Western States Water Council: 2009 Symposium

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Water Use and Land Planning for a Sustainable Future: Scaling and Integrating

Opening session

The Western States Water Council, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Western Governor’s Association are putting on a 3 day symposium this week taking up water and land use planning issues.

Jennifer Gimbel, Director of the CWCB kicked off the afternoon with a presentation about the agency and its role in the state’s water picture. She told attendees that the CWCB is the “water policy” group. She lined out the various responsibilities of the CWCB saying that she has, “The most fascinating job to in the state.”

Financing water projects is a major role for the CWCB using funds from severance taxes and federal penalties to fund low interest loans, primarily to rural and small municipalities. The CWCB does get into larger projects such as Aurora’s reuse project, Prairie Waters.

Another role of the CWCB is compact protection. Around two thirds of the surface water available in Colorado must be left to flow out of state according to the various compacts that the state has signed.

The CWCB is involved with the Upper Colorado, San Juan and Upper Platte River recovery program for endangered species. In 1973 the board received authority to hold water rights for instream flows. They are also involved with flood mitigation, floodplain mapping, water conservation, drought planning and planning future projects.

Gimbel outlined the responsibilities of the Interbasin Compact Committee which was established by the Water for the 21st Century Act. The committee is tackling state needs, basin needs and is working to come up with solutions to the gap in supply indentified by the Statewide Water Supply Inititative (pdf) in 2004.

The Executive Director of the Western States Water Council, Tony Willardson, introduced the organization and its initiatives. The group was formed by the Western Governor’s Association to determine how to move water from the water rich northwestern U.S. to the water poor southwestern U.S. He said that the original group consisted of, “five members wanting to get the water, five members wanting to kill the project and one member working both sides.” The project didn’t get built but the group goes on.

Willardson said that 5 of the fastest growing states are in the west. He added that planners need to face up to the fact that, “We may not be able to sustain unlimited growth,” and, “We have not looked at water when determining how we would grow.” He is pushing “integrated” water and land use planning with water weighed very heavily in the process.

His group is actively trying to identify present and future water requirments while advocating that states do the local planning. Local, regional and state planning should ideally roll up to multi-state regional and and national plans, he said.

Willardson and the WSWC are hoping to see all states start to regulate groundwater.

WSWC has signed agreements with eighteen states and five federal agencies. Willardson says that the states, “have the primary and critical role.”

Monday keynote

John Tubbs, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of interior was the keynote speaker today. He listed some of the challenges that the nation faces in the 21st century.

One challenge is our water institutions. In the U.S. they are built to divide the resource. Water is divided by quantity and quality, by federal and state policy and statute. It is divided by watersheds, recreation and on and on. Necessity is now forcing water and land use planners to work together as demand outstrips supplies in many areas and climate change adds unpredictability snowpack and runoff. Pollution is effecting many drinking water aquifers.

Tubbs quoted Winston Churchill: “Americans, after exhausting all other possibilities, will always do the right thing.” The right thing, according to Stubbs, is to bring institutional resources together at the watershed level along with the federal government. After all, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, “Provides water to one out of every five [irrigated] acres in the west.”

Planning for Water Demand in the West

Jennifer Gimbel moderated a panel discussion on planning. The panel consisted of Kay Brothers (Deputy General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority), Carolyn Brittin (Deputy Executive Administrator of the Texas Water Development Board) and John Longworth (Bureau Chief, Water Use and Conservation Bureau, New Mexico State Engineer’s office).

Brothers went back in time to set the stage for current Las Vegas water issues and policy. She said that in the 1980s there was competition amongst the various water suppliers in the area. The Southern Nevada Water Authority was formed in 1991 when those involved realized that they needed a regional entity to find and secure water resources. With the SNWA all water and wastewater purveyors are under one roof. They’ve instituted a “Growth Pays for Growth” policy.

Conservation is a major component of policy. They had hoped to reduce consumption to 250 gallons per capita per day by 2012 but realized the goal in 2008. They are now eyeing 190 gpcd by 2020.

The SNWA plan includes developing resources such as groundwater, pursuing pre-Colorado River Compact water rights and ocean desalination.

