front Range is using innovative designs to limit water use. (Sterling Ranch)
The Sterling Ranch development in Douglas County along Colorado's Front Range is using innovative designs to limit water use. (Sterling Ranch)

To get serious about saving water, policymakers and developers must plan for lower water use from the beginning. “How big a lawn does it have? Is it single family or multifamily? What sort of water conservation is imposed? If you want to get at the root of the problem, you have to look at what the rules are for development approvals,” Castle explained.

Taking this long view, local governments are driving change by upping building requirements.  Last year, the city council for Aurora, east of Denver, unanimously passed an ordinance limiting turf in new developments. Aurora also offers existing homeowners a rebate for replacing thirsty Kentucky bluegrass with native plants that require less water. After all, an estimated 50% of municipal water use — 10% of the state’s overall water budget — disappears into lawns.

Cutting out grass is an easy way to open communities to more difficult discussions, like limiting lot size and increasing density. A 2018 report from consulting firm Keystone Policy Center found multiplexes use a fraction of the water a single family home uses.

“There’s a lot of emphasis in this conversation around reducing outdoor water demand, and that's because that's where a lot of the opportunity lies,” Lindsay Rogers, a water policy analyst at the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, said in an interview. “One thing that I think is harder is building denser — but when we build multifamily, denser, smaller lot developments, we use a lot less water per person.”

Consistent conservation can come through zoning and building requirements set by local governments. However, even though development and water conservation are inherently interconnected, bureaucratic barriers between different government agencies often keep officials from coordinating.

A patchwork of water authorities throughout the state makes the process of finding solutions even harder. The public utility Denver Water provides drinking water to 1.5 million people across eight counties, for example, while some nearby municipalities, like the Denver suburb of Westminster, provide their own water.

To help break down these bureaucratic silos, the nonprofit Sonoran Institute for the past five years has held Growing Water Smart workshops to help various water boards and officials communicate. Before the workshops, developers “receive a will-serve letter from the water provider that says there's water for that development, and [the process] kind of stops there,” said Waverly Klaw, director of the Growing Water Smart program for the Sonoran Institute. The workshops help keep these conversations going long past the ground-breaking stage of development.

During the workshops, “there are a lot of ‘aha’ moments around how the land use regulations that are stipulated by local government have a wide ranging impact on how much water is used by that development,” Klaw said. Even still, she sees tension between the desire to grow and the need to conserve. “We have a lot of competing interests around economic development, around affordable housing, around growing a tax base and also around preserving our environment.”

Better water conservation can come from simple upgrades. Developers like Thrive Home Builders are installing low-flow fixtures inside homes and encouraging the use of smart outdoor sprinklers that automatically adjust schedules based on the weather.

“What we're finding by being ahead of the curve is that there are ways to make a substantial difference,” said Gene Myers, chair and chief sustainability officer for Thrive Home Builders. He founded the company as Green Tree Homes in 1992.

“Not very many people knew what I meant by ‘green’ at the time,” he recalled. Myers’ first ideal energy homes predated federal programs aimed at conserving resources, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star and WaterSense programs. Now Myers said the federal guidelines give developers a good place to start. Easing Colorado’s water woes will involve a mix of regulation and innovation.

Although many communities across the Front Range have taken the first step of adding a paragraph on water conservation to their land use plans, there is still a long way to go.

“We haven't even, in my mind, started conserving water,” said Jeni Arndt, the Democratic mayor of Fort Collins, a city 60 miles north of Denver with some of the strictest water requirements in the state.

During the six years she represented the 53rd District in the statehouse, Arndt sponsored several bills addressing the impending water crisis. While several passed, Arndt considers the failed bills just as important because they can serve as a guide for the future. “When we get into our water-short future — and there is no question in my mind that we’ll get there — we will have a legislative background that someone can go pick up and run.”

Still, the pandemic taught Arndt a lot about how humans grapple with crises — and gave her hope that Coloradans can rise to the occasion. “Humans won't move until they have to,” she said. “Then when they have to, they can move quite quickly.

As policymakers and businesses in Colorado and beyond finetune ways to save water, tension remains between a desire for growth and a need to conserve. At the moment, the strained housing market means most homebuyers are more interested in saving money today than water in the future.

Smethills, the Sterling Ranch president, doesn’t think there has to be. “Adding an extra $100,000 to a house for water conservation, that's a non-starter,” he said. But he thinks homebuyers can stomach smaller upcharges — around $5,000 to $15,000 — particularly if the reductions help save on future water expenses.

At the development south of Denver, Smethills is already working on the problem. A single acre foot — the unit water is bought and sold by — contains about 326,000 gallons, typically enough water to supply two average homes per year. By design, Smethills said five of Sterling Ranch’s water-conscious designs can subsist on a single annual acre foot. By capturing and using rainwater, he hopes to double that number.

While Smethills’ parents dreamed up the sustainable development more than 20 years ago, he initially had other plans. After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, and a specialty in aerospace, Smethills was thinking about medical school. Then his family asked for help designing the Internet fiber, and he has been there since.

Today, Smethills is still drawn to tackling seemingly unsolvable problems. Instead of engineering or medicine, though, that passion led him to water conservation. He remains skeptical of any one-size-fits-all solution sworn to fix water scarcity in Colorado and throughout the desert southwest. “We have homeowners who exceed their water budget. We have homeowners that are so far underneath their water budget, it's a joke,” Smethills said. “As a provider and developer, I’m concerned about the average.”