Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, threw a bold gauntlet when she introduced a measure limiting the size of lawns in new subdivisions where the water needed for them was transferred out of agricultural use. The measure evoked debates about local control vs. state mandates, as well as the water imbalance between Colorado’s Front Range and Western Slope: The former needs water; the latter has it. Roberts amended her bill last week to instead call for a study of how to reduce outdoor water use. The whole process has brought about an important conversation.
Roberts’ measure would originally have limited lawns to occupy no more than 15 percent of a lot in subdivisions that bought water rights from farmers. The notion behind her bill, which was conceived with input from Durango engineer Steve Harris, is a critical one for the state to consider and address: Too many Colorado farms are drying up after farmers sell water rights for residential use in the state’s growing cities. Under that formula, it is important that new subdivisions use their water carefully, particularly when some projections show population growth of up to 5 million new Coloradans by 2050; there are currently about 5.1 million people living in the state.
Should those projections materialize, or even if not, there is a need to be wise about how to use Colorado’s limited water resources. Building new subdivisions with vast, green lawns is not exemplary of that wisdom, and Roberts was right to call the conversation. But her bill, in its original form – which passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee but faced serious opposition from both parties on the Senate floor – raised concerns about loss of local control over land use, plus predictable opposition from developers who would rather not be told how to lay out their subdivisions. By setting the stage with her lawn-size measure and then backing off to call for a study of how to reduce outdoor water use in Colorado, Roberts has made clear that this is a critical issue that will only become more so as the population grows. The state and its localities must, somehow, someday, address wise water use, and Roberts was right to call the conversation now.
The study that her measure now will prompt, should the bill pass as expected, will examine a crucial component of water management in the state: how to limit its outdoor use in Colorado’s cities. In order to be successful, the study will require input from stakeholders on all sides of the equation. Developers, municipalities, Western Slope water-rights holders and state lawmakers must be at the table, as well as water engineers and other experts in the field. Only through collaboration can action spring from theory. It will not likely be simple, but it is necessary to address this existing and growing issue.
In raising it, Roberts has once again demonstrated forethought and fortitude. She set a high bar with her measure to limit lawn sizes and, in amending it, has shepherded stakeholders into an essential process to deal with a critical concern for all Coloradans – today’s and those to come.