Should City Planners Worry About Water Supply?

Dean Saitta
July 1, 2015

welcomia / Shutterstock

The headline asks one of the big questions prompted by Planetizen’s interview with Denver Planning Director Brad Buchanan, albeit through no fault of Mr. Buchanan or the interview’s author, Josh Stephens. Instead, it’s broached in the comments thread in a lively exchange between Jim Safranek and Jake Wegmann. Mr. Safranek says it’s a planner’s obligation to consider the long-term security of a city’s water supply. Mr. Wegmann counters that securing a sustainable water supply is a bridge too far for a single planner and the department he leads.

Both commentators make good points. As it turns out, the question is anchoring a dialogue here in Colorado sponsored by the Colorado Water Institute and theKeystone Policy Center. These entities have joined forces for a two-year project to tackle what they call the “dilemma” of water use in Colorado. At the heart of the dilemma is this: a state’s economic viability often depends on growth, yet water—as an obviously key requirement for economic growth—is a precious resource that can’t be harvested willy-nilly. Complicating the dilemma is the fact that not everyone who deals in water supply and land use in the state is on the same page. Land use planning is typically a local governmental concern, while water planning and allocation occur on multiple local, state, and federal levels. The traditional disconnect between planning and land use decisions and current and future water supply realities can preclude a sustainable balance between water supply and growth.

I was fortunate to be involved in a July 2012 focus group that established the need for a dialogue between water providers and land use planners in Colorado. The event was attended by about 35 people, among them water providers, water engineers, water lawyers, state legislators, city officials, health specialists, conservationists, developers, academics, and even a Colorado Supreme Court justice. The informal roundtable format allowed individuals to contribute as the spirit moved. The result was a stream-of-consciousness discussion that brought to the surface many interesting observations and insights. The downside was that, because of time constraints, none of the arguments could be discussed at-length or in-depth.

Water Supply and Land Use Focus Group, 10 July 2012, Denver (Photograph courtesy of Todd Bryan, Keystone Policy Center)

Still, the meeting gave a sense of how professional planners and water providers think about water and growth. Most striking to me was the argument that a sufficient water supply exists in Colorado to support growth without any net increase in water consumption even beyond the year 2050. Thus, perhaps there’s no compelling need for Mr. Buchanan to worry too much about water. Indeed, one expert suggested that water supply gap is not the most appropriate term for what bedevils us. Rather, it’s a structural deficit that has some people not getting what they need. I took this to imply that Colorado’s water problem is not one of supply but rather one of distribution or allocation…although no one would be foolish enough to suggest that water conservation should not be a top priority for Denver going forward.

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