Water Smart Strategies for Colorado River Basin Communities

I was invited to present at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder Conference on the Colorado River, co-convened with the Water & Tribes Initiative. The event brings together thought leaders across the Colorado River Basin, and the 2024 theme was “Next Chapters on the Colorado River:  Short-Term Coping, Post-2026 Operations, and Beyond”.  

My task was to share a vision for sustainable Colorado River cities – no small feat or topic. A water-smart city is data-informed, continuously learning, committed to collaboration, and taking action. When we embrace, exemplify, and empower and abundance mindset, we are no longer stuck in a zero-sum game – we can celebrate the abundance of solutions. We can amplify and grow our collective impact through implementation, innovation, peer learning and sharing.  In this blog, I share how you can help support water-smart communities and links to the various examples I referenced in my talk. 

What can support water-smart communities? 

  • Increase local, state, and federal funding  

  • Improve accessibility to funding  

  • Enable and encourage more experimental pilots and research to help communities advance more innovative and impactful practices to save water  

  • Improve demand forecasting practices   

  • Improve coordination between water and land use planners  

  • Development of collaborative partnerships to achieve multiple benefits 

  • Design and implement through an equity lens

  • Implementation foundational water utility practices, including smart water rates, water loss control, transformation to digital and data-informed operations, and more 

  • Reach out to continue the conversation! 

Resources from my presentation:

Demand forecasting, utility-scale benefits of sustained water conservation. 

  • Water efficiency and conservation are typically the fastest and least expensive ways to help ensure that communities and agriculture have access to affordable, sustainable water supplies. Making every drop of water count is especially important today, with climate change fueling hotter, dryer weather. Nearly every state experienced drought in 2022, including the worst drought in hundreds of years in the western U.S. Water efficiency and conservation offer multiple sustainability benefits beyond addressing water supply challenges.  

  • Integrating Water Efficiency into Long-Term Demand Forecasting (2018), Water Research Foundation Project No. 4495. Per capita water demand is declining due, in part, to water conservation and efficiency improvements resulting from standards and codes, as well as active demand management programs and polices. Long-range demand forecasts should account for the impacts of efficiency to more accurately predict future water demand.  

  • Lower Water Bills: The City of Los Angeles Shows How Water Conservation and Efficient Water Rates Produce Affordable and Sustainable Use. (2018). This study showed that between 1990 and 2016, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power were able to avoid $11 billion dollars in water supply, treatment and pumping costs. Without sustained conservation, customer bills would have been 36% higher.  

  • The City of Phoenix 2021 Water Resources Plan (near bottom of their website) shows how they are taking a data-informed approach to project future demands, moving away from the historical and no longer applicable approach of assuming water demands will grow with population.  

  • AWE’s Good Question: Why Are My Water Rates Going Up? video is an animated video that seeks to communicate the impact of water conservation on rates, by explaining how conservation can help keep utility costs and customer water rates lower over time. This short video explains how conservation is a win-win - keeping utility costs down and money in customers' wallets - by avoiding unnecessary costs and keeping rates lower in the long term.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) by and among Colorado River Basin Municipal and Public Water Providers (2022): This MOU highlights the progress made my communities to reduce municipal water use and commits to various actions. “Much of this savings has been achieved through indoor and outdoor water use efficiencies. Recognizing that a clean, reliable water supply is critical to our communities, we can and must do more to reduce water consumption and increase reuse and recycling within our service areas. We pledge to be part of the solution.”   

The MOU has five areas of commitment: 


1. Continue and expand our programs to increase indoor and outdoor water use efficiency.  
While communities are growing the impact of more traditional incentive-based programs, they are also increasing their impact through a multitude of other avenues, including new or enhancing informational services. These efforts combine and translate diverse data sources to deliver actionable insights to customers.  
  • Advanced metering infrastructure and proactive notifications: The City of Westminster, CO among many others across the CRB have moved to AMI or “smart meters” and are able to proactively let customers know when they may have a leak or other abnormal use. AMI and related technology and data offer many benefits to both utilities and customers. Learn more in the AWE study (2023): Smart Practices to Save Water: An Evaluation of AMI-enabled Proactive Leak Notification Programs 

  • Water Wise Gilbert Program combines landscape, weather and water data to delivers informational landscape water budgets to create a circle of accountability among property owners, property managers, community managers and landscape and irrigation contractors. Check out this story map summarizing progress as of 2021.  

