A Confluence (notes on water conservation resources in Colorado)

During a recent trip to Winter Park, my kiddos treated me to a visit to the Headwaters River Journey museum. It’s a non-stop interactive journey through how water goes from a (not so faraway) river to your water tap.

The basic takeaways:

  • Colorado is predicted to run short of water in 2030.
  • About 60% of the water in the Fraser River is diverted through the Moffat tunnel system to Denver, where about 60% of THAT water is used to water turfgrass lawns.
  • The average household in the West uses 320 gallons of water per day, about 50% of that is outdoor use.
  • Every 1° increase in average temperature equates to a 9% decrease in the Colorado River’s flow.
  • The Colorado River generates $1.4 trillion (including $9B in tourism and recreation) in economic activity annually and 16 million jobs in 7 states.

Through my work in my neighborhood’s HOA and now on the Boxelder Sanitation District, I’d learned a LOT about the importance of water (stormwater, treatment, and conservation). Even so, the Headwaters Museum had some great insights on how to make conservation goals more actionable for neighbors who aren’t as plugged in.

A quick aside here: “not as plugged in” isn’t meant to be demeaning – water systems and how it arrives at the tap, how the different districts work, how water law works, how evaporation and water-wise features affect the larger picture – these are all complex things. One of my main goals is to help share actionable tips and help neighbors connect to programs to help with building a better future for Fort Collins (and beyond) – even if folks haven’t dug in to explore every single program or complexity.

I was already a big proponent of water conservation, working during the campaign to advocate for Fort Collins’ Xeriscape Improvement Program to be available to every resident of Fort Collins, not just those on City water. Because of how this program is funded, it’s tricky, and folks who live in any of the areas serviced by the other water utilities in Fort Collins like ELCO and Fort Collins-Loveland Water District don’t get access to it. Because this is where most of the growth happens, and because the Land Use Code doesn’t strictly indicate xeriscape-by-default, it leaves homeowners in a lurch.

Thankfully, Northern Water has a grant program for HOAs outside the Fort Collins utilities service area, and the Colorado legislature just passed a similar measure (HB22-1151) to allocate $2M through 2025 for replacing turf grass with a more water-conservation-friendly option, regardless of their local utility’s ability to provide those kinds of grants or not. Still, it’s important to work on expanding the XIP and XIPXL programs in Fort Collins to the entire growth management area to make conversions feasible for everyone.

Our visit to the Museum was prescient, as the BizWest Confluence Water Conference was just a few days later.

The day-long conference featured 5 sessions on water issues with panels from regional experts. Topics included the water-economy nexus, regional collaboration, case studies, water resilience, and water law, and the speakers included folks from local municipalities (including Greeley, Boulder, and Severance), water economists, water-savvy businesses (Odell Brewing in particular), Northern Water staff, and other nonprofit water support organizations and Colorado state boards and organizations that deal with water issues and law.

To say it was a deep dive would be selling it short – there was so much actionable info that I left each session feeling more energized than the last to help neighbors take action.

Similar to the complexities of getting water from River A to Tap B, the hidden cost of water is astonishing. On a 30-year mortgage at 6%, assuming a $50K tap fee on your house, you’re paying $300/mo on water supply costs in your mortgage. Compare that to your $50/mo average water bill.

Maybe unsurprisingly, one of the biggest areas of impact that folks in Fort Collins can have: reduce or eliminate unnecessary turfgrass (50% or more of the municipal water supply goes to watering turfgrass). Convincing your local HOA, municipalities, and anyone else who’ll listen to replace the hellstrip grass (that area of turf between the sidewalk and street) for a more native grass variety will go a long way. Yes, it’s costly and takes time to get right, but the ultimate outcome is that for each acre of turf grass replaced with a more water-conserving option, you save 1-2 acrefeet of water.

Another aside: the units we use at home to measure water (gallons) are different than the units used to measure water in a river or water utility system (because of the volume).

One acre-foot is 325,851 gallons. That’s… hard to imagine, right? An acrefoot is the amount of water it’d take to cover a football field 1-foot deep with water. The average annual flow of the Poudre River is 288,000 acre feet, or roughly enough to fill Horsetooth Resevour twice.

The average person uses 36,500 gallons of water per year. So in saving ONE acrefoot of water, you are saving enough water for 9 people to use for a YEAR.

Savings like that compound, because the river’s depth affects the river’s temperature (rocks in the sun get hotter than rocks underwater), lower temperatures equate to less evaporation over hot rocks, more money in the economy due to fishing licenses and tourism, and less money required in the form of sales tax to have City services like parks and busses.

Saving water is a huge economic boon here in Colorado and we should do everything we can to conserve water and insist on exceptional water quality standards. You can get started here by reading the Colorado Water Plan or here by reading a few actionable ideas here in FoCo. Every drop counts!

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