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Population Is Booming In The West — But There's Not Enough Water To Keep Up With It


The real estate market is hot. So what happens if there's not enough water to build new homes? Colorado Public Radio's Michael Elizabeth Sakas reports on one city's struggles to grow in a dry state.

MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, BYLINE: On the east side of Colorado Springs, flags and billboards line the roads advertising homes for sale - turn here. Hundreds of new units are under construction, and each requires water.


SAKAS: A sprinkler waters the new, green lawn of a townhouse that's only a plywood shell, still without siding or a roof. Colorado Springs is one of the fastest-growing regions in the state, and this boom is expanding.

DAN BLANKENSHIP: We've had just a flood of new applications come into our planning department.

SAKAS: That's Dan Blankenship, director of utilities for the nearby city of Fountain. There are currently fewer than 9,000 taps or connections to Fountain's water supply. Over the last year, Blankenship says developers have applied for nearly 30,000 more. And now...

BLANKENSHIP: The bottom line is we can't give you something that we don't have.

SAKAS: Blankenship is telling developers that this Fountain is tapped out. To support that much growth, the city would need to buy additional rights to use more water, and it would need a place to store that water. The city would also need to treat it and find a way to get it to homes. That's getting harder to make happen in a state like Colorado, where most of the people live on the front range, but most of the water is on the western slope.

BLANKENSHIP: You don't see a lot of water around here. But you see a lot of people and a lot of people that want to be here. And so then you have to bring the water from far away. And so the further it goes and the longer it goes, the more expensive it is.

SAKAS: Fountain gets most of its supply from Pueblo Reservoir, which is filled with water that would otherwise end up in the Colorado River. Meanwhile, the river supply is diminishing with climate change and worsening drought. Proposals to move water long distances and across mountains can now face decades of legal battles from environmental groups. Scott Smith is with Oakwood Homes, which owns a piece of land in Fountain.

SCOTT SMITH: Recently, we were informed that they didn't have available water taps, and so it kind of put our project on the back burner down there.

SAKAS: Smith says it's becoming more common for developers who want to build big projects to have to secure water rights. But he says the situation in Fountain is unusual.

SMITH: Usually you don't have - your municipality says, oh, you know, the development community is just going to have to get together and figure it out.

SAKAS: This same challenge is playing out in other places. One Utah town recently stopped issuing new building permits because of deepening drought. And in Arizona, Pinal County is also out of water. Troy Day is with EPCOR, which operates utilities in the Southwest. He says building in the county is grinding to a halt.

TROY DAY: Developers can't plan and build homes unless they prove to the state that there is a 100-year water supply.

SAKAS: Day has his eyes on Lake Mead, the reservoir that serves water to Arizona. A two-decade megadrought has brought its levels down to the lowest on record since it was filled in the 1930s. And that's expected to trigger more water cutbacks in Arizona.

DAY: With climate change, this is probably the new normal, and we're going to have to figure out how to live on less water.

SAKAS: Kevin Reidy with the Colorado Water Conservation Board says water utilities are worried about how to keep up with growth, and that in Colorado, Fountain is just the first city to talk so openly about the issue.

KEVIN REIDY: I think we're going to see a lot more of this pressure happening. We're kind of hitting that point where people are kind of saying, OK, wow, we've got to do things differently.

SAKAS: For Fountain, that means telling developers, if you want to build here, you'll have to pay to bring your own water. For NPR News, I'm Michael Elizabeth Sakas in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas