The Colorado Water Plan: Tips and Tools for Landscape Architects

by John Berggren and Glen Dake, FASLA

Colorado landscape photograph
2018 ASLA Professional Award of Excellence in Analysis and Planning. A Colorado Legacy: I-25 Conservation Corridor Master Plan. Douglas County, CO. Design Workshop – Aspen. / image: John Fielder

Water conservation was a primary component of Colorado’s first-ever state water plan in 2015, and it stands to be even more important as the state prepares its second iteration of the plan later this year. Landscape architects and allied professions have a key role in matching water use to available supplies, especially given the impacts of climate change and recent droughts.

In the 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP) the state set an objective that “75 percent of Coloradoans will live in communities that have incorporated water-saving actions into land-use planning” by 2025, but it has been up to local counties, cities, and towns to determine which water-saving actions can be integrated in their development process. Landscape architects can help to develop and design water conservation strategies and now is the time to steer the CWP update in that positive direction.

Regional precipitation ranks / image: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

Markets and local regulation trends are moving towards water efficiency and land use planning, especially in the design, installation, and maintenance of residential and commercial landscapes. For example, some Colorado cities and towns are moving from regulations requiring turf minimums in new developments to mandating turf maximums and/or restricting certain kinds of water-intensive turf. The Town of Castle Rock, for example, only allows 30% of a lot of 7,000 sq. ft. or less to be irrigated turf, and it cannot be turf that requires more than 19-inches of supplemental irrigation (e.g., Kentucky bluegrass).

The landscape architect community has a unique opportunity to not only keep pace with these trends, but to continually push new developments in even more water efficient directions. Here are a few opportunities:

  • Stay up to speed on the latest best practices when it comes to water efficient landscaping. There are a variety of resources available, which are often free and open to the public. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has a dedicated resources webpage and Technical Tools available, for example. The Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado provides training, webinars, and other resources that are relevant to landscape design. Colorado WaterWise also provides similar resources, including a “best practices” manual. Finally, consider getting certified in water efficient landscape installation and maintenance. Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper (QWEL) training is an affordable, yet detailed training that is tailored towards a specific region’s landscaping context. While QWEL and similar training are geared towards those who install and maintain landscapes, more and more land use planners and others involved in the development process are getting certified, including landscape architects.
  • Find opportunities to connect with local planners and community development staff. In many communities—especially small and medium ones—the planners can lack capacity, both in terms of time and technical knowledge, to adequately review landscape plans. By engaging with those planners, landscape architects will have a better understanding of what is needed or desired when it comes to the development review process.
  • In addition to planners, connect with water providers to learn about local efficiency incentives and regulations, and identify ways to tap into those with the landscape design. For example, does a community have a conservation-oriented tap fee program to incentivize water efficient development? Does a community have a cash-in-lieu program? Or do they offer process-based incentives to encourage water efficient landscapes? This guidebook from Western Resource Advocates has detailed examples of what these incentive and regulation programs look like, but of course it is always best to connect with planners or water providers in the region.
  • Keep an eye out for water and land use related learning opportunities. For example, this July the American Water Resources Association is hosting a virtual Summer Land and Water Specialty Conference dedicated entirely to water and land use planning integration.
  • If you are in Colorado, join the quarterly meetings of the Colorado Water and Land Use Planning Alliance, which brings together water providers, planners, NGOs, state agencies, academics, education groups, and landscape architects.
  • Finally, whether in their professional capacity or not, the landscape architect community can provide input on the CWP update about what they would like in the new plan. Landscape architects have a unique knowledge base and role in how landscapes can be more water efficient, and this is an opportunity to make sure those voices are heard.

The landscape architect community can tap into these resources, connect with their local planners and water providers, and ultimately help continue western communities in becoming more water efficient. These pushes for water efficiency and conservation not only help the State of Colorado meet its current and future water plan goals, but other communities from around the west can continue to learn and implement such policies in their own jurisdictions. Designing water efficient landscapes from the start will go a long way towards climate adaptation, reducing water demands, and securing an overall more resilient future.

John Berggren is Water Policy Analyst for Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit promoting clean air and water throughout the western U.S. Glen Dake, FASLA, is a principal at Dake Landscape in Los Angeles and an officer for ASLA’s Water Conservation Professional Practice Network (PPN).

One thought on “The Colorado Water Plan: Tips and Tools for Landscape Architects

  1. David Anderson, Utah State University May 18, 2021 / 10:21 am

    I very much appreciate this article. Being from Utah, I am well aware of the challenges we are facing in the Intermountain West, really the western US in general.

    The article, however, is applicable to all areas. Water conservation practices need to improve and expand. As designers, landscape architects need to be well trained and up to speed on local regulations and conditions, appropriate plant palettes, and also able to push the envelope in a more water-wise direction (i.e. influence developers). If I were to stress anything a bit more in your article, it would be to emphasize an understanding of maintenance requirements. So many times, people interpret water conserving landscapes as maintenance-free (including LAs).

    Water conserving landscapes can require a very different approach to maintenance – one that, in my experience, many installation/maintenance companies are not prepared to address.

    Thanks to John and Glen for the great article!

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