Colorado's water plan: an end to mega projects?

The latest draft of the plan sets strict guidelines for approving new diversions over the Rocky Mountains.


Underneath the surface of Colorado’s new water plan is an unspoken acknowledgment: the days of moving large amounts of water up and over the Rockies are probably done.

On July 7, the second draft of the statewide plan was released, the latest step in a decade-long process that will direct how Colorado’s water should be managed for years to come. The new draft sets a statewide water conservation target of 400,000 acre-feet and incorporates input from Colorado’s nine Basin Roundtables, groups of citizens and experts tasked with thinking about their region’s water needs. But the biggest addition is a revised set of guidelines for making decisions about new supply projects that could spell the end of any new big water transfers over the Continental Divide.

Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, Colorado receives water from the Colorado River basin via the Moffat Tunnel and is owned by Denver Water. The second draft of the statewide water plan sets out strict guidelines for new transmountain water diversion, making a big new supply project unlikely.
Jeffrey Beall/Flickr

The guidelines acknowledge what for years seemed unthinkable to many Coloradans: there may not be any water left to develop, without cutting into the water rights already in use.

That admission represents a huge shift in what the state publicly acknowledges about Colorado’s water supply, says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District and one of the people who helped draft the guidelines. “Just a few years ago no one was questioning whether there was more Colorado River water to develop,” he says.

Already, a massive system of pipes and reservoirs — known as transmountain diversions – brings more than half a million acre-feet of water east from the Colorado River basin across the Continental Divide to cities and farms on the Front Range. Farmers on the west side of the Rockies, along with the majority of people living there, have long opposed any new diversions. But with groundwater reserves running out and a projected 5 million extra people living in Colorado by 2050, many water managers on the Front Range see a big new transmountain water project as an important tool for keeping pace with growth.

But there’s a problem with that solution, says Drew Beckwith, the water policy manager with conservation group Western Resource Advocates. Climate change will continue to exacerbate drought conditions, which means river flows will keep trending downwards while temperatures rise. That means taking more water out of the system will cut into existing projects — like more eaters making the size of the pie slices smaller for everyone. “It makes it very risky to take more water out of the river under those conditions,” says Beckwith. 

That new mindset, encapsulated in the guidelines, challenges a long-held  assumption that the state can and should develop its full allotment of water from the Colorado River under the 1922 Compact. The law requires that the Upper Basin states send 7.5 million acre-feet annually to the Lower Basin plus an additional 750,000 acre-feet for Mexico before splitting the remainder among themselves. According to the most recent study by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on the availability of supplies in the Colorado River Basin, Colorado has anywhere from one million to zero acre feet left to develop — depending on which climate model plays out.

On the West Slope, home to 84 percent of Colorado’s water supply, that possibility is driving calls for “not one more drop” of water diverted to the Front Range. Even Denver Water, the largest municipal water utility in the state with 1.3 million customers, acknowledges that protecting existing supplies is paramount. Their comments on the second draft state: “Denver Water receives about 50 percent of its total supply from the Colorado River. Therefore avoiding a ‘Colorado River Compact Call’ is critical to our ability to meet our obligations to our customers.”

But the lingering uncertainty over just how dry or wet Colorado’s future will be means Denver Water is covering both bases. Another section in its comment letter maintains that “the ability to develop new projects should be protected.”

The disconnect underscores just how touchy the issue of new water development in Colorado is — and why authors of the state water plan are tiptoeing around the issue. To critics, the presence of the new transmountain diversion guidelines may make it look like the plan simply endorses new projects. But in practice, says Beckwith, the necessary conditions make it seem unlikely that one will ever materialize: Any new project could only divert water during “wet years” to prevent exacerbating the risk of a curtailment on the state’s allotment of Colorado River water, which would happen if the state could not meet its Compact obligations to the Lower Basin.

To meet those requirements, Kuhn believes “Lake Powell would have to be essentially spilling." In the past 15 years, those conditions have occurred only once. For that reason, any new project will be a hard-sell. “Are you, as a city councilman, going to endorse a multi-billion dollar project that will only be able to take water in one out of every 15 years?” Kuhn says, though he notes that the guidelines do not impede expansions of existing projects that were already approved (such the Windy Gap Firming Project in northern Colorado).

With less than six months left until a final version of the plan is due to Governor Hickenlooper, debate over whether it merely greases the skids for new transmountain diversions will continue.

 But for Beckwith, “this is as close as you can say to ‘there will never be a new [transmountain diversion] without actually saying it.”

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN. 

High Country News Classifieds
    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...
    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...
    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...
    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...
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
    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...
    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...
    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...
    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...
    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,...
    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...
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information -
    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...
    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...
    Western Watersheds Project seeks a Tenth Circuit Staff Attorney to bring litigation in the interests of protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife, particularly focused...
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
    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...
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
    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....