Colorado water users gird for first statewide plan

 

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.

Eighty-four percent of Colorado's freshwater flows west of the Continental Divide. Flickr user Don J. Schulte.

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.

COfarm.jpg
Thirsty cities along Colorado's Front Range are buying up farmers' water Photography by Flickr user James Insogna

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.