Local governments in the Interior West play a major role in how we tailor innovative solutions for climate change to local needs, while scaling their impact across our entire region. Local governments can best evaluate the needs of a community and implement on-the-ground solutions quickly with support and buy-in from their residents. Local governments also are where the rubber meets the road when implementing the many statewide laws we work so hard to pass at the legislature.
WRA builds lasting relationships with city planners, local board members, and local elected officials through education and outreach. We also connect those partners to vital funding sources so we can get the practical work done. Programs at the local level serve as critical proof of concept when working to pass new legislation or socialize a program with another municipality or local government. We insist on comprehensive evaluation of the programs we support so we know where we’re making an impact, where we need to improve, and how we can scale those programs across the region.
Growing Smart from the Start in Utah
Utah is facing serious water supply challenges. While state and local governments are making progress to address water security, a lack of new and innovative solutions combined with the effects of climate change have landed the state in trouble. Statewide reservoir storage capacity is at 50%, and its iconic Great Salt Lake has shrunk by half. Working on the ground in Utah since 1998, WRA experts have long known that the answers to Utah’s water problems are commonsense solutions like water conservation and better land use planning. We’ve been putting in the time getting to know folks at state agencies and other partners in the state, while also talking to Utah communities about what they need, what they want, and what they consider to be their greatest water supply challenges.
In response, we’ve provided high-value educational opportunities and how-to resources for our partners. We’ve become so successful in our programming, the state awarded two grants in 2021 for WRA and our partners to work with municipalities across the state. Over the next two and a half years, we will help Utah communities implement water and land use planning into their conservation plans. How Utah decides to grow today will determine its water future for decades to come, and WRA is making sure as many municipalities as possible choose to grow smart from the start. In doing so, Utah’s communities will no longer be tied to costly diversions and can focus on actions that will help recover the state’s quickly depleting reservoirs and Great Salt Lake.
Work with Greeley Will Scale Across Our Region
The Colorado Legislature passed a law in 2004 requiring water providers and local governments of a certain size to develop state-approved water efficiency plans. As a result, per capita water demand statewide decreased 5% between 2008 and 2015, from 172 to 165 gallons per capita per day, saving the state more than 12.7 billion gallons of water per year. But how effective are the plans, and are they working fast enough to help stave off water shortages in the state and region?
Those are the questions WRA experts started asking last year when we launched a new partnership between the city of Greeley and our longtime partners at WaterNow Alliance. With more than 100,000 people and more than 20 longstanding conservation programs, the city was the ideal candidate for funding and made the perfect case study to demonstrate the importance of data-driven decision making in water conservation.
WRA worked with the city district to conduct a survey to gauge residents’ understanding and support of the current water conservation programs and their appetite to do more. It also analyzed reasons for lack of participation, such as language barriers and income. Our water experts were able to develop a new methodology for evaluating water conservation programs and make recommendations for Greeley that will ultimately save the city water, time, and money while building even stronger relationships with its water customers. With the success of this program, we are now positioned to use the proven approach with other municipalities and scale this impact across our region.
Building Wildfire Resiliency in Colorado and Montana
The West has a century-long history of aggressive fire suppression. That, combined with the climate crisis and a rapidly growing population, has increased high-risk fire areas, which has led to an increase in catastrophic fires across our region. Homes and entire communities can be destroyed in a matter of hours. But fire has always played an important role in maintaining healthy forests. When we removed fire from healthy landscapes, we removed ecosystem benefits and created 100 years of unnatural buildup of fuels, leading to our current crisis. To start to undo a century of unnatural fire suppression, we need to mimic naturally occurring fires, do better land use planning, and fund projects at the local level. So why aren’t we doing more of that?
In 2021, WRA set out to answer this question through research and outreach with prescribed burn practitioners, and we found that unclear liability issues, lack of appropriate certification processes, restrictive smoke permitting, and public perception are all huge barriers to getting the necessary work done. We then took that research to develop forward-thinking policy recommendations for Colorado and Montana that, if passed at the state legislature, would give local governments more tools to improve resilience to catastrophic wildfire.
We know we have to act fast to prevent increased catastrophic wildfire occurrences. WRA is also starting the important work of building relationships with local governments now so when we get those policies passed, we have the support to get the work done immediately and effectively.
Funding Turf Replacement in Three Colorado Communities
Nearly 50% of water used within the municipal and industrial sector in Colorado irrigates nonnative turf grass. Replacing nonessential turf in areas like medians and unused parts of commercial, institutional, homeowner association, and residential properties reduces outdoor water consumption by decreasing the amount of turf that needs irrigation. For each acre of turf removed, we can save 1 to 2 acre-feet of water every year.
Replacing nonessential turf sounds like a simple commonsense solution, but we know that real barriers exist when municipalities and local governments put it into practice. Barriers include securing funding, identifying areas with the highest return on investment in terms of water savings, finding certified landscapers, and addressing the public’s attachment to manicured lawns.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board funded WRA to help three partner communities develop pilot turf replacement projects and communitywide assessments of nonessential turf in 2021. The pilots demonstrate how local governments can assess and fund turf replacement projects, estimate water savings, effectively evaluate the value of water, and showcase how landscaping with native vegetation can aesthetically improve outdoor community spaces. WRA experts worked with the cities of Westminster, Broomfield, and Greeley to create plans to replace more than 20 acres of turf in highly visible locations. The projects are well documented and will be used to help demonstrate the impact of turf replacement programs to other local governments and to state lawmakers, who will be instrumental in scaling and incentivizing such voluntary programs through local and state funding.