Sterling Ranch ruling highlights Front Range water issues

By Bart Taylor | Sep 07, 2012

Colorado's business community was reminded again last week that water threatens the region's economic prospects. District Court Judge Paul King ruled that the Sterling Ranch development in Douglas County had not lined up a sufficient long-term supply pursuant to a 2008 statute requiring “a water supply that will be sufficient for build-out of the proposed development in terms of quality, quantity, dependability, and availability to provide a supply of water for the type of development proposed…”

Despite protests of the Denver Post, King's decision isn't an indictment of Sterling Ranch, but a reasonable reading of the statute.

The proposed community southwest of Denver has been lauded as a water-efficient, sustainable community of the future, but it's also a poster child for the challenge facing the south metro area of the Front Range. Most Douglas County communities rely on non-renewable, diminishing aquifers. By DC standards, Sterling Ranch has lined-up a diverse supply, including an agreement to buy 190 million gallons of water annually from Aurora to support the 12,000 or so homes planned for the community. King said it wasn't enough.

Harold Smethills, the development's managing partner, promised to move ahead. King's decision seemed to surprise others. David Tschetter, chairman of the Colorado Association of Homebuilders, quoted in the Denver Post, suggested the ruling "will have a negative impact on development, no question...Who knows what water-usage needs are going to be 30 years from now?"

But if pressed, Tschetter would agree that Douglas County's water problem is spooking development, King's ruling notwithstanding. Despite membership in a loose coalition called the South Metro Water Supply Authority, most communities in DC are pursuing their own water plans. Some are faring better than others. Aurora, in a position to sell water to Smethills, may be the region's most innovative water operator. None, arguably, have developed a comprehensive program that guarantees residents and business renewable (non-ground water), affordable, sustainable supplies – and mitigates regional concerns.

There's a chance then that Tschetter, Smethills, and others, like those on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, are feigning surprise. Without a plan floating around Douglas County that would satisfy a close reading of the statute, King's ruling may be doing everyone a favor by highlighting the problem – the lack of a statewide roadmap that would provide developers a satisfactory backdrop to pursue growth. And in the case Sterling Ranch, very responsible growth.

If it's a clarion call the developers seek, I'll provide the amplifier: supply issues will increasingly vex not only water-intensive businesses like ag and energy, currently in the bullseye, but the general business community. As a result, business leaders would do well to contemplate a pro-business water platform around which economic interests can rally.