Jay Gallagher: Where we grow is as important as how we grow
Steamboat Springs — Integrating land use and water planning can benefit all Coloradans — first, by promoting more efficient housing and landscape design, communities can still grow but reduce their per-capita water consumption and thereby defer expensive expansions of municipal water infrastructure, and secondly, by implementing land-use policies that protect water quality, communities can protect or even improve the health of their watersheds.
Healthy rivers and streams provide high-quality municipal water supplies and support fishing and whitewater sports that are of growing importance to the economies of Colorado’s smaller communities.
The city of Steamboat Springs and several adjacent water districts rely on shallow horizontal wells — known as infiltration galleries — constructed in the saturated gravels and sands of the Yampa River in the South Valley upstream of the city limits. These wells provide a reliable source of municipal water that is generally of higher quality than surface waters because the wetlands and underlying alluvial gravels and sands provide natural filtration and storage. Higher quality raw water is easier and less expensive to treat to meet federal drinking water standards.
The development of county land-use policies has served to preserve agricultural landscapes and rural character of Routt County and thereby protect groundwater recharge zones in the South Valley.
Fifty years ago, Steamboat Springs, with a population of 2,800, had a modest economy with traditional roots in ranching. Its location along U.S. Highway 40 brought tourists to town to enjoy the local hot springs and skiing at the budding new ski resort.
By the late 1960s, with a growing ski resort and extensive vacation home subdivisions proposed for the Steamboat Lake and Stagecoach areas, the Routt County commissioners recognized the need to provide a framework to guide development in the county, and, in 1972, the county adopted the first subdivision and zoning regulations. The first county master plan followed in 1980.
The current county master plan, adopted in 2003, was the product of years of public engagement; it is a statement of community values. In particular, it seeks to protect the rural character and agricultural landscapes of the county so valued by residents and visitors alike. The master plan also contains policies to sustain those values; for example, it directs development to existing growth centers to curb urban sprawl.
The county also engaged county residents in developing their own sub-area land-use plans. The Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan, in particular, directs growth to the west and downstream of the city.
In addition, cooperative efforts between landowners and the county have resulted in the preservation of open space under the County’s Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program and through the acquisition of conservation easements held by the Yampa Valley Land Trust.
The city of Steamboat Springs has also taken specific measures. In 2007, the city adopted a Watershed Protection Ordinance to protect its municipal water sources and alluvial recharge zones by regulating certain non-agricultural activities upstream of its wells that might impair surface and groundwater quality, such as a large excavation project, the construction and operation of a high-volume septic system, or the construction of a large impervious surface like a parking lot.
Over the course of 50 years, development and tourism in our valley have had impacts on natural resources. Recently, a significant reach of the upper Yampa River was included on Colorado’s 303(d) list for waterbody impairment because of high water temperatures. This listing has prompted the city to move forward to update the 2003 Stream Management Plan.
The updated plan — to be completed in early 2018 — will assess the impacts of high nutrient counts, degraded channel geometry, drought and over-use by recreation and will recommend actions to improve water quality, aquatic habitat and recreational flows. Improving the water quality in the river could also address potential compliance issues downstream at the city’s wastewater treatment plant and avoid an expensive plant retrofit.
Steamboat’s experience over the last 50 years demonstrates that, through the hard work of pubic engagement and collaboration, a community can come together to protect what is important to its identity and livelihood, whether it is traditional agricultural activity, open space, the river or municipal water supplies.
Jay Gallagher serves as the Yampa-White-Green Basin representative to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. He is the former general manager of the Mt. Werner Water and Sanitation District, the municipal water provider for the ski resort area and the city of Steamboat Springs. He also served on the Routt County Planning Commission for 10 years with four years as chairman.
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