It has long been recognized that the key variable affecting the quality of urban life and growth in the Rocky Mountain and Desert West is water. Accordingly, any city-building enterprise in these areas must be informed by a sustainability ethic that centers on water. Our research topic is the water conservation values, policies, strategies and technologies that have been identified by Front Range planners and developers as important for guiding urban growth in the region. We seek to evaluate the efficacy of these values and practices for producing sustainable urbanism along the Front Range.

The relevance of the research is perhaps best established by a series of investigative reports, op-ed pieces, and reader letters that appeared in The Denver Post debating the (recently approved) development of Sterling Ranch, a community planned for the Chatfield Basin south of Denver (Illescas 2011). Organized as a clustered arrangement of 7 “urban villages”, Sterling Ranch would contain over 12,000 homes and 31,000 people. It would generate over 9,000 permanent jobs. Although promoted as a model of high density development having a praiseworthy water conservation plan, Sterling Ranch has nonetheless raised serious questions about where this community will get its water and whether its water usage will be sustainable over the long haul.

Our research will seek specific answers to these and other questions about the hydro-sustainability of planned community developments for the Front Range area. Our framing research questions include:

  • How much reliable water is available to planned suburban and exurban development? What are its sources?
  • What projections exist for required housing stock and non-residential construction over the next 5-10 years? One boom area in the Colorado Springs area is expected to be military housing. What other boom areas are predicted for Front Range cities?
  • How likely is it that current and projected construction can be supported given the water that’s available?
  • What water conservation and storage methods hold out the most promise for sustaining urban growth into the future?

Much of the Front Range’s water, according to another set of articles and opinions published in The Post, is currently provided by aging Colorado farmers who, lacking descendants to inherit and maintain their agricultural lands, are selling their water rights to existing suburbs and developers looking to build suburban subdivisions and business parks (Finley 2011). The loss of agricultural land to suburban development thus poses another set of sustainability challenges to Front Range cities: higher costs for importing farm products from distant sources and potentially greater economic pressures on families in the urban core. In addition to addressing the questions around water posed above we will also examine how much these food and transport costs are likely to escalate given the loss of agricultural land and growing urban and exurban populations. We’ll consider whether, and how, developers and agriculturalists might cooperate in their water use as a way to better balance the variables that affect urban sustainability. By combining concerns for water and agricultural land availability we seek to determine whether planned developments like Sterling Ranch portend, in the words of a Denver Post headline, an economic “boon” or a “blight” (Winter 2011).