Fort Collins' water future depends on conservation and costs

2022-07-22 12:32:56 By : Mr. David Xu

Every time the Coloradoan publishes a story about a new housing development going in, a common response we see in comments is: "But where will the water come from?"

In our reporting, we aim to identify which water district will provide water to new developments, but we know that is a question in search of a much broader answer. While there's some reporting for us to do to help readers understand how much water is at our fingertips and what it will cost to keep bringing it here, until then, we wanted to spark some conversation by asking you:

"Where should the water come from? Are you willing to xeriscape or reduce the size of your lawn to conserve water? Give up that high-flow showerhead or leisurely bath? What would incentivize you to reduce water usage, and what hope do you have for those measures to blunt costly water capacity increases? Or, if more storage is more appealing to you, how much are you willing to pay to keep up your current water use?"

The question was directed at individuals, asking them what they are willing to do or what would incentivize them to reduce usage. But nobody really answered those questions. One response addressed our specific ask, though there were a lot of ideas about how water should be managed as new developments pop up.

Peter B. said: "I would be more willing to reduce my own water use if local governments would require developers of new housing units to pay the true cost of building them, including the cost of adding a new water user. It's like intentionally adding more mouths to feed when folks are already starving. Who benefits?"

For some context: Fort Collins expects treated water demand will hit 38,400 acre-feet a year by 2065 — 40% more than current demand for both treated and raw water — as the population in Fort Collins Utilities’ service area approaches a projected 195,000 people. The costs to buy agricultural water rights to feed new development, and to expand storage options like Halligan Reservoir, are rapidly increasing. But while city water users have curtailed overall consumption in recent years, many homeowners still have lawns to maintain and water needs for cooking, drinking and cleaning at home.

"I moved here from a state where water was plentiful (lots of rain, creeks and lakes, high water table) and was stunned to discover my water rates were lower here," Craig P. said. "We are clearly not using pricing effectively (e.g. tiered rates by usage). Yes, we need to change planting practices (my HOA required a high-water-consuming bluegrass lawn if you didn't xeriscape) and do more to encourage efficient water usage in the house, but much of that will come if pricing makes clear it is necessary."

L. Victor H declared: "Increasing the price of water will lower usage, increase conservation, and extend supply."

And Daniel S. echoed that with some caveats: "There’s nothing more powerful than a price signal. If we want to control demand, the price needs to go up. Of course, this could be done with usage tiers or similar intelligent scheme so families of modest means don’t get hit as hard."

Storage costs rise:Cost of Fort Collins' Halligan Reservoir expansion quadruples as review milestones near

Several people suggested more conservation by agricultural users or those who tend lawns.

"There should be a limit on how much water they can use," John M. said, referring to residential lawns. "A cap on usage (regardless of how much money you're willing to spend to keep your yard/golf course green) for abusers."

Storage should take a backseat to conservation, Paul A. contends. "Instead of building new dams and pipelines, the state needs to access some of the water being used for inefficient flood irrigation of alfalfa and feed corn. Farmers could be incentivized to switch to more efficient irrigation systems and we could avoid destroying the Poudre for future generations."

"Agriculture needs to use a smaller percentage of the total," Paul said, "and we need to stop watering the golf courses and landscaping to save the Colorado River infrastructure that supports 40 million people."

"Domestic use is about 6% and agricultural use is about 87%, John R. points out. "If we save half of our residential use, it’s 3%, enough for agriculture use for 3-6 days. Lawns are hardly the problem."

Beverly and Randy R. point out: "The question of water for growth is not where it will come from but who will pay for it."

For some, the answer is developers: "We need to have developers pay to buy water rights and increase our share. As population grows, our share needs to grow at the same rate." John R. said.

"No new developments should go in without gray water systems," Sharron D. said. "It's legal to now use gray water in Colorado, but there's far too little of it being utilized."

John W. and Judi T. floated this challenge: "No more water from western side of Continental Divide; we need to make what we have work even if it limits growth."

And right now, some of Fort Collins' water comes from the Colorado-Big Thompson Water Project, which carries water that flows to the Western Slope back to Northern Colorado. The rest of it comes from the Poudre River.

Still others made the case for opting out of any growth in the face of the stress on growing cities and the environment:

David R. said, "Drought has always been a part of the great American West. Diversion has been the solution. When there is no water to divert, what sort of culture insists that still building rooftops is the only way to prove that society is 'healthy' and 'wealthy'? Do the residents of this region want to kill the Cache la Poudre River, deal with a bad air quality day everyday, and fight traffic instead of living, or insist that the future is worth preserving?"

Sharron R. said: "If growth will never be limited, water use must be limited in other ways:

"So before even talking about buying water from agriculture we need to be utilizing maximum conservation, whether that's preserving green grass for only green belts and backyards and/or requiring gray water for all new developments and subsidizing and/or incentivizing gray water use for existing homes. In addition we must grow up into condos and apartments that don't require lawns."

But whether individuals are willing to begin doing that now, and what it will take to boost their acceptance of it, is still unsaid.