Water conservation is a defining feature of Sterling Ranch, a 3,400-acre proposed community in Colorado's Chatfield Basin.
Water conservation is a defining feature of Sterling Ranch, a 3,400-acre proposed community in Colorado's Chatfield Basin.

As managing director of Sterling Ranch, one of Colorado’s most anticipated community developments, Harold Smethills is setting the standard of what it means to build a sustainable community. From wildlife conservation and open space planning to alternative energy sources and community-supported agriculture, Smethills and his development team have one goal for the 3,400-acre proposed community in the Chatfield Basin—to use sustainability as its overriding design principle.

But if you ask him what the critical issue is for his development—not to mention the building industry as a whole—his answer may surprise you. “As we look out to 2020 and far beyond, the very critical issue is water,” Smethills says. “Potable, reliable water is probably is the defining issue for this coming millennia.”

In fact, water conservation has been one of the defining features of Sterling Ranch. The development, which aims to use one-third the water traditionally required in Douglas County, has been recognized by the Colorado Water Conservation Board for it ambitious approach and is being lauded by many as the “blueprint” for designing future water-efficient communities.

According to Smethills, Sterling Ranch’s approach was to consider water first and foremost. “Typically, you find out how much water is available, and that’s the number of homes you build,” he says. “We looked at it just the opposite—how much water do we need and how can we reduce our needs of water and then go out and get that amount of water and build our economic models around that.”

So what exactly does a water-efficient community look like? Smethills says that first of all, it uses clustered housing, which uses less water. In the West, it also limits the use of grass and supplements with water-smart plantings that look great but don’t require enormous amounts of water. In other words, grass becomes “a throw rug instead of a carpet,” Smethills says.

“Grass uses about the same amount of water as alfalfa,” he continues. “So we need to understand what we are doing. We are drying up fields that produce food and fuel that sustain life to compost grass. That’s insane.”

Getting rid of large amounts of bluegrass, however, means you are eliminating yards for children to play on—a consideration that will lead to other necessary design adjustments. “You have to design in pocket parks and tot lots for the kids to play,” Smethills explains. “And if you are going to design tot lots and pocket parks ... it means you have to have a fundamentally safe community. So you orient the homes to the street as opposed to away from the street. You slow the traffic down. You don’t do it with speed bumps, you meander the streets so that if someone tries to speed, they would hit a tree. A lot of this is driven out of your water conservation.”

Another critical design component for Smethills was implementing a community rainwater harvesting system—a feature that his research team found to be one of the most effective ways to conserve water. “Rainwater harvesting does two things that are both very beneficial,” Smethills explains. “One, it reduces the amount of water you have to bring to the site and the pumping, lifting, and treating. It’s right there, you just catch it.”

Of equal, or perhaps more, importance, rainwater harvesting reduces the discharge to the stream. “The very thing that we don’t want in our drinking water—nitrates and phosphates—plants think are just great,” Smethills says. “As opposed to discharging your stormwater to the stream, you catch it and then reapply to plants. So you are keeping those nutrients out of our drinking water.”

The problem, however, is that rainwater harvesting is illegal in many parts of the United States, including Colorado. Determined to use the practice in his development, Smethills and his team did their homework and were instrumental in getting two rainwater harvesting bills passed in Colorado. The first bill allows rural homeowners with a well to capture rainwater from their roofs and use it for outside irrigation. The second bill allows for test sites in new developments. Right now, Sterling Ranch is the only rainwater harvesting community test site in Colorado, but the bill certainly opens the door for other developers as well.

Although rainwater harvesting is a key aspect of Sterling Ranch, Smethills doesn’t necessarily believe it is the panacea for future water problems. “I think the issue across the nation is going to be water quality and storm discharge to the streams,” he says. “Whether it’s rainwater capture or treatment, I think that’s something we have to be very cognizant of.”

He also believes that the cost of water will be a critical issue. While Colorado’s water situation appears to be more urgent than many other areas of the country, Smethills says the cost of water will no doubt affect the entire country. “New York’s water system, among others, is very old,” he notes. “We as a society have not invested into the infrastructure we need for a lot of these water systems.”

According to a recent report from the American Water Works Association, restoring existing water systems as they reach the end of their useful lives and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years. The report says these infrastructure costs alone could triple the size of a typical family’s water bill. As astronomical as those estimates sound, Smethills thinks they are way low. “I think it’ll be far more than that,” he says.

Smethills says there is no doubt water will become a key design consideration in future development projects. “We look at it as any other business proposition and how it will define what we are doing,” he says. “We’re building a community for people who aren’t even born yet. We’re looking at 20 to 25 years before we’re finished. Over the next 25 years, when we look at what will be critical—what will be the defining issues—water will be right at the very top.”