The Importance of the Colorado Water Plan

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Most politicians from the Western Slope run on a platform of “not one more drop.” That’s because 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western slope, yet 87% of the population lives on the other side of the Continental Divide. To solve the problem and get more water to the Front Range of Colorado, in the 1930’s Colorado began building tunnels and water storage facilities that divert water from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range. Over time Western Slope water users became concerned that too much water was being diverted, hence the mantra about not one more drop.

Today there are 30 completed water diversion projects in the State, most of which take water from the Colorado River Basin and deliver it to the other side of the mountains, although a few just move it from one river basin to another without the inter-mountain transfer. The 24 diversions that do change the flow of water from west to east currently deliver approximately 500,000 acre feet of water to farmers and municipalities on the Front Range annually.

In 2005, Colorado passed House Bill 1177, which created River Basin Round Tables. This was a bi-partisan attempt to get water policy out of the world of partisan politics. The bill was supported by two names you will recognize from here:  Josh Penry and Bernie Beuscher. Abel Tapia, running to unseat Scott Tipton, was in the Colorado legislature at the time and was also a sponsor of this bill. The short name of the bill was “Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act.”

The Round Tables were established, and people from all walks of life were invited to participate. The idea was to get the people who actually used water to talk to each other, in a fact based environment. Over time it got old for volunteers to drive an hour each way to meetings where there were no actual outcomes, and these Round Tables started losing steam. But the problems still existed, and the need to find ways to conserve water and fill the projected gaps in water availability were still very real problems needing statewide solutions.

Needing the Round Tables to come up with a plan, On May 15, 2013, Governor Hickenlooper issued an executive order directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to draft a water plan. The deadline for the draft is December 2014. Today I had the opportunity to speak with James Eklund, the Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, about the process and the plans coming out of the Round Tables.

For the record, I initiated this contact because I wanted to hear from the official leading the efforts his opinion of progress and his expectations regarding outcomes. A lot more follows, but the short version is that the Colorado Water Conservation Board will make some policy recommendations to the next legislative session, based on the identified needs of the nine River Basin Round Tables.

Eklund opened our conversation by saying that this is an historic time for water in Colorado. During July the CWCB hosted a three day meeting to hear the Round Table implementation plans. None of the plans say there will be a new transmountain diversion of water, but every Round Table has identified a water shortage and a need to find new sources of water. It is an interesting coincidence that the projected shortage by 2050 is almost the same amount of water that is currently being diverted from west to east.

Not having a cohesive water plan addressing these issues has negative impacts on economic development that we usually don’t think about. An example used by Eklund was Utah. Businesses thinking about relocating might decide on another state, like Utah, when they see east-west water wars appearing on the front pages of Colorado newspapers. Utah actually has less water than Colorado, but they tell a better story. We can’t keep beating each other up, and these Round Tables, born out of bi-partisan legislation hope to encourage Colorado’s citizens to have adult conversations about the issue, and to find bi-partisan legislative solutions.

One of the issues is “buying and drying.” The term refers to industry and municipalities buying up agricultural water rights, which takes Colorado ag-land out of production. There is a right way and a negative way to solve this problem. Prohibiting the sale or leasing of these agricultural water rights is essentially a “taking” of the property of the owner of the water rights. There needs to be some policy solution that recognizes the personal property rights, yet protects our ability to produce food, and satisfies the thirsty inhabitants of Colorado’s cities.

Knowing a little about land trusts, I asked whether there were Water Trusts, just as there are Land Trusts. Eklund said that they do exist, but they are not economically competitive, especially when cities need water, and are willing to pay a premium to get it. Policy should work to close the competitive gap.

I’ve heard Ute Water suggest that we could negotiate with California, trading our support for desalination plants in California for keeping more of the water that falls in Colorado. Eklund praised Ute Water for thinking outside the box, but scoffed at that idea. The hurdles noted by Eklund included the fact that relative to California, Colorado is capital poor and that desalination plants require a lot of energy, which is expensive.

Finally I asked about Climate Change. Eklund prefers to talk about variable hydrology. Colorado is the only state in the nation where no water flows into the state, rather it falls in the mountains in the form of snow, where it is stored until spring run-off. Climate change is impacting our water two ways: As dust settles on the snow in the high country, melting is hastened. If water falls as rain instead of snow, it is not stored in our high country until we need it, but rather immediately flows into streams and rivers—causing the flooding we saw on the Front Range and immediate delivery into other states.

Eklund noted that our snow pack is a pretty important and effective way to store water in Colorado until we need it. In fact, he said, “Snow pack is our greatest reservoir.” Water at lower elevations evaporates faster than it does at higher elevations, which may explain why the water is so low at the downstream dams that provide both storage and electricity for lower basin states. The delivery system to Arizona is extremely inefficient, as it flows through hot, dry terrain where evaporation steals water destined to quench the thirst of Phoenix. Of course, that water is not lost forever, but given the prevailing weather patterns, it may end up in Texas instead of Arizona.

Water is too important to legislate without understanding the complicated process of water allocations and the reality of water shortages. Yet, my opponent walked out of a briefing presented by James Eklund, which was designed to bring legislators up to speed on the Round Table discussions. Eklund told me that he thinks it is his job to brief legislators and candidates on this non-partisan effort to find solutions to Colorado’s future water woes. He also told me “If Ray Scott calls, I’ll tell him the same thing, but he hasn’t called.”

Voters in Mesa County have a real choice this fall. We can pick the candidate who seeks answers about issues, or the candidate who gets written up in the Denver Post for being too arrogant to listen to a presentation about an issue as important to the Western Slope as water.    

 Homework:

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Water Diversions

House Bill 1177

Hickenlooper's Executive Order

Ray Scott Walks Out of Briefing by James Eklund

Colorado Water Conservation Board

12 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. ct says:

    If there is one thing that unites Western Coloradans, its not coal nor gas nor oil nor cannabis nor being ever thankful we do not live in 'Denver' (which stretches roughly from somewhere not too far south of Wyoming to beyond the Springs (at least) BTW), it is water–and not letting 'Denver' get another drop.  Just saying.  

    • Sunmusing says:

      Yep…as a member of a "Ditch and Resevoir Company", I can safely say that our water has been under constant attack from all points of the compass…I have personal experience from court appearences, that we are in for a fight to retain our water rights from government and business…the area I am talking about is under threat from drilling and fracking…we already have operating coal mines who are mining under water sheds, resevoirs, streams, and wilderness…mining has its own set of surface issues that can disturb the nature of things as well…but, in the face of climate change, and a growing population we are going to see more pressure on potable water sources…big oil and gas needs to be held at bay and kept out of our prisine water sheds…period…we aren't considered "semi-arid" for nuthin'…just say no to fracking…

  2. Duke CoxDuke Cox says:

    Does anyone here have the skill to overlay a map of our gas fields over this map. Do you see what I see, ct? It must be a huge percentage of overlap, from my understanding.

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