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Watering the West

Growth Stops When the Water Runs Out

Boat overturned on dry lake bed. SOURCE: AP/Ed Andrieski Fast-growing western states are making the link between land use and water management by taking a hard look at the reliability of water sources for new development.

A recent issue of National Geographic featured a compelling story on the double-barreled threat facing western states: rapid population growth and climate change. “The American West was won by water management,” proclaims the article. “What happens when there’s no water left to manage?”

This question vexes more than water managers. It may seem absurd to approve development without reliable water supplies, but that is exactly what has happened in many communities—leaving homeowners and other taxpayers holding the bill when extravagant measures become necessary to gain access to water.

Just as homeowners demand, and building codes require, safe wiring and solid foundations for their dwellings, they also deserve to know that their drinking water taps will deliver clean, reliable water for decades to come. Moreover, states are currently reckoning with the question of what happens when there is little water left to manage—two weeks ago, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought.

The failure to connect land-use and water planning may have far-reaching and increasingly unacceptable consequences.

Historically, land-use decisions and water planning have been treated as entirely separate issues. Water is allocated by state agencies, and land-use planning falls under the authority of local officials. Water resource managers juggle many competing demands within a watershed, and they tend to focus on facilitating economic development. In turn, local land-use authorities have safely assumed that water would be available to satisfy continued growth.

Increasingly, however, local land-use decisions run headlong into water supply concerns. Planning for growth is important in all communities, and planning for sustainable water supplies to support that growth should be an integral part of that planning process. Although water itself seldom provides a hard barrier to growth, the failure to connect land-use and water planning may have far-reaching and increasingly unacceptable consequences.

In some cases, existing uses are depleting finite water supplies, raising questions about their future reliability. For example, in some fast-growing rural areas of Arizona, recently constructed houses draw water from wells that the state engineer’s office has certified as “not reliable” due to insufficient underground supplies. Some new homeowners did not realize the tenuous nature of their water supplies and have been forced to deepen their wells or construct cisterns and pay for trucked-in water.

Elsewhere, officials are beginning to face the high social, environmental, and economic costs of obtaining water to meet rising urban demands. Urban growth around Phoenix, Denver, and Boise has been fueled by voluntary, market-based reallocation of water from farms to cities. But public outcry over Las Vegas’ long reach into rural Nevada may indicate renewed concerns over the impacts of large-scale water transfers, both on the rural communities from which the water is taken and on the pocketbooks of the consumers receiving it.

With the recently enacted H.B. 1141, the Colorado General Assembly took an important first step in ensuring such reliable water supplies for new development. This law creates a new tool for local governments to determine whether development projects can demonstrate that the proposed water supply is adequate to meet the project’s water supply demands. It gives local governments the authority to deny developments without adequate water supplies, but the local governments retain discretion to decide whether to authorize development.

In addition to the steps prescribed by the Colorado legislature, a number of other policy levers could be employed to provide a better handle for water-conscious land use decisions. The Colorado bill does not, for example, assign any time horizon to the supply requirement, but simply looks at the possible peak daily, monthly and yearly demands at projected build-out levels of development. Other states, including Arizona and California, require such “assured supplies” for 50- to 100-year planning horizons, although each state has significant exceptions built into the requirements.

What would an ideal assured-supply law look like? According to Utah law professor Lincoln Davies, such a law would be: (1) mandatory; (2) stringent; (3) statewide; (4) broadly applicable, applying to more than just large projects; and (5) interconnected with broader planning mechanisms for land, water, and environmental protection. Thus far, no state statute meets all these criteria, though the legislation enacted in California in 2001 comes closest.

Acting under the mandate of the 2001 laws, last year the California Supreme Court halted a mixed-use development in the Sacramento area on the grounds that the decision was not based on enough information about the plan for long-term water supplies to serve the development. A more recent Riverside County Superior Court decision in January followed that line of thinking and denied a large development based on a failure to demonstrate adequate water supplies.

A recent New York Times story about growth in persistently drought-stricken California quoted local and state water managers and Governor Schwarzenegger, all of whom remarked that unreliable water supplies are delaying new development and thus destabilizing the state’s powerful economy. The San Diego civil grand jury went further in a report issued in February with the attention-grabbing title “Sober Up, San Diego. The Water Party is Over,” concluding that permanent, mandatory conservation measures would be necessary to accommodate the realities of squeezing lots of people into an arid landscape.

Such strong public statements remain the exception rather than the rule, but the trend is clearly toward taking a harder look at water supplies before approving new development. Western expansion has long relied on the promise of abundant and cheap water—a myth that is already shattered in many communities and is sure to be exposed as false in many more in the decades to come.

The solution to our dilemma goes beyond linking water and land-use planning, but we can no longer be indifferent to the environmental and other costs of developing water to meet projected needs. In taking the first step and thinking more deliberately about water demands of growth, assured-supply laws represent an important step toward living sustainably in this spectacular—and fundamentally dry—western landscape.

Sarah Bates is the deputy director for policy and outreach at Western Progress, a nonpartisan regional policy institute dedicated to advancing progressive policy solutions for the Rocky Mountain West. She has written extensively on the legal and policy options for linking land use and water planning in western states.

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