Last year, 14 years into a regional drought, forecasts predicted that as many as 2.5 million Coloradans could be without sufficient water supplies by 2050. And yet the state still had no official plan to deal with its looming water crisis. In response to the troubling situation, Governor Hickenlooper issued an executive order: Colorado needed a plan – urgently.
Now, stakeholders from the state’s eight river basins plus the Denver metro area are tasked with articulating their needs and creating proposals for solutions to future water demand, in order to help create that plan. Today marks the deadline for submitting those local concerns to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the entity in charge of creating the statewide plan. The board will then synthesize the results from the local discussions, write a draft plan due this December, and complete the final version a year later. As each basin’s roundtable crafts their local recommendations, interest groups are jockeying to get fair representation in the final document.
The recent roundtables have been piggybacking on nine years’ worth of meetings, mandated under the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, which passed in 2005. With that foundation in place, Hickenlooper’s vision for a statewide plan had a head start in getting differing interests in each basin together. The biggest fights, however, aren’t necessarily within each roundtable, but between the basins themselves, particularly those separated by the Continental Divide.
Most of Colorado’s supply begins as winter snowpack high in the Rockies and melts in the spring, filling the Fraser, Roaring Fork, Yampa and other tributaries of the Colorado River. But those rivers are all in the western half of the state. With 89 percent of Coloradans living east of the Rocky Mountains, a region that holds just 16 percent of the state’s freshwater, competition between Front Range lawns and West Slope agricultural lands is fierce.
To deal with the dilemma of too many people and not enough water, in the 1930s, planners turned to massive engineering projects, called trans-mountain diversions, to funnel water from one side of the Continental Divide to the other. Each year, more than 180 billion gallons of water are siphoned from the west side of the Colorado Rockies to the east through an elaborate network of canals, reservoirs and tunnels – enough to fill a string of Olympic swimming pools laid end-to-end from California to Australia.
The result is a longstanding feud between the Front Range and West Slope over just how much water can be pumped to thirsty cities and farms sitting in the South Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande Basins before the West Slope’s rivers run dry.
The most contentious issue that the water plan must address is whether to allow new trans-mountain diversion projects, says Ken Neubecker, executive director for Western Rivers Institute, a river advocacy group, and the environmental representative for the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. The East Slope roundtables have been pushing to keep that option open, anticipating future water demands. But those in the western part of the state are firmly opposed, and some communities are pushing a “not one more drop” campaign.
Joe Frank, vice chair of the South Platte Basin roundtable, said that unlike past diversion projects, new proposals that appear in the draft plan are flexible arrangements under which water would be diverted east only during particularly wet years.
If the east-west divide is one major issue that the new plan must tackle, the other is unfolding on the fertile plains of the South Platte Basin, where the largest water shortages in the state are expected to occur. There, Gene Manuello’s cattle ranch sits near the town of Sterling. A third generation rancher, Manuello is the agricultural representative of his basin's roundtable. He worries about the growing prevalence of “buy and dry” schemes in which thirsty cities buy up water rights from farmers and ranchers tired of trying to make a living in today’s unreliable agricultural market. That trend has been on the rise as cities grow more desperate for water, and is one that Manuello thinks will hollow out entire agricultural communities.
According to Manuello, members of the South Platte roundtable have discussed the possibility of water leasing deals between municipalities and farmers in which farmers would retain their water rights but could lease some water to cities while also keeping part of their land in production.
Driving this surge in demand for water is Colorado’s exploding population, concentrated in water-poor cities along the Front Range. If the state wants to deal with its water woes, it needs to get smart about growth, says Bob Streeter, who serves as the South Platte basin’s environmental representative. Streeter proposed that the government implement a policy to encourage only water-wise industries in the region. But that would mean discouraging profitable operations like dairy factories that contribute millions of dollars in jobs and salaries. The roundtable vetoed Streeter’s proposal. Other proposals include better land-use planning (saying goodbye to water hogging green lawns and suburbs) and making irrigation systems more efficient, like switching from flood to drip and replacing leaky canals.
One problem that’s surfaced during local discussions is that, while efficiency improvements are a sign of progress, they often spell trouble for downstream water users. Currently many downstream users rely on water that flows from leaking pipes and irrigation canals seeping back into rivers and groundwater supplies. The new efficiency practices therefore may impinge on downstream water rights.
Despite continued disagreements among users, roundtable organizers are optimistic that by the end of the year, the state conservation board will have a finished product to review.
“You get to know people,” Neubecker said about the recent years of local meetings. “After you work with these people for all these years, you get a good feel for how we’re all part of the same system.” Previous attempts at such a comprehensive water plan, like the one the Bureau of Reclamation proposed in 1974 were based on a top-down approach from the federal government, which died, according to Eklund, because Coloradans didn’t want bureaucrats from Washington telling them how to manage their water. The grass-roots nature of the current process seems to be the key to progress.
Not only that, said Eklund, like much of the American West, Colorado is growing thirstier. As drought, climate change and an exploding population push water resources to the brink,“there’s finally a sense that we have to tackle water problems as one unit.” If not, it won’t just be farms and lawns that take the hit. Municipal water rates will likely go up, and if too many streams turn to dust, the state’s vital tourist industry will suffer as well.
For Eklund, even an imperfect plan is better than no plan. “What I tell people is if we don’t do it, don’t think for a second it won’t get done for us,” he said, referring to the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to take control of the Lower Basin States’ water supply when they couldn’t agree on how to share water amongst themselves. The lesson, he tells naysayers is this: “Would you rather us make a plan or the federal government do it for us?”
Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @tory_sarah.