Colorado Water Congress 2011 Annual Convention: Balancing Water Supply and the Environment

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Moderator, Joe Frank asked the closing general session panel to relate what they had learned from the discussions, sessions and informal conversations that took place over the course of the convention.

Brad Udall repeated his belief that Australian water policy in the Murray-Darling basin shows that markets can be utilized to distribute water effectively and fairly. “We need more people at the table, not just lawyers and engineers,” he said.

“How can we turn our back on the most powerful tool we have?”

He listed some of the things he has been thinking about lately. First, he said, “We have to think long and hard about the number of water providers we have in our urban areas…We need to make sure that we get environmental issues right.”

Conservation is the “least heinous solution out there,” he said, and he favors a, “national water commission,” that will look at the problems and , “incorporate science into policy.”

Udall is also looking for ways to institute transmountain and trans-state markets.

Peter Sutherland (Water Resources, GHD, Sydney) said that Australia is, “still grappling with the same issues you [Colorado] are, how to get things right for the environment and the economy.”

“The water cycle doesn’t recognize state boundaries,” he said.

Mark Pifher (Aurora Water) cited the similarities between solutions in Australia and Colorado. Both, “have made a significant investment in facilities,” he said. Pifher praised Australia’s use of free markets.

I asked Scott Ashby about their market after the session.

He told me that allocations are based on historical diversion practices. Water owners can sell permanently or temporarily.

For example, the government can use the market to acquire environmental water for streamflow or wetlands protection.

Colorado Water Congress 2011 Annual Convention: Climate and Water Policy — When is the right time to Adjust Course?

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Brad Udall moderated this session. The panel was made up of water managers from both Colorado and Australia.

Mark Waage from Denver Water started things off by stating that, instead of climate change, “I like to call it the unknown climate..It’s going to warm — the question is how high and how much.”

The dilemma comes from the, “overwhelming range of possible outcomes,” we’re, “waiting for actionable science,” he said.

Denver Water has chosen to use scenario planning in their approach. They put the drivers of change into a plan and build multiple possible outcomes for the future and, “try to find the ‘no regrets’ plan.”

He mentioned regional cooperation between Denver Water, Aurora Water and the South Metro Water Supply Authority where the WISE project is designed to leverage Aurora’s Prairie Waters Project to maximize the use of the three suppliers’ reusable water available in the South Platte basin.

He joked that in solving the problem, “We have to get rid of plants to make way for people.”

Mark Pascoe (CEO, National Water Centre, Queensland) said that South Queensland has spent more than $6 billion since the onset of the mega-drought. They are now looking at recycled water, groundwater and stormwater as future supply sources. Their research shows that in most years at least as much rain falls on the cities as they use. The current thinking is to store that stormwater in aquifers for later recovery.

Mark Pifher from Aurora Water noted that higher temperatures are being recorded around the globe and asked, “What does that mean for our regulatory regime?”

“If regulatory constraints are flexible we may not need changes in the statutes,” however, if the rules are subject to strict interpretation then, “we may be in trouble,” he said. He sees conflicts brewing around expansion of reuse programs, additional use of enhanced treatment technologies like Reverse Osmosis with its attendant problem of brine disposal and current wastewater treatment plant capacity limits.

Scott Ashby (Chief Executive, South Australia Department for Water) said that water suppliers up until recent history tended to, “manage on averages.” The drought in Australia has shown that climate change is occurring and that has spawned a change in the game plan as policy makers now manage the entire (Murray-Darling) basin as a whole.

Recent work on the Murray-Darling agreement recognizes that, “extremes are not extremes but the new norm,” he said. He cautioned that, “adherence to regulations can lead to a do nothing option so you have to have a far more flexible system,” to deal with the extremes.

Education is at the heart of South Australia’s water policy as well. They’ve created a strong education program in the schools — getting the young students on board so that when they reach teenage they are supporters of the policy. With education they try to, “keep inventing news things,” such as feedback on water bills about usage compared to the goals set by the authority.