We’re seeing impacts already, and then obviously we expect those to continue to become and more pronounced in the future.
— Aurora Water General Manager Marshall Brown
With the effects of climate change now clear, it’s common for Colorado cities to write their own plans and help keep the worst climate breakdowns at bay, while adapting to the new reality of drought and extreme weather on the Front Range.
A cursory glance at Aurora city hall suggests there’s not much momentum in that department.
It’s not even clear how much Aurora, the third-largest city in the state, is contributing to climate change. Aurora has only had one greenhouse gas emissions audit, when a PhD student combed through Aurora’s carbon footprint back in 2009. City staff say they probably met an old goal to slash emissions 10% by 2025 based on 2007 levels — thanks largely to Xcel Energy’s efforts to decarbonize. There’s no climate coordinator or sustainability office in the city with the sole task of monitoring and carrying out sustainability plans. Some other cities, including Denver, have set up such offices.
But that’s not the full picture. Behind the scenes, city staff have carried out a slew of programs that are likely reducing some emissions, from green building codes to solar panel farms. Water planners are busy steeling Aurora’s water supply against climate-induced stressors.
Some Aurora lawmakers want to see more climate action.
Councilmembers Alison Coombs and Juan Marcano said they want to set goals and slash emissions. The duo hasn’t submitted any concrete plans yet, but Coombs said she’s interested in writing new emissions reductions targets. Marcano said during a study session April 7 he’d like to fund a new climate coordinator position at city hall.
“We wanted to have more meaningful goals, goals that would be more of a stretch for the city,” Coombs told the Sentinel.
And Councilmember Nicole Johnston quietly submitted a proposal to city planners in February that would create a citizen’s Climate Action Advisory Committee. The group would research and release policy recommendations for the consideration by city council, akin to the Community Police Task Force that submitted its recommendations to lawmakers this month. The new body would also steer compliance with federal and state climate rules and possibly new city regulations.
Elsewhere, two turns of the screw will likely root climate planning deeper in city policy.
The city council is mulling a new strategic plan that sets priorities for city business. Among the tentative items: writing a “comprehensive environmental stewardship plan for the protection and sustainability” of natural resources and open spaces.
Staff are also updating the city’s five-year-old hazard mitigation plan to better respond to bigger snow storms, flash floods and hail storms, which are projected to become more severe on the Front Range without slashed global emissions.
Drought, heat and water
Colorado’s Front Range is already seeing weather events consistent with expectations about human-caused climate change. Becky Bollinger, a state climatologist at Colorado State University, said scientists have “very clear evidence that the climate is warming” throughout the state.
The Aurora region continues to suffer from persistent drought. According to the U.S. government’s Drought Monitor, Aurora residents are living through either “moderate drought” or “severe drought,” depending on one’s location in Arapahoe and Adams counties.
Wildfires in the mountains are on the rise because of heat and drought. And extreme weather events — flash floods and hail events — could be more severe as well on the Front Range, Bollinger said, because warmer air can hold more moisture.
Overall, it’s expected that the Aurora region will likely become hotter and drier over the next decades unless countries around the globe quickly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
A 2017 report from the Denver Department of Environmental Health and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, projected that, if emissions continued on track, metro Denver would experience an average of seven days per year above 99 degrees by mid-century.
For comparison: In the mid- to late-20th century, the temperature crested 100 degrees an average of less than one day, according to the study.
Bollinger said that, unless Aurorans are farming on the plains, many locals may not notice the region’s ongoing drought.
The situation isn’t lost on Aurora Water planners, who have already seen scant snowpacks and rapid melting seasons stress the utility’s vast water network. The city draws its water from the South Platte River, Arkansas River and Colorado River basins high in the Rockies. Snowmelt is then stored in 12 lakes and reservoirs. Aurora Water also reclaims water after it’s flushed down the drain.
“We’re seeing impacts already, and then obviously we expect those to continue to become and more pronounced in the future,” Aurora Water General Manager Marshall Brown said of climate change.
He said water storage is becoming “critical” to buoy the city through low water years. The utility is in the process of creating another reservoir in Park County and has several concepts for another high-alpine dam in Eagle County, near the Holy Cross Wilderness.
Meanwhile, Aurora’s population is expected to grow by almost 200,000 people by 2050. That means more residents will have water demands when the water supply is more stressed than ever.
