The Problem: The West Is Growing Fast – And Our Water Supplies Are Not

The Interior West is simultaneously the driest and fastest growing region of the United States. With an expected increase of millions of more residents to our region in the coming decades, it is imperative that a new style of land development be implemented now – one that recognizes and embraces the limited amount of water in the West.

A Solution: Integrating Land Use and Water Planning

For many decades, these two planning processes were disparate and uncoordinated.  Land use planners would tell water utility managers how much water they need for a new development, and the water managers would provide.  For a secure water future, however, water conservation and efficiency must be integrated into community planning and development.  That is, land use planners and water managers need to integrate their efforts and plan water-smart development from the very beginning.

Large and small communities alike can integrate their planning efforts in several ways.  Land use planning departments and water providers can share key planning information and data, they can provide input and feedback on long term plans and development proposals, and the local government can adopt policies to promote water efficiency, alternative water supplies, and other water priorities.  For example, communities can adopt conservation-oriented system development charges (i.e., tap fees) to encourage water-efficient growth.  Integrated planning can occur at virtually any stage of the planning process: comprehensive plans and water master plans, zoning and landscape codes, development review processes, and more.

In Colorado, the state’s Water Plan has a measurable objective of having 75 percent of Coloradoans living in communities that have incorporated water-saving actions into land-use planning by 2025.  Other states in the West, such as Arizona and Utah, have considered state-wide efforts for better integration.

Here are a few examples from Colorado:

  • The Town of Woodland Park—a small community of about 8,000 people—has robustly integrated their water resources management objectives into their comprehensive plan for years, as directed by city council. This has helped ensure that their limited water supplies remain sufficient for their growing town, and that water issues are always addressed in connection with growth and development proposals.
  • The Town of Castle Rock—a medium sized community of about 62,000 people—adopted a water system development fee schedule that financially rewards developers when they include indoor and outdoor water efficiency measures in new homes. Developers must submit plans, meet minimum criteria, and have third-party verification after construction in order to receive a reduction in the system development fee.
  • The City of Aurora—a large city of about 370,000 people—hosts pre-development meetings before a development application is submitted, and these meetings always include a water utility representative. This provides an opportunity to explain Aurora Water’s rules and policies, and to promote the water efficiency incentives they offer, such as reduced fees for water efficient landscapes. In addition, when the City’s planning department is thinking through their zoning decisions they use software to model the the water demands associated with different development scenarios.

Western Resource Advocates teamed up with Pace University’s Land Use Law Center to develop a comprehensive Guidebook that provides land use planners with the resources necessary to fully integrate water efficiency into their land use planning efforts.  This Guidebook provides hundreds of techniques, sample codes/policies, and community examples that explain how to reduce the water footprint of new development.

Each chapter in the guidebook provides water efficiency policy options in a different planning stage. These include comprehensive plans, zoning code, subdivision regulations, site-plan regulations, development agreements, non-zoning incentives, and more. The Guidebook is targeted to land use planning professionals but written in an accessible manner for water professionals and other interested parties as well. As demonstrated throughout the Guidebook, planning water-smart communities can both meet the housing needs of our new residents and use significantly less water.

Download the FULL REPORT:


land use planning

Western Resource Advocates’ current work involves three areas of focus:

  • Raising awareness about water and land use integration throughout the West. This includes presentations, webinars, and attending water and land use conferences to spread the word about the importance of integration.  Because this topic is relatively new, some communities are unaware of the resources available to support integration, such as the Guidebook.
  • Working with local communities in Colorado to support their integration efforts. Primarily focused on the Front Range, WRA is providing assistance tailored towards an individual community’s specific needs.  This includes convening informational meetings with policymakers and staff, organizing and facilitating workshops to advance policies or integration processes, and conducting related research specific to each community (e.g., best practices for water-wise landscaping ordinances).
  • Working with water utilities to adopt water connection charges that provide land developers incentives to design water conserving new homes and buildings.

Additional Resources

A Guide to Designing Conservation-Oriented Water System Development Charges

Western Resources Advocates, in partnership with Raftelis Financial Consultants, wrote a Guide for utilities that explains how to design conservation-oriented system development charges, to help more communities grow “water smart” from the start.

New House New Paradigm

This WRA report provides an innovative take on how new housing developments should proceed in the West and documents how a new water-conserving approach has succeeded in a handful of new communities.

Submetering Fact Sheet

Submetering is the action of providing each tenant in a multi-family building their own water meter. Many multi-family buildings only have one meter for the entire building, severely limiting the ability of each resident to individually track and manage their water use. This fact sheet provides information on submetering options and issues.

50 Questions to Guide Water and Land Use Planning Integration

This question series is a must for any water provider looking to understand how effectively their community’s comprehensive plan addresses water efficiency.

Related Staff

john berggren 2019

John Berggren

Water Policy Analyst