Four Corners water bill narrowly survives

DENVER - A water-efficiency bill from Southwest Colorado lawmakers narrowly survived Wednesday, providing a hint of the debate Coloradans will have this year over how they should use their water.

The brainchild of Durango water engineer Steve Harris, Senate Bill 17 originally would have limited the size of lawns in new suburban developments. That idea proved highly controversial among home builders and local governments, so the sponsor, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, rewrote it to remove the lawn mandate and instead call for a study of water conservation by the Legislature's summer water committee.

Even so, the plan narrowly survived the House Agriculture Committee on Monday, passing on a 6-5 vote. Four Republicans and a suburban Democrat, Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton, voted against it.

One of the sponsors, Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said he wants to make sure farmers don't run out of water as cities grow.

"We need to make sure we keep the farmer at the end of the ditch whole," Coram said.

Lobby groups for cities and home builders fought against the original bill, but now support they support it. Kevin Bommer of the Colorado Municipal League took the opportunity to defend cities.

"There is a big misperception that municipalities aren't doing anything, or perhaps aren't doing enough, on municipal water conservation," Bommer said. "I think that could not be further from the truth."

The bill has touched a nerve among Colorado's water experts, and municipal water conservation is likely to be a hot discussion topic as the state prepares to write its first-ever water plan. Gov. John Hickenlooper has called for the Colorado Water Plan to be drafted by December.

The original idea to target lawns for newly built homes would not have helped, because new homes tend to have small lawns, said Jeani Frickey of the Colorado Association of Home Builders.

"It's not necessarily new construction where you are going to see those huge water savings. It's existing housing stock," Frickey said.

The bill now goes to the full House.