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Know the West

Will a new state plan solve Colorado's water troubles?

After years of growing scarcity and population pressure, Colorado finally has a plan of action.


Update: Colorado's first state water plan was released today. You can see the full version here.  

On November 19, Colorado’s first state water plan will arrive on Governor John Hickenlooper’s desk. The final document is the product of discussions that began more than a decade ago in every corner of the state about how to use — and protect — Colorado’s rivers, lakes and aquifers.

The plan is significant in other ways as well. Colorado is among the last Western states to develop a comprehensive water plan, a sign that the realities of drought, climate change and growing populations are creating a new urgency for state-level planning.

In the West, water is a private commodity so the tendency used to be to “let things happen as they happen,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder law school and former assistant secretary for water and energy at the Department of the Interior. Rights-holders could do whatever they wanted with their water, municipalities could go dig a tunnel or buy up farmland to serve their customers and, by and large, states didn’t interfere.

In Colorado, that attitude comes as no surprise. The state aborted its first attempt at a water plan back in early 1980s, a time when Denver Water, the largest – and most powerful – water provider in the state, was pushing to build the massive Two Forks Reservoir. The project would have diverted more water to dry, east-side cities from the wetter, western side of the state and its proponents feared a state water plan would have gotten in the way.

The Yampa River runs through northwest Colorado from its source in the mountains to its confluence with the Green River in Echo Park. In the 1950s the Sierra Club's David Brower won a fight against a dam proposal that would have flooded Dinosaur National Monument. Today the Yampa is the last free-flowing tributary in the Colorado River system and legally, still has water that could be diverted for use by the Front Range.
Sarah Tory

“They wanted to control their own destiny,” says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, which tries to protect Western Slope water.

The hands-off approach meant there was no overarching vision for how water development occurred in the region. But leaving everyone to their own devices only works for a while, says Castle. “It doesn’t work when your supplies are getting tighter and particularly when you’re projecting a gap in supply and demand.”

Colorado finally began planning efforts in 2013, after 14 years of drought and new forecasts that predicted as many as 2.5 million Coloradans could be without sufficient water supplies by 2050. So Governor Hickenlooper directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to oversee the first statewide water plan.

At the time, other Western states were taking similar steps: Idaho and Oregon published state plans in 2012. California, whose plan dates back to 1957, released an updated version last year. But where other states did things top-down, Colorado took a more grassroots approach, asking committees in each of the state’s eight river basins, plus the Denver metropolitan area, to assess their needs, their gaps, and propose solutions. Colorado also opted for extensive public participation – soliciting tens of thousands of comments from across the state.

For Castle, that fact alone makes Colorado’s water plan stand out. In the old days, discussions about water took place in smoke-filled backroom meetings without public input. “The public process has been an important and unique part of it - messy though it is,” she says.

Still, public participation didn’t erase old conflicts. The divide between urban and rural remains deep, and those on the western side of the Rockies still worry about the possibility of new transmountain diversions to send water east. And the new 400,000 acre-feet conservation goal has pitted cities against rural farmers and ranchers. “Several urban water providers are wondering why the 400,000 acre-feet conservation goal applies only to municipal and industrial water use and not agriculture when cities only use 10 percent of the state’s water supply,” says Drew Beckwith of the Western Resource Advocates.

Those tensions weren’t fully resolved in the final plan, says Beckwith. But he added, “none are so large than any one group will say the plan is totally worthless and most recognize we’re better off with it than without it.

That’s partly because there’s something for everybody. The plan emphasizes conservation and re-use, but also recognizes the need to “develop additional storage,” preserve agricultural water, improve recreation and boost environmental flows – all with less water. 

To help clarify how all those priorities will be met, the CWCB added a section outlining critical steps to take, along with better ways to measure success.  But big questions remain:  Will the other state agencies cooperate?  Will the hundreds of water districts and city councils continue to grab whatever water they can with the attitude that they can always conserve water later or will they abide by the new agreement? Without some real teeth behind the conservation goal, how will the state ensure its success?

So, even as the announcement of the new plan looms, Kuhn, who began working at the Colorado River District in 1981, remains hesitant. He’s seen attitudes shift but he still considers himself a bit of a skeptic when it comes to state water plans. They tend to be a little too much of “all things for all people,” he says, and thus not especially helpful in forcing decision makers to make politically difficult decisions.

Still, just the fact a plan exists means Colorado is finally grappling with something that until recently was unthinkable: the water supply is not limitless. Now, the question is whether the state can change course quickly enough.

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN.