Colorado Water Congress 2011 Annual Convention: Water in our corner of the world — a comparative look at water management in Colorado and Australia

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The first general session at the convention was a panel discussion of the similarities and differences in water management issues between Australia and Colorado. The Murray-Darling basin in Australia has been in a severe multi-year drought and the conditions there have many adjuncts here in Colorado. Australians are dealing with the gap between water supply and needs, just as Colorado is. Their situation is more pressing (until drought visits Colorado statewide again, as in 2002).

Australia’s approach to water management has changed while they have dealt with the drought there. One big difference that came out of the discussion is the heavy federal government involvement in allocating supplies. They do not rely on prior appropriation as we do in Colorado and they have developed water markets to grease the wheels of allocation and protect their economy.

Alex Davis (Colorado Water Conservation Board) said that Australia and Colorado have, “similar ways of attempting to meet the gap,” but that Australia’s system in more centralized, with a more fluid water market and that, “water for the environment is a significant driver.”

During the drought they’ve seen a 45% drop in streamflow, a significant reduction in yield and an increase in temperatures. One big policy difference, according to James Cameron (CEO, National Water Commission) is that the Australian government has a, “much more active involvement,” in the crisis where water matters are usually left to the states in the U.S. He added that, “It is hard to underestimate the importance of markets.”

Brad Udall (Western Water Assessment) said that some in the U.S. look down on federalism but that the Australian approach is not much different from Colorado’s Statewide Water Supply Initiative. He added, in talking about the water issues in the western U.S., that there is, “no way to do it at a state level.”

Towards the end of the session Udall said that his recent visit to Australia to study their response the the drought was, “a life changing experience,” that opened his eyes to new ways of thinking about water. He praised their decision making process for emphasizing their economy in all decisions.

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The second general session dealt with the political issues of the day, nationally and statewide.

Floyd Ciruli said that, “This state [Colorado] has become the focal point in the 2012 presidential race.” He said that the U.S. Senate race in Colorado set the stage for Democrats. Michael Bennet was trailing in the polls late in the race but was able to turn things around by focusing on the wide differences he had with Ken Buck. Ciruli said that will be the strategy in many races across the country.

Right now the presidential race is wide open on the Republican side with early polling showing no candidate above 10% support.

The 2010 census resulted in Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Utah gaining congressional seats. It was the first time in California’s history that they will not gain a seat after the census. Most states that lost representatives as a result of the census tend to trend Democratic while the states that picked up seats trend Republican. Colorado will stay at seven representatives.

“Politically speaking the status quo will put us in a weaker position,” compared to downstream states, said Ciruli.

His recent polling tells him that, “Colorado residents value water.” Coloradans favor more storage and do not consider conservation as the sole solution to the water supply gap. Support for agriculture and meeting the threats to supply from out of state are also high on Coloradans radar, according to Ciruli.

Mike King (Colorado Department of Natural Resources Director) said that Colorado, “is going to be facing a daunting fiscal challenge,” in 2011 and 2012 but must, “remain open for business,” while protecting water and the environment. He plans to spearhead an evaluation of the most efficient and effective way for the agencies under his leadership to work together. He says they will, “streamline processes to work more effectively,” managing natural resources for the benefit of the economy, tourism and agriculture.

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