How Builders in the West Can Manage Drought

Q-and-A with Craig Karn

Sustainability and Green Building
Craig Karn
Craig Karn is principal at Consilium Design in Denver.

As a longtime Colorado resident, how has your career as a landscape architect changed over the decades that you’ve lived in the West?

I’ve been at it for quite a while, around 36 years to be exact. When I first came to Colorado, I was much younger, but I think over my years I’ve really seen how the developer community has matured over time. The growth in population has demanded it.

After multiple decades, I’ve really seen the climate change. When I first moved here in the ’80s, it was historically wet, so that’s how people thought things were. Now we’re in a 22-year drought, which is much closer to what’s “normal.” This long drought has alone changed how people perceive the landscape. We were using sod everywhere, but that has certainly changed — we now use more native and drought-resistant plants.

You are spearheading NAHB’s Water Task Group to design a water toolkit for builders. What are the most pressing issues you would like to highlight to other members about the multitude of water topics that builders encounter?

I would say the most pressing in the West where I am is the continuing drought — not just in Colorado but also in Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and California. A big issue moving forward will be ensuring that there is enough potable water for everyone.

Another pressing issue involves how jurisdictions respond to rapid growth, with building moratoriums. This happens here due to constrained water resources and in places like Louisiana where they have too much water and deal with flooding. But there are consequences to this approach; you can’t just outright stop development. We must learn to live better using less water.

I’ve learned a lot leading this task group — one thing being that water issues are just a symptom of the larger picture of our changing climate.

What are some key techniques for water management that you would recommend to builders who are constructing in areas with extreme drought?

We certainly need to continue educating the public on the benefits of changing their relationship with water and how they treat water as a home owner. For instance, in a lot of our projects, the biggest water wasters are the home owners. Consumers need to be part of the solution. One key technique for helping with this involves dual metering, by showing the user how much water they use both inside and outside. A lot of our clients realize after installing these types of meters how much water they use outside.

Conservation is the No. 1 technique — finding ways to use less water. And the secret to conservation is building awareness. Not only is conserving water the right thing to do, but it can save residents a lot of money. We can help consumers be better water stewards by educating them on everything from the drip irrigation system to how they can best use their smart water meter. With the meters, they can check their cellphones to see if there’s a leak somewhere. Some community association boards even monitor the software and reach out to home owners if the system detects a leak. This type of technology helps a lot of people, for instance, avoiding surcharges from a leaky toilet while out on vacation.

What advocacy efforts or policy recommendations do you have for regions dealing with droughts year after year?

Colorado has made progress on engaging elected officials and water entities, but there is still much more to be done. We all have a mutual interest, and conserving water doesn’t just come down to new homes but existing homes as well. We also need to get more people engaged in legislative efforts so that folks can encourage their state representative to take a fresh look at how we appropriate water. The last time in the West we did this was in 1876, so it’s probably time to take another look.

The more we engage the public, the more actions we can take collectively. As an example, a while back there was a $240 million bond project to expand a sewage treatment plant facility, but at the time, only 4% of the voting public voted on the issue.

Another thing we can do is better fund the maintenance of existing water treatment facilities. The better those are maintained, and inefficiencies are averted, the less water we waste.

It would take 20-plus “wet” years in a row to make up the deficit in the Colorado River basin — we can’t fix this overnight.