Part 1: Planning Basics


Importance of Integrating Water and Land Use

Colorado faces a potential future gap between water supplies and demand for water, with increasing climate variability putting pressure on an already limited and variable water supply. As Colorado grows, how much water will be required will be based in part on how land is used. 

The 2023 Colorado Water Plan estimates a gap of at least 230,000 and up to 740,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2050; one acre-foot of water can support two to four households in Colorado. Water conservation and efficiency efforts could reduce future annual water needs by an estimated 300,000 acre-feet per year by 2050. 

Land Use Planning Across Colorado

Under state statutes, Colorado’s local governments have the enabling authority to decide how they grow and the sole discretion to determine whether water supplies are adequate to support new development. They often rely on information from water providers on their willingness and ability to provide water service, though information requested and received can vary.

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ Land Use and Planning Capacity Survey in 2020 reveals that 91% of both municipalities and counties have a comprehensive plan; approximately 65% of municipal plans and 53% of county plans address water. These plans range in cost from $50,000 to $400,000, and can take between nine months and two years to complete. 

The 2020 Land Use Survey also highlights how capacity for land use planning and planning structures vary: 79% of municipalities and 85% of counties report having a planning department, with 27% of municipalities with less than 2,000 residents not having any administrative planning structures. Many seek outside support, with 50% of municipalities and 20% of counties using contract planners. 

About Water Providers

Most residents and businesses in Colorado receive water from a public water provider, including  municipal and county water utilities, conservancy districts, conservation districts, special districts, water authorities, and water activity enterprises.

  • Approximately 227 cities and towns in Colorado (around 83% of municipalities) manage a public water system. 
  • Sometimes the municipal public utility may service a portion of the city, with special districts serving the rest.
  • Some counties may have 70 or more water providers and more than 20,000 private wells.

When both providers are part of the same organization, they may have data and plans in the same database. When multiple organizations and service areas are involved, building trust, collaboration, data sharing, planning, and decisions can take additional time and resources.

Water Planning in Colorado

The management of Colorado’s water supplies involves numerous stakeholders: local ditch companies, groundwater management, public utilities, watershed coalitions, river basin roundtables, statewide and multi-state organizations. Colorado has: 

  • 8 major river basins, represented by 9 legislatively-established basin roundtables and the Interbasin Compact Committee (representing all basins and addressing intrastate water issues)
  • 150 watershed groups
  • 2,051 water providers that vary greatly in size, capacity, and responsibilities (serving as few as 25 people)
  • 9 interstate compact agreements and 2 decrees governing how much water can be used in Colorado and how much must be allowed to leave the state

Water in Colorado is considered a usufructuary right; meaning water belongs to all Coloradans, however the right to use it is governed by the legal framework of Prior Appropriation, which loosely means “first in time, first in right.” In dry years when there is less water available, those with senior rights are “first in line” for water, while those with junior water rights may not receive water at all. 

The Colorado Water Plan, first adopted in 2015 and updated in 2023, is the state’s overarching policy document for water management. It provides a framework for helping Colorado meet its water challenges through 2050. The Water Plan is informed and developed through data-driven modeling of water use, population growth, climate, and water supply.

Locally, there are a number of water plans that water utilities, special districts, or local governments create to suit their water management needs. Plans are written separately for water supply, wastewater, stormwater, water quality, and water efficiency, among others, or combined into one integrated plan.  

Water providers typically have a long-term water supply plan that is updated on a 10–year cycle and has a 20- to 50-year planning horizon. Colorado’s water adequacy statute (C.R.S. 29-20-304-3) defines basic criteria for such plans, which inventory water supply and infrastructure in an evaluation of a system’s ability to meet its customers’ needs.

In Colorado, the only water plan required by statute (C.R.S. 37-60-126 (4)(f)) of water providers providing more than 2,000 acre-feet per year of water is a water efficiency (or conservation) plan. The CWCB’s Municipal Water Efficiency Plan Guidance Document serves as a reference tool for these plans, as does an addendum added in 2019, Best Practices for Implementing Water Conservation and Demand Management Through Land Use Planning Efforts. As of 2023, this planning requirement applied to about 85 providers that collectively serve about 80% of Colorado’s population. 

The Water Plan Update Process

Colorado recognizes the evolutionary nature of water resource planning and implementation. The two are not mutually exclusive and occur simultaneously at several scales. 

Colorado's cyclical, statewide planning is made up of these three phrases: 

Phase 1 Analysis and Technical Update (Foundational data sets that describe our current and future water supplies and needs)

Phase 2 Basin Plan Update (Local planning conducted by basin roundtables that provide grassroots input to the Water Plan)

Phase 3 Comprehensive Update (Update to the actions and horizons in the Water Plan itself)

How does water planning interact with land use planning?