“It is not an easy world, for sure,” Brown said. “Do I lose sleep at night? Sometimes. Hopefully, not too often. I don’t have any more hair to lose.”
Some success among other cities
Given the global nature of the problem, climate change policy has historically rolled down from the upper echelons of government.
President Joe Biden’s administration moved this year to rejoin the global Paris Climate Agreement while pursuing other emissions-cutting options, including in a transportation plan released this month. Gov. Jared Polis released a “roadmap” in January to steer Colorado toward its climate goals, and some lawmakers have vowed more aggressive plans to get there. In 2019, state lawmakers aimed to cut statewide emissions 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and at least 90% by 2050.
Emma Pinter, an Adams county commissioner, also sits on the board of directors for Colorado Communities for Climate Action. It’s a consortium of city and county governments in Colorado that lobby for stronger state and federal climate rules. She said, when cities and counties work together, it produces better results.
Pinter said it’s now “very common” for local cities and counties to set up their own climate programs. There’s plenty of power in local governments to help reduce emissions and work together, she said. In Aurora, officials and lawmakers control developments, designing city streets for transportation, building codes, waste disposal, water use and oil and gas development — which all create emissions.
“Cities can do a lot,” Coombs concurred.
In a review of Colorado’s five largest cities, the Sentinel found that Denver, Fort Collins and Lakewood had set climate emissions targets. Aurora’s target was probably met several years ago, according to Karen Hancock, a principal city planner. It hasn’t been replaced.
Colorado Springs apparently has not set emissions reductions goals; no information was available on their website, and Sentinel requests for more information were not returned.
Denver, Fort Collins and Lakewood conduct regular “inventories” of their greenhouse gas emissions, which are publicly available online. These cities have seen some success reducing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.
Denver wrote its last emissions audit in 2018. Then, energy to heat and power buildings and transportation together made up 70% of the city’s emissions. That city, Colorado’s largest, almost met its goal two years early to cut emissions 15% by 2020, based on 2005 levels. That meant Denver produced about 11.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018.
Lakewood and Fort Collins also managed to reduce emissions moderately, thanks to efficiencies and clean energy initiatives on the part of utilities.
What Aurora has done already
Hancock, the principal city planner, said there’s actually quite a few sustainability programs at city hall — even if it’s not a coordinated effort. Informally, she’s become one of the point staff members aware of the various sustainability efforts between Aurora Water, the building division, Parks and Open Space, infrastructure planners and other departments.
“We’ve been moving the needle. Maybe quietly, but we’ve been moving the needle,” she said.
Notably, city planners require that developers abide by International Building Code regulations. Hancock said those are now “very aggressive”: In 2018, those codes required that new buildings become 35% more energy efficient than they were under the 2006 rules. The city’s building division is currently considering whether to adopt even stronger standards that would be 40% more efficient.
On the clean energy front, Xcel Energy, the city’s electric utility, has cut its carbon emissions by 44% since 2005 in its bid to become carbon neutral by 2050. The city has benefitted from that, Hancock said.
Aurora also has two community solar “gardens” that donate some clean energy to low-income households. The city also jumpstarted energy projects by kicking $1 million in federal grant dollars to homeowners and business owners who installed solar or energy efficient technology between 2010 and 2012.
And Aurora helped develop a solar technology research site in partnership with private firms and public research institutions dubbed the Aurora Campus for Renewable Energy. The city claims it’s the “largest test facility for solar panels in the U.S.” The hub is located 10 miles from the city center, west of Hudson Rd. and south of East 48th Avenue.
The city has also linked an expansive bicycle infrastructure network designed in part to get Aurorans out of their cars and onto two wheels. They’re emphasizing density and climate-friendly options like walkability, public transit and cycling options in Aurora arteries, including Havana St.
Other initiatives include installing dozens of electric vehicle charging stations around town with grant dollars; diversifying the city’s vehicle fleet with some electric hybrids; and using solar energy technology for some city buildings and recreation center pools.
Coombs said that, so far, there are lots of initiatives at city hall — even if information about them isn’t publicly or easily available. She said she had to take a meeting with Marcano, Hancock and other city staff to learn about all of the programs.
But she said the work so far is “not really enough.”
Coombs said there’s tremendous momentum now at city hall to get the ball moving. The first step is auditing Aurora’s emissions, she said, to find out what initiatives are successful and where city planners may need to intervene to stall climate change.