Last call. The party’s over, Colorado.
After just more than a century of essentially intemperate growth and
industrialization in Aurora, across the Front Range and all throughout
the West, we’re out of water.
Old timers and newcomers alike blame the worst drought in more than 1,200 years for the depletion of mega-reservoirs, such as lakes Mead and Powell.
But an abrupt end to the drought would not change the fact that tens of millions of people across arid states — including Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California — behave as if they live in the rain-drenched South.
And that behavior, times a hundred or so million, now diverts more water from the region’s rivers, streams and aquifers than those sources can deliver.
This is not a new problem.
Despite decades of denial, a once distant crisis is now upon us.
And rather than immediately determine the scope of the problem and address it, rampant growth continues and behaviors don’t change, deepening the crisis or building a new one.
Aurora lawmakers wisely bucked the western-state trend of denialism and last month approved a measure essentially banning new homes from installing ornamental lawns planted with thirsty, cool-weather grass.
Aurora and Denver water officials estimate that about half of all water diverted from Colorado streams, rivers and aquifers to area homes and businesses is poured on ornamental lawns and landscaping.
Half of all our water is poured onto sustaining ornamental features that then require electric or fossil fuel energy to mow and in most cases also are covered in nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides that pollute our waterways for other downstream users.
A collaborative story this week by the Associated Press and Colorado Sun revealed that while Arizona, Utah and Nevada are among the top-ten fastest growing states, only Nevada restricts ornamental lawns statewide.
Along the Front Range, only large cities like Aurora, Denver and Colorado Springs have amassed large, diversified, multi-basin, renewable water sources with reservoir capacities to make their communities drought tolerant and able to accommodate some growth.
Yet communities like Greeley, Douglas County and unincorporated parts of Adams and Arapahoe counties continue to permit rapid housing growth based on relatively tentative water supplies or groundwater tapped into shrinking aquifers.
Don’t think this is just a downstream problem, affecting thirsty and irresponsible states like Arizona, California and Utah.
Most of California’s top-tier allotment of Colorado River water is poured onto millions of acres of farmland to produce food for most Colorado residents.
It would be hard to imagine courts or governments that would allow millions of homeowners in suburban Arizona or even Douglas County to have to abandon their waterless homes in droves while Denver and Aurora residents irrigated lush lawns and managed vast golf courses — created in virtual deserts.
Despite the federal government demanding that Colorado River basin states revisit the Colorado River Compact and hammer out a plan to address the crisis, they won’t.
Instead, California, Arizona and Nevada, states most negatively affected by the water crisis, recently refused to offer a mandated plan to address it.
On the national level, Congress must join the federal government now and intervene.
States that require communities allowing growth to acquire renewable water supplies, and refashion new and existing communities to accommodate our arid environs, should be rewarded with federal cash to make those changes.
Others must be penalized.
In Colorado, the governor and Legislature must address antiquated laws and practices that perpetuate behaviors that have led to the current crisis or actively push parts of the state toward new crises.
Neither Colorado nor its communities can successfully address the problem if, as a state and region, we don’t accurately understand it.
But no one needs to wait for meaningful data or assessment to know that bans on ornamental grasses, construction not requiring water-saving features and even programs to entice current homeowners and businesses to tear out water-wasting lawns are inevitable.
Those should start now.
Difficult but vital discussions, regionally and statewide, need to lead to policies regarding industries that use large quantities of water, especially those that don’t return it to the river basin systems.
And Colorado, in the next session, must address communities and municipalities encouraging growth without water supplies that will be reliable in a world where this drought may not end in the foreseeable future, and where available water from underground aquifers does.