With the passage of House Bill 20-1095, local governments that include a water element in their comprehensive plan are required to: 

  • consult and coordinate with local water provider(s),
  • include water conservation policies, and 
  • identify water supplies and facilities sufficient to meet public and private infrastructure needs reasonably anticipated or identified in the planning process.

The degree of integration between long-range water planning and land use planning varies by community. In some areas, a water provider references a local government’s future land use maps to plan its water system to accommodate anticipated growth. In other communities, the Will Serve Letter, which indicates that a water provider will serve a new development, may be the extent of communication between the provider and land use authority. More integrated planning also exists, from counties utilizing water master plans to inform land use plans to municipal water allocation policies, where certain water supplies are set aside for uses that fulfill the vision of the local comprehensive plan. 

What are the guiding strategic plans and policies for local governments at the water/land use nexus?

The following outlines plans or key policies with relevant state statutes or federal regulations cited that enable or require them, local departments or agencies that are typically responsible for them (where listed as multiple, this can include public works, planning, parks and recreation, water provider, wastewater treatment provide, flood district, non-governmental organizations, and more), state agencies that are involved, the level of local variation, and whether the state has the information in a centralized database. Local plans related to land use and water quality are also important to consider, and will be added to this list in a future update.

Descriptors Used

Statute: Relevant State or Federal Statute or Regulation

Responsibility: Local Department/Agency Typically Responsible

Agency: State Agency Involvement

Status: Status of Adoption and Level of Variation

Database: Are the plans in a state database?

Statute: C.R.S. 31-23-206 (Municipalities) and C.R.S. 30-28-106 (Counties)

Responsibility: Planning Commission duty, with support from Planning Department and/or Town/County Manager

Agency: Enabled by statute and required especially for communities that exceed certain statutorily determined size and growth rate criteria; DOLA provides consultation/assistance and funding for comprehensive plans. Consultation and assistance also available from multiple state agencies, including the Colorado Geological Survey (CGS) and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Status: Most communities have these, with plans varying considerably between communities.

Database: Not within a state database.

Statute: Based on Water Adequacy Statute (C.R.S. 29-20-304-3)

Responsibility: Water provider

Agency: Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) provides funding, consultation or assistance

Status: Most water providers have these, with plans varying between communities.

Database: Not within a state database; filed with local governments for water adequacy determinations.

Statute: C.R.S. 37-60-126

Responsibility: Water provider requirement

Agency: Required by state statute for water providers of a certain size; Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) provides funding, guidance, consultation or assistance, and approval

Status: Some water providers have these, with plans relatively standardized between providers.

Database: State database.

Statute: No relevant statute or regulation.

Responsibility: Public Works or Town/County Manager

Agency: DOLA provides funding and consultation/assistance

Status: Most communities have these, with relatively standard formats between communities.

Database: Not within a state database

Statute: 44 CFR § 201.4

Responsibility: Multiple local departments involved

Agency: Funding and consultation/assistance available from the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), DOLA and CWCB. Approval required by DHSEM and FEMA.

Status: More than 90% of counties, a few regions, and a few municipalities have approved plans, which are relatively standard between communities.

Database: State database for Hazard Mitigation Plans.

Statute: C.R.S. 37-60-124

Responsibility: Multiple local departments involved

Agency: CWCB provides funding and guidance for drought planning along with plan approval.

Status: 81% of Coloradans live in the 24 communities with operational drought plans; Drought response information is often included in hazard mitigation, water efficiency, and/or comprehensive plans.

Database: State database of CWCB-funded plans (small proportion of total plans).

Statute: No statute or regulation

Responsibility: Multiple local departments involved

Agency: Funding and consultation/assistance available through DOLA.

Status: Few communities have these (approximately 23% of counties and 12% of municipalities).

Database: State database.

Statute: No statute or regulation

Responsibility: Multiple local departments involved

Agency: Funding and consultation/assistance available from CWCB. Possible roles for DOLA, CDPHE, and Division of Water Resources (DWR). 

Status: Some communities have these (Denver’s is the first “One Water” Plan), with plans varying between communities in scope and content.

Database: Not within a state database.

Statute: C.R.S. 29-30-301, 304

Responsibility: Planning or Town/County Manager

Agency: Requirements outlined in statute; Counties required to refer subdivisions to DWR; DWR provides review/comment letter.

Status: Some communities have these requirements included in local codes, with medium variability between communities depending on predominant water sources.

Database: Not within a state database.

Status: C.R.S. 29-20-101, et. seq. 

Responsibility: Planning or Town/County Manager

Agency: Enabled by statute; DOLA provides funding and consultation/assistance for land use regulations. Consultation and assistance also available through CWCB (floodplains) and CGS.

Status: Most communities have zoning and land use regulations, with high variability between communities.

Database: Not within a state database.


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