Preparing Denver for multiple futures, not just one

Water planners must account for potential changes in climate, population, the economy and other variables.

By Kristi Delynko

Not everyone is Marty McFly, making the job of a Denver Water planner a difficult one.

We can’t time travel like Marty, though it would sure make it much easier to be a Denver Water planner.

Have you ever wished you could hop in your silver DeLorean with Marty McFly and Doc Brown and travel through time, like in Back to the Future?

For a Denver Water planner, the ability to zip back and forth across decades would certainly make the job of predicting future water demand much easier. “Try telling a planner he can’t predict the future — it’s a hard reality for us to accept,” said Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning. “But the fact is, no one can predict the future with absolute certainty, so we have to be ready for a variety of scenarios.”

Planning is a continuous process at Denver Water, and while we don’t budget for flying Deloreans, our water planners do employ some forward-thinking tactics to ensure we can deliver enough water to a growing population.

“Gone are the days when you could write a formal plan every few years, based on a linear planning process,” said Sarah Dominick, water resources engineer. “In the past, we would predict population growth and then correlate that with a straight, upward line to show future water demands.”

Today, new variables, such as climate change, demand a more flexible, comprehensive planning process, using a methodology that imagines several possible futures, not just one.

It’s called scenario planning — a type of adaptation planning — to study water supply requirements 50 years into the future. In addition to planning for things like population growth and decline, our planners also consider climate change, economic factors and government regulations to develop a number of possible futures. This makes it easier to adjust when conditions actually change.

Take climate change. The National Climate Assessment suggests climate change may be to blame for water shortages in the Southwest.

Among many other possibilities, Denver Water is exploring how Aquifer Storage and Recovery may contribute to delivering high-quality drinking water to our customers far into the future.

Among many other possibilities, Denver Water is exploring how Aquifer Storage and Recovery may fit in future planning efforts.

“The Southwest is warming, which will result in overall drier conditions. Unfortunately, we don’t know how precipitation will change in the future, but we know our water supply is very sensitive to warming,” said Laurna Kaatz, climate program manager. “Planning for multiple futures enables us to prepare for these types of unknowns.”

The planners monitor long-term climate trends and are always looking for innovative projects and new technologies that can improve efficiency, encourage reuse and increase the water supply.

“Having the flexibility to move water throughout our system, increase water storage capacities and build redundancy into our system, allows us to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws our way,” Dominick said.

Preparing for various scenarios also helps Denver Water invests wisely in its infrastructure, said CEO Jim Lochhead. “That ensures we build the right project, at the right time, and at the right cost,” he said. “Effective scenario planning means we are able to be financially responsible, while also making sure we have the appropriate facilities and resources to meet our customers’ water needs.”

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