Keystone Water and Growth Dialogue

By Kathleen McCormick, November 27, 2018

A flurry of integrated land and water activity occurred after passage of the Colorado Water Plan in 2015, but the work actually had begun years before. Beginning in 2010, leaders from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state Department of Local Affairs, the Lincoln Institute, the Sonoran Institute, Pace University Land Use Law Center, and the Keystone Policy Center came together for the Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue. They developed a stakeholder group that also includes city and county planners, water specialists, and public officials, the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, Western Resource Advocates, water utilities, universities, environmental organizations, and others. A core group of stakeholders has evolved as the Colorado Land and Water Planning Alliance to continue the Dialogue’s research and training in land and water planning. The Lincoln Institute, through their Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, is providing both financial and technical assistance for Alliance efforts.

In 2016, the Keystone Policy Center, with support from the Lincoln Institute and the Sonoran Institute, hosted a scenario-planning program for Front Range stakeholders focused on integrating land and water planning. The goal was to develop strategies to reduce water demand and close Colorado’s water gap. The key question: How can changes in urban form and landscaping practices assist in meeting future urban water demand along the Front Range?

Ray Quay of Arizona State University’s Decision Center for a Desert City, who is a former assistant planning director and assistant water services director in Phoenix, presented his Denver-area study of water use across densities, building types, and landscaping practices as part of the program. The study found that the maximum reduction in water use achievable by increasing density was in the range of 20 percent, with a 10 percent reduction achievable by modest density increases; and it found that local governments could achieve the same levels of reduction through outdoor water restrictions, landscape codes, and irrigation practices, with much greater certainty.

The upshot for integrated land and water planning, says Quay: “Water supplies are limited, and . . . with growth you’re going to need more water. You can’t support growth on the conservation of water.” Communities need to focus on what type of growth and economy they want, he says, and how to allocate water supplies for the growth they expect. And fundamentally, he concludes, “they need to do that before they need water.”

The work of all the partners involved in these conversations has “moved the needle” and helped create a consensus on the need for integrated land and water planning statewide, says Matt Mulica, policy facilitator for the Keystone Policy Center. He says the Dialogue’s exploratory scenario planning and a Keystone report on the process have helped communities with strategies such as planning for higher density, developing new metrics on water and land use, and offering incentives for compact development and low-water landscapes. The Pace Land Use Law Center’s Land Use Leadership Alliance, the Colorado chapter of the American Planning Association, and the Boulder-based environmental nonprofit Western Resource Advocates also have offered training on issues such as comprehensive plans that designate priority areas for growth and conservation, water-efficient land-use development patterns, cluster and infill development, and urban growth boundaries.


This content is excerpted from the article “Grow with the Flow,” published November 27, 2018.



Kathleen McCormick, principal of Fountainhead Communications in Boulder, Colorado, writes frequently about healthy, sustainable, and resilient communities.