June 3, 2022

Tayer: Water scarcity and CU South – rebuking the Kevin Bacon-like association

I was speaking with a friend the other day, and he said that just about every community concern has a six degrees of Kevin Bacon-like connection to CU South for those who oppose the negotiated annexation agreement for that site. The most recent red herring we’ve seen is concerns about our ability to save enough water for Boulder to meet its future needs in the face of climate change-induced droughts. 

They say, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. I’m not looking for a fight, but how about setting the record straight.

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious legitimate concerns about western water resources. If you want to legitimately frighten yourself, consider this summary of current conditions that I pulled from a scientific website called Climate Central: 

“The western U.S. has fallen into an extreme dry spell … The country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are both at record-low levels since they were first constructed 86 and 56 years ago, respectively. And drought conditions are forecast to continue for the vast majority of the western U.S. at least through June. Drought and dry spells are common in the west, but recent years have been unprecedented. The ongoing southwestern megadrought (since 2000) is the most severe of the past 1,200 years, and a recent study suggests that the drought would be 42% less intense without human-caused climate change. Exceptional drought and our warming climate put water in the west—and the people, ecosystems, and food supplies that depend on them—at risk.”

Yeah, the picture isn’t pretty. We are facing a very real challenge to the character of our environment across the West, with water scarcity as a very real threat. That is why enlightened business groups are in league with environmentalists on actions that will help us turn the tide on climate change and conserve water. These are solutions with a broader scope than any single community, such as refocusing our development patterns to make them less wasteful of precious water resources.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is clear on its findings regarding this point: “Compact development … can also conserve drinking water because it requires shorter pipes to serve a community, which reduces the amount of water lost to leaks. Directing development to existing communities can help reduce the pressure to develop on open space that might have valuable ecological functions such as buffering a water body.” 

It is ironic that some of the folks raising water concerns as a reason to oppose the CU South annexation agreement are the same individuals who oppose compact development. This is typical of their line of argument: “Pro-growth advocates who support expanding the city to CU South, the planning reserve, and unrestricted densification of neighborhoods conveniently ignore the additional water demand these proposals will bring in a climate impacted future.” 

Setting aside the fact that such logic conveniently ignores the findings of the EPA, let’s take a look at Boulder’s actual water resource situation. 

City staff reports that Boulder’s high-end annual water consumption demand is about 20,000 acre feet. Adding together all our expected water resources, Boulder can account for 40,700 acre feet of water availability, in an average year. That’s a pretty deep cushion to draw from in periods of extended drought.

Put another way, Boulder’s director of utilities Joe Taddeucci tells me, “[O]ur modeling of reasonably foreseeable drought scenarios, including climate change and Colorado River impacts, indicates that Boulder’s current and planned water supply is adequate.” 

That means it is adequate to meet our needs for current and future development, including the planned housing on CU South (and recently approved development in the East Boulder subcommunity Plan, for that matter). 

Again, yes, the impact of climate change on water supplies is a critical concern across the West. We need to act now to reverse course toward cooling our overheated climate. We also need to preserve available water resources. Fortunately, though, Boulder is in an enviable position with respect to our own water supplies. That gives us the opportunity — and I might argue, the responsibility — to accommodate more water-efficient compact development. And to those who raise the specter of future droughts as a reason to oppose the CU South annexation agreement, well, that Kevin Bacon-like association doesn’t hold water.

John Tayer is president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber.

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