2. Introduce a program to reduce the quantity of non-functional turf (NFT) grass by 30% through replacement with drought- and climate-resilient landscaping while maintaining vital urban landscapes and tree canopies that benefit our communities, wildlife, and the environment. 

  • This item is more unique in that it has a specific target associated with it. AWE convened signatories of the MOU who have been working to map and quantify how much high-water use turfgrass is in their communities, to define NFT, and explore both policies and programs for achieving this commitment. Check out this summary report including examples of policies, projects and programs from various communities across the CRB. 

  • Communities are encouraging landscapes that serve multiple purposes. For example, the County of San Diego’s Waterscape Rebate Program (WRP) offers incentives for residential, commercial, and agricultural customers to implement projects that upgrade properties, save money, and improve water quality. Funding comes from multiple organizations, including both watershed protection (stormwater) and water utilities.   

  • Communities are thinking expansively about what constitutes a water wise landscape. A group of stakeholders in Colorado is actively learning together to better understand how native grasses can be a sustainable, functional, and water-wise groundcover – plus a cost-effective option for NFT replacement.  

3. Increase water reuse and recycling programs where feasible, contingent on the dependability and security of our existing Colorado River supplies, which are essential to supporting these efforts. 

  • Water utilities are shifting from the linear concept of water to one that considers how to reduce, reuse, recycle, reclaim and restore – which is aligned with the circular economy framework. Communities are certainly focused on strategies that reduces water consumption, but also ways to reuse and recycle water and wastewater, and recover materials, including heat and other materials from water and wastewater to enhance resilience to climate change.
  • The One Water framework is a related resource which approaches management of all water—whether from the tap, a stream, a storm, an aquifer, or a sewer—in a collaborative, integrated, inclusive, and holistic manner.

4. Implement best practices and share lessons learned to help one another accelerate our efficiency strategies. Water providers will select from the following approaches those tactics best tailored to preserve thriving communities, environmental health, and strong economies.  

The MOU further details multiple actions within this item, highlighting the varied nature of this work and how water is foundational to our communities. Successful demand management must consider and support efficient use across all customers.   

A few examples include: 
  • Integrating water and land use planning: Where and how we build impacts water demand and the quality of water that nourishes our ecosystems and replenishes our supplies. Historically, planning for water resources and planning for land use development have been conducted in silos–yet the two areas profoundly impact one another. Bringing them together can help ensure water resources meet the demands of both people and nature to simultaneously support healthy watersheds and prosperous communities across the Colorado River Basin. Over 140 cities, counties and towns have participated in the Growing Water Smart workshops, a joint program of the Sonoran Institute and the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, a center of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy 

  • Reimaging water efficiency and conservation programs to both save water and support residents with water affordability challenges. When low-income or otherwise vulnerable households live in older housing with inefficient, leaky, or broken plumbing, appliances and fixtures, this puts them at risk of high bills and inability to pay bills. Conservation and efficiency can address systemic reasons for their high bills and help improve their quality of life. AWE’s assessment on water affordability in Long Beach, CA found that indoor conservation programs alone can help reduce bills by 13 percent, on average.  They piloted a direct install program (in partnership with local gas and electric agencies!) to retrofit low-income homes to be more water and energy efficient – stay tuned for an upcoming report celebrating the success of this pilot.  

  • Water Loss Control: Providing safe drinking water in an efficient manner is critical to a sustainable future for water utilities that are challenged by aging infrastructure and a rapidly changing climate. High levels of water and revenue loss exist in many North American water systems. Knowing the extent of losses and their cost impacts is vital to the efforts of utilities to control losses to economical levels. This work helps reduce the waste of significant resources to capture, transport, treat, and distribute water. The Colorado Water Loss Initiative is an example of how a state can help its many and diverse water providers with this challenging task. 

5. Collaborate with other water users in the Colorado River basin to balance the river's supply and use. A robust agricultural economy, healthy watersheds, opportunities to recreate, and vibrant communities are all vital to our Western way of life. No one sector nor one state can achieve sufficient use reductions independently. For current and future generations' sake, we must work together to balance supply and use and preserve a functioning and healthy river system.