DENVER – An idea crafted in Durango to save water by limiting the size of suburban lawns survived its first test Thursday.
The bill, dreamed up by local water engineer Steve Harris, has grabbed the attention of homebuilders, local governments, water suppliers and farm advocates. His plan breaks several taboos, offending proponents of private-property rights, local control by cities and people who simply enjoy big lawns.
Despite the controversy, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed Senate Bill 17 on a 4-3 vote. It now goes to the full Senate.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is the sponsor. Win or lose in the Senate, Roberts said her goal is to get people talking about the connection between water and land use.
“We do think it’s a way to begin to seep into our consciousness that we live in a high-altitude desert,” Roberts said.
Colorado will lose half a million acres of irrigated farmland to urban development by 2050, water experts predict.
As of 2016, Roberts’ bill would require any new development that relied on buying agricultural water rights to limit the lawn area of its lots to 15 percent. However, parks and open space would be exempted.
“I didn’t want to get between soccer moms and soccer fields, so I thought we should leave the common areas out of the bill,” Harris said.
Developers, however, said most new lawns are small, but open-space areas can be large.
“We can’t sit here and tell you as a homebuilding community that this bill will result in water savings,” said Jeani Frickey Saito, a lobbyist for the Colorado Association of Homebuilders. “It isn’t really the backyards that are the issue.”
Carlyle Currier, vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, urged senators to support the bill so it could at least get a vote in the full Senate.
“There are few proposals that actually do anything to save ag water. This bill does,” Currier said.
But some Front Range water utilities opposed the idea.
Pat Ratliff, a lobbyist for the South Metro Water Supply Authority, said the utility is a leader in conservation efforts.
“We have one of the lowest use rates. We’re not going to get any credit for all of the work we have done over the last 25 years to conserve,” Ratliff said.
The south metro area recently struck a deal to use recycled water from Denver and Aurora.
“We’re going to be drinking sewage. I don’t know how much more conservation-conscious you can get,” Ratliff said.
The state’s leading water lobby, the Colorado Water Congress, also opposed SB 17.
The hearing proved once again that the usual partisan politics don’t apply when it comes to water. Roberts has a Democrat as her fellow sponsor, Sen. Mary Hodge of Brighton.
Roberts called on the senator she ousted in 2010, Bruce Whitehead, as one of the star witnesses for her bill. Her chief foe on the committee was a fellow Republican, Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch.
“You’re destroying the rights of the private homeowner to do what he wants with his property,” Harvey said.
Front Range Democrats were the swing votes. Sen. Matt Jones, D-Boulder, voted no, while Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, and Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, voted yes.
“I would like to see the entire Senate have a discussion about water, about Colorado, about irrigated lands, about ag,” Guzman said.
Thanks to her vote Thursday, she will get her wish.