Too many Colorado water projects?

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Does Colorado have too many water projects in the works? Is there enough water left in the rivers to satisfy requirements? Will agriculture survive municipal growth? These are among the questions that some are asking. While water development is largely a bottom-up process — someone files for a decree on a stream and gets a priority or a group buys water from a willing seller — there is little top-down coordination of the cumulative effects of the separate projects. In every sense the race goes to the swiftest and the groups with the deepest pockets. Here’s a report from Mark Jaffe writing for the Denver Post. From the article:

…from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, the projects are moving forward, powered, attorneys and water managers say, by Colorado water law’s first-come-first-served principle. “In water law, it is still the Wild West,” said Sarah Klahn, a water attorney and University of Denver law professor. “You can be a dreamer, and if you make it come true, it’s yours.”

The concentration of projects worries federal officials who are left to sort out the multiple impacts. “It is the combined projects’ effect on water quality that concerns us,” said Larry Svoboda, environmental assessment director in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Denver office…

Among the plans moving forward are:

• Projects by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the cities of Fort Collins and Greeley on the same reach of the Cache La Poudre River.

Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water both are developing projects on the Colorado River and tributaries in Grand County.

Aurora Water and East Cherry Creek Valley Water and [Sanitation] District both have projects with 30-mile- long water pipelines running to the Brighton area. In some cases the lines are just a few hundred yards apart…

And even with all these projects, by 2030 the region may be short by 29 billion gallons, according to state projections. In this atmosphere everyone is guarding their own interests, said Dave Little, Denver Water’s planning director. “Everyone can agree on the need, but as soon as you try to identify a project, the parochial interests kick in,” Little said.

Still, as opportunities for water projects dwindle and costs rise, communities are cooperating more, said Eric Wilkinson, Northern Colorado Water’s general manager. For example, Denver Water, Aurora Water and South Metro Water Supply Authority are exploring the possibility of a joint project, said South Metro executive director Rod Kuharich.

Rights and projects are decided on a case-by-case basis in the state water courts and seniority rules. Unlike some other states, in Colorado the legislature and the administrative agencies have no role. It is all settled in water court, Klahn said.

“We don’t have a water plan; prior appropriation is our plan and it’s every man for himself,” said Melissa Kassen, a director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water project.

Since 2005, through the Intrabasin Compact Committee and nine basin roundtables, the state has tried to do more water planning and forge voluntary agreements. “It is an experiment,” said Harris Sherman, director of the state Department of Natural Resources…

Critics argue that this is still a piecemeal approach as the federal agencies do not set priorities on projects or assess overall water needs. “As we get closer to appropriating the water that’s left in Colorado, we really ought to be able to set priorities,” Trout Unlimited’s Kassen said.

Until there is change, prior appropriation rules. “The state has been reluctant to support one project over another,” said the Department of Natural Resources’ Sherman. “As we enter water scarcity, that may change.”

More Coyote Gulch coverage here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

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