Colorado’s river economy worth $9 billion

Outdoor recreation businesses say state water plan must do more to protect rivers.

 

As Colorado prepares its first statewide water plan, which will determine how water is managed water across the state now and for decades to come, a crucial debate is taking place: how to divvy up Colorado’s dwindling water supplies. That discussion actually began nine years ago in the “Basin Roundtables,” set up under the 2005 Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, designed to spur conversation among farmers, environmentalists, water providers and other stakeholders in each of Colorado’s eight major river basins plus the Denver metro area.

When Governor Hickenlooper issued his executive order last year to create a state Water Plan, he charged the Colorado Water Conservation Board with the task and they, in turn, looked to the Basin Roundtables for their ideas about what the overall plan should include. The goal said, James Eklund, the Board’s Director, was to tackle Colorado’s water problems “as one unit.”

That’s the theory at least. But with the Roundtables dominated by municipal and agricultural interests, other groups are struggling to make their voices heard.

On September 10, a group of Colorado business leaders made their case for the “river-based economy” at the Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting in Glenwood Springs, where members of the public could comment on draft sections of the plan.

The setting was fitting: nearby, the rugged Glenwood Canyon runs alongside the busy I-70 corridor. A good portion of the town’s economy revolves around people coming to fish and raft on the Colorado River which carves through the canyon walls, but that river, like so many on the West Slope – where the majority of Colorado’s water lies – is shrinking. Every year, 180 billion gallons of water are sucked from rivers flowing west of the Continental Divide through a vast system of tunnels and pipes to thirsty farms and cities along the dry Front Range.

Now, faced with a growing gap between water supply and demand, they need more. In their draft plans, released in July, East Slope Basins like the South Platte emphasize the need “to consider new Colorado River supply options to meet future water demands” - which means keeping open the possibility of pulling more water from west to east through new transmountain diversions. But those plans, say members of Colorado’s outdoor recreation, real estate, and tourism industries, jeopardize a $9 billion dollar economy that hinges on healthy rivers – and supports more than 80,000 jobs in the state.

A report commissioned by Protect The Flows found that if the Colorado River was a company, it would rank 155th on the 2011 Fortune 500 list (those numbers are based just off of the revenue and jobs provided by the outdoor recreation industry), ahead of General Mills and US airways. It would also be the 19th biggest employer on the list.

“It’s really pure economics for us,” says Dennis Saffell, a realtor from Grand County. Factoring in all the indirect beneficiaries of Colorado’s rivers means the true economic value is likely much greater, he added, citing a recent report that found declining river flows across the Southwest could significantly hurt home prices.

Decades of overuse, plus a 15 year drought, have taken their toll on Colorado’s waterways. Reservoir levels have dropped 35 percent in the last 12 years and average flows on the Colorado River are half what they were two centuries ago.

“For 150 years we’ve done a good job of taking water out of the river,” says Craig Mackey, the co-director of Protect The Flows, a coalition of business owners that rely on rivers.

Protect Our Flows wants the statewide plan to place more emphasis on smart water management and remove the option of building new transmountain diversions. The group is pressing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to set concrete statewide conservation goals in the Water Plan, especially for towns and cities – something most other Western states have, but Colorado is lacking.

Both Mackey and Saffell noted that although most of the Basin Roundtables recognize the economic value of healthy rivers, far fewer have actually quantified those benefits - or included specific language to protect stream flows. Since each Basin’s recommendations lay the foundation for the statewide plan, it’s essential that all of them include concrete standards.

But the river advocates are up against some strong, well-entrenched political forces. They pointed to the big agriculture and municipal interests that drive a large chunk of Colorado’s economy – and hold much of the power at the Basin Roundtables.

In comparison, the recreation economy is “the new kid on the block,”, says Mackey, who grew up skiing on wood skis and cable bindings. “I’m a sixty year old man and Patagonia, The North Face, the Vail Ski Resort – these companies grew up in my lifetime,” he added. “So we really need to push our way into the conversation.”  

And there’s another challenge: Colorado’s water laws. Most were written in the late 1800’s and though a few modifications have occurred over the years, the laws still reinforce a “use it or lose it” mentality, which makes it difficult to implement conservation strategies. Thanks to those laws, says Saffell, farmers and cities have a legal right to keep using more water.

Think of it this way, he added: if we had the same traffic laws as we did 150 years ago when the water laws were written, it would be utter chaos. Most laws change to accommodate new realities, says Saffell, “but for some reason our water laws are untouchable.”

Instead, “we need to get away from this concept that any water left in the river is wasted water because it’s not being put to beneficial use,” he said.   

Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....