Brittin said that Texas has a consensus driven bottom-up process for water planning. Current plans call for conservation to meet 23% of future requirements. While reuse is being emphasized environmental concerns for lagging or missing return flows have led to the creation of an environmental flow regime for Texas rivers. Planners must now mesh their plans with state and basin watershed plans, according to Brittin.

In New Mexico 90% of municipal and industrial needs are met with groundwater sources which are very junior in priority, according to Longworth. Groundwater is generally mined. Permits are required for all groundwater appropriations. Utilities must submit non-speculative plans for development. Although state law requires the State Engineer to give a positive or negative opinion on new development the final decision is left up to the counties.

Land Use Planning and Water Demand (Colorado Report)

The final session of the day dealt with water and planning issues in Colorado. Jacob Bornstein, Program Manager, Intrastate Water Management and Development Section, detailed Colorado’s planning efforts. He explained the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act and showed the CWCB planning tool used to analyze the effects of water decisions as they will play out in the future.

Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District: What is the future of agriculture?

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Here’s a recap of a discussion last week at the Lower Ark monthly meeting, from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

“Things look pretty bleak for agriculture then?” asked Pueblo County Director Reeves Brown during a presentation by Eric Hecox, administrator of the Interbasin Compact Commission.

“It looks bleak for agriculture if what’s happened in the past continues,” Hecox responded. “There is opportunity for agriculture to lease water to the cities through programs like the Super Ditch. That has the potential of reducing the impact.” Hecox explained the evaluation tool the Colorado Water Conservation Board is developing with the IBCC to look at different mixes of strategies to meet Front Range needs that include new supplies from the Colorado River, conservation, reuse, identified projects, agriculture transfers and reuse.

“Is it impossible to challenge growth?” Brown asked.

“It’s not a strategy we’ve looked at in the past,” Hecox said. “In practice, we can’t stop growth, but we can talk about how we grow.”

Peter Nichols, the Lower Ark’s water attorney, said solutions lie in reasonable compromises, such as the Super Ditch sponsored by the Lower Ark district, that allow resources to be shared. “I was part of a 2001 study, where we looked at water all over the world. No community stopped growing for lack of water,” Nichols said. “In the 1990s, the five fastest growing states were also the driest. People no longer settle where the water is, because it’s convenient to move it.”

Colorado would need between 830,000 and 1.7 million acre-feet of new supplies annually to meet the demand, which probably is not available on the Colorado River alone. Under compacts negotiated in 1922 and 1948, as well an an international treaty with Mexico and federal rules, Colorado is entitled to 445,000-1.4 million acre-feet available annually on average, Hecox said. The high end would most likely be available if the Colorado River supply is somehow increased, either through pipelines from other basins – which appear unlikely – or other measures like cloud seeding, desalinization in California or tamarisk reduction. “If the last 20 years are a guide, a pipeline isn’t likely,” Hecox said.

Still developing projects within Colorado would be worthwhile. The South Platte basin already imports 345,000 acre-feet an the Arkansas basin 132,000 acre-feet annually. “Every acre-foot of West Slope water saves an acre-foot in the Arkansas and South Platte,” Nichols said. “The Arkansas Valley has a tremendous interest in developing West Slope projects.” That’s expensive, however.

A 250,000 acre-foot project would cost between $7.5 billion-$10 billion, according to state projections. The water rights already held by oil companies seeking to one day extract oil from shale are in the 500,000 acre-foot range, which further muddies the supply picture, Hecox said. A call from downstream states – California, Arizona and Nevada – has never happened and may be unlikely, but it could curtail rights within Colorado, Hecox said. Finally, climate change could reduce the amount of water physically available. When the 1922 Colorado River Compact was negotiated, the observed climate was wetter than it is now. Since 2000, flows have fallen far below the historical levels of the previous 80 years…

Drying up agriculture has been the easiest target for cities in the past, and state studies show more is on the way. The amount will depend on planning that begins today. “If we lose 500,000 acres of agriculture, how do you feed all these people?” Lower Ark General Manager Jay Winner asked. “It’s very important to create a relationship between agriculture and the cities.”

More Colorado water coverage here.