Is the Colorado Water Conservation Board serious about conservation as a wedge in Colorado’s water supply gap curve?

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Here’s an essay about Colorado’s water supply gap from Heather Hansen writing for the High Country News weblog The Range. She echos the points made at the recent Interbasin Compact Committee meeting by Melinda Kassen and Taylor Hawes. Colorado utilities and other water users should get serious now about conservation since it’s the easiest and cheapest of the four strategies outlined in the IBCC strategy document. Here’s an excerpt:

Water and growth in Colorado have been the subjects of a few interesting studies released recently: “Colorado’s Water Supply Future/State Water Supply Initiative 2010,” produced by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), and the “Cost of New Water on the Front Range” which came out of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Natural Resources Law Center…

Where the studies drastically diverge is how to address our growing thirst. In an abundance of bar graphs and pie charts, the CWCB suggests a number of somewhat nebulous solutions involving inter-basin and trans-basin transfers (when water is moved from one river basin to another) and agricultural transfers (a popular stopgap technique used today in which farmers sell their water rights to urban areas). The huge future demand is also “forcing authorities to consider building new water storage and pipeline projects,” says the study…

In contrast, while the CU study makes no hard and fast recommendations, it concludes that utility-sponsored water conservation programs are the least expensive new water supply strategy for Colorado’s Front Range. Conservation efforts result in an additional one acre-foot of water (326,000 gallons) for an average of $5,200, compared to $16,200 per acre-foot for new supply projects and $14,000 per acre-foot for major water transfers…

Even if we could afford it, cost is only one consideration in meeting future water demands. Why else might we pursue conservation as an important adaptation strategy? Because we need our farmers. Colorado has 36,500 farms. We grow millet, potatoes, cabbage, onions, pinto beans, peaches, apples, cantaloupe, and produce more than one billion eggs per year. There are 2.6 million head of cattle here, and 36,000 bee colonies producing 2.7 million pounds of honey every year. Agriculture contributes over $7 billion to the Colorado state economy annually. More than 105,000 jobs in Colorado are related to agribusiness.

Despite this bounty, since Colorado law allows water rights to be bought, sold and transferred, it’s a common practice for cities to buy farmers’ water. According to Kenney, the Colorado-Big Thompson project along the northern Front Range saw agricultural ownership of water shares dropped from 85 to 47 percent from 1957 to 1998 as growing Front Range cities bought agricultural water. If farmers make more by selling water allocations than by farming, then we’re not going to have many farmers in the future.

Conservation doesn’t have to be a scary. We don’t need to start issuing summons for lengthy showers. We could start with the simple fact that roughly half of municipal water deliveries in the summer are for landscape irrigation, specifically the very-thirsty Kentucky blue grass. We could plant native and drought-resistant plants instead. Inside our homes, there are plenty of opportunities to improve efficiency; a leaky toilet, for example, can waste 36,500 gallons of water per year.

Of course enforcing a statewide conservation standard would be hugely difficult to implement since planning is a local government responsibility today.

More conservation coverage here.

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