Interbasin Compact Committee: Is there enough water available to serve a doubling of Colorado’s population?

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The biggest problem with water development appears to be staying out of each other’s way. In the past, the state’s system of water rights – a carefully ordered and enforced hierarchy based on historical priority of use – has done little to encourage sharing water rights.

For farmers, the system has planted a “use it or lose it” attitude that works on an emotional level. Irrigators jealously guard their share of the river and have always made it their business to know what the neighbors are up to.

For cities, the system has created a type of hoarding – checked by concepts like “reasonable” or “foreseeable” – in anticipation of the day when existing water resources reach their limit. For some cities, like Pueblo, this has rarely happened. Others, like Colorado Springs, have faced and overcome water shortage crises many times.

Whether it’s buying shares in the Bessemer Ditch (Pueblo) or building the Southern Delivery System (Colorado Springs), cities are always looking for a way to reach the next increment of growth.

“Advanced water strategies are not always 100-percent successful,” said Eric Wilkinson, a Colorado Water Conservation Board member who also heads the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “Oftentimes, to implement a water project, it is difficult to get through the gauntlet of regulatory agencies.”

Federal, state and even county requirements can reduce the yield of a project, or even kill it.

Additionally, some projects – Denver Water’s undeveloped West Slope rights or oil shale development – have water rights that have not been fully used and which could curtail the plans of others, Wilkinson said…

And speaking of the environment, a statewide plan is only effective when each piece of river it touches can be accounted for, said Melinda Kassen of Trout Unlimited. Kassen said the nine basin roundtables that feed into the IBCC have yet to complete the analysis of nonconsumptive water needs throughout the state. Even then, each project will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, since recreation interests – rafting vs. fishing, for example – are often at cross-purposes. Some reaches are fine, some need protection and some need restoration, Kassen said. “We need to make sure we use the money available for environmental protection to protect those areas we know will have problems,” Kassen said…

It has become increasingly difficult to build new storage in the state, as witnessed by the the Northern Integrated Supply Project, a controversial plan to build two new reservoirs. While the Glade Reservoir north of Fort Collins would provide up to 170,000 acre-feet of storage, some have questioned its projected impact on stream flows. Municipal conservation is an unreliable building block for future growth, and it’s difficult to measure. The state alternately has looked at using 2000 and 2008 as base years – bracketing a drought that changed how communities approach restrictions. The differences in communities make it hard to account for statewide conservation goals, since one community could be largely residential and another could have an industry that requires large amounts of water. Agricultural conservation could be a false savings, if increased consumptive use reduces return flows to other users.

More IBCC coverage here and here.

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