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Know the West

Drought and population growth punch Colorado in face, state fights back with water planning


Last week, while speaking at lunch during the Upper Colorado Basin Water Conference in Grand Junction, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board could have put his audience to sleep in their cannoli. He was talking about the narcolepsy-inducing topic of water planning, after all. Instead, James Eklund captured the room’s attention by quoting “the great water philosopher, Mike Tyson” who said, “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been punched in the face.” And there’s no doubt that Colorado’s been punched in the face.

Those blows have come from the combination of a 14-year drought, population growth, wild fires and floods. Now the state is figuring out how it will “pick itself off the canvas,” as Eklund described it, and move forward. But Colorado is one of the few Western states without a water plan.

Irrigation in Colorado. Photograph courtesy USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In Colorado’s case, Eklund said, there are already enough glossy reports that sit on shelves. The state wants a document that analyzes the state’s water challenges and leads to meaningful action. So Colorado’s been working on one since this past summer, based on input from grassroots water planning groups called basin roundtables, which have been meeting for the last eight years. The first draft is due to Gov. Hickenlooper in December. Hopefully, having a road map will help soften the blows of further hydrologic bludgeoning.

One trend that’s pressing the state into water planning is that cities and suburbs are sucking up water that’s historically been used for farming. While agriculture is still the state’s dominant water user by far, some farmers are selling their valuable senior water rights to cities. The practice is termed “buy-and-dry,” which usually means the end of farming in that area. Many see it as a serious threat to agriculture in Colorado.

Buy-and-dry may seem innocuous on the scale of one farm, and can even serve as a retirement fund for some farmers. But when hundreds of thousands of acres start to leave production, water transfers could gut the economies and social fabric of rural parts of the state. (If you’re thinking that we shouldn’t be growing alfalfa in the desert anyway, keep in mind that buy-and-dry isn’t necessarily doing anything to keep water in rivers, streams or wetlands either).

In the South Platte River basin alone, buy-and-dry could desiccate one-third of irrigated acres by 2050. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District recently told Colorado Springs’ KRCC Radio. “The rancher wants to be able to sell his or her water right but then there’s also the concern in the ranching and farming community that we need to keep land in production.”

But without a water plan and a concerted effort to come up with creative solutions to unprecedented problems, it looks unlikely that the buy-and-dry trend will do anything but accelerate. State studies project that by 2050, as Colorado’s population doubles, municipal and industrial water demands will exceed supplies by at least 500,000 acre feet each year. That’s twice the amount that Denver’s water utility uses each year on average. Many local water providers already have plans in place to reduce demand, using conservation programs. But that still only meets 80 percent of the projected need, leaving a 20 percent gap in water supply. If the drought continues it will only make the projected shortage worse. (For more on that, check out HCN’s coverage of the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s quest to solve the state’s water supply riddles.)

It was obvious at the conference that the gap is looming large in the minds of Colorado’s water bosses. That, along with climate uncertainty and variability (think drought one year, floods the next) are two of the major reasons Colorado has decided it can’t stick with the water management status quo. The increase of buy-and-dry, which has been described over and over as an “unacceptable” solution to the water supply gap, is providing yet another water planning kick in the pants.

One solution to stave off buy-and-dry would be creating a marketing system to let farmers lease water to cities in select years, or for a series of years, instead of permanently selling water rights. Leasing already happens on a small scale, but the state has been providing grants so water districts or nonprofits can work out the legal, technical and financial hurdles to large-scale leasing.

For example, in the Arkansas Basin, land of famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes, irrigators have formed the Super Ditch Company. It’s an amalgamation of regional ditch companies that will bargain for irrigators who want to lease part of their water to cities like Denver and Pueblo. There’s now legislation in the works to make the pilot project permanent. (For more on buy-and-dry and the Arkansas Basin check out this 2012 HCN feature from Matt Jenkins).

Even in the recent past, Eklund said, there’s been resistance to state water planning because of fear that it will impinge on private property rights, or overthrow the legal doctrine that guarantees water to senior rights holders. But those days of foot-dragging may be coming to an end, and the state’s water managers have recognized that water management needs to change to address new climate norms. “I’m here to tell you why I think the landscape has shifted," Eklund said, "and why (with) the variable hydrology these days coupled with the scarcity of the resource…we can no longer have enough water for every need, and we’ve got to start looking at what we’re going to do with these new pressures."

Sarah Jane Keller is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She Tweets @sjanekeller.