No drought about it, Aurora’s good with water, and still in serious trouble

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Here’s the good news about Aurora’s water situation. We are light-years ahead of most of our neighbors and much of the country in collecting, protecting and conserving the region’s most valuable and critical resource.

But it’s not enough. Not by far. And we can’t make that big of a difference alone.

Aurora’s water officials have an unenviable dual job: to assure everyone that we’ve got enough safe, available water to allow for life as we know it, and at the same time sound the alarm that everything could change relatively fast.

For those of us who’ve been here longer than we like to admit, we know the drill. Colorado, like most of the surrounding desert southwest, is subject to temperamental weather cycles. Along with the boom and bust of oil, comes the cyclic droughts. The last one, just a few years ago, required serious conservation laws and pretty much ended lawn-watering for a couple of years.

Since then, Aurora and the metro area have added hundreds of thousands of additional humans and their appliances and lawns to soak up mountain snow melt. And downstream of the state’s four main rivers that Colorado runoff keeps wet? Devastating drought and nearly unchecked growth in places like California.

While Aurora and all of Colorado is looking to develop and keep more of its water, and conversely send less downstream, more places out of state are looking to increase their take, which would mean our loss.

Right now, this has amounted only to some political elbowing and shoving. But the next real drought here in Colorado is going to get ugly like we’ve never seen before.

So the good news recently really is good. For the second year running, Aurora has been tabbed by the Wyland National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation as the best city its size for getting people just like you to pledge to conserve water at home. This year, more than 13,000 Aurorans promised to irrigate less, cut back more inside and spread the word that using less water is far cheaper and better than trying to scrape up more. Aurora resident Jim Schoepflin even won a new Toyota Prius in the annual event.

The metro area’s sumptuous landscapes are the biggest culprit when it comes to pouring water not down the drain, and back into the river, but outside where it essentially just evaporates. All you have to do is look at your summer water consumption to see that more than half of all water used runs out onto your yard, and that’s only during a few months of the year. Flying into DIA in August and seeing brown plains become emerald green in metro Aurora makes you realize the scope of the problem.

So as Aurora, and much of the rest of the metro area, adds new homes and residents, it buys more and increasingly rare and expensive water rights to fill reservoirs. Aurora has been innovative in capturing water it owns downstream of the city and pumping it back to Aurora, treating it and using it again. It was fabulously expensive.

But the city’s in an excellent condition compared to the rest of the metro area, besides Denver.

Vast communities south of Aurora, including Parker, Highlands Ranch, Centennial and most of Douglas County, are either at the mercy of Denver Water, or worse, have built communities dependent on rapidly depleting underground water sources. A few years of serious drought, and they’re screwed.

Aurora, which owns almost all of its own water, as well as its own storage and supply system, actually leases its excess liquid gold in good years like these. But don’t think for a second that state courts or a state of emergency order from the governor wouldn’t force Aurora and Denver to ration what’s left and supply surrounding communities when drought gets real.

Just like California, banned outdoor irrigation would be a given. Farmers would lose their crops and stop planting, which happened just a few years ago in Adams County. Most likely, people would move away in droves, and property values and the economy would tank.

I’m not making this up. Ask any Colorado water planner or engineer about how precarious our precipitation problems are in Colorado.

Aurora can’t do this alone. State lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper must keep water planning at the top of the Colorado agenda. While there have been numerous attempts to create a comprehensive and regional water policy and co-op, it’s produced nothing in the way of solid answers and real water where its needed.

And it’s not just about creating new reservoirs. The innovative Wyland project helps people, mostly children, understand that water usage and conservation is complex and often surprising. Contaminating water with garden chemicals and human-created litter is just as wasteful as millions of leaky faucets, as it turns out.

Aurora, Denver and metro governments must find a sustainable solution to keeping this part of the state viable, while at the same time, reserve precious water for agriculture and the state’s vast communities across the region.

 It’s not just about us. If one large community water system fails, it will affect us all.

So cheers to us, Aurora. We lead the way in water planning and conservation. But if nobody follows, it’s all for naught.

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