Northern Colorado communities have been devastated by unprecedented storms and floods. While their long recovery process begins, Southern Colorado continues to suffer from years of drought. Governor Hickenlooper issued an executive order in May of this year directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to prepare a Colorado water plan.
Although people say that “whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting,” I believe that East Slope county and municipal officials, and those of us in the headwater communities of Colorado, share common values and responsibilities that are an important backdrop to the Colorado water plan effort. Regardless of the location, local government land-use planning and management decisions drive the demand for more water, local government entities are the major water providers, and local government regulatory powers extend to the location and construction of water projects that transfer water from one part of the state to another.
As elected officials, we all are charged with protecting public health, safety, welfare and the environment, and we should honor each other’s responsibility to do so. If not properly guided, the Colorado water plan runs the risk of driving a wedge between different areas of the state by allowing Front Range water supply needs to trump the local government plans in areas of the state that are targeted as the source to meet those needs.
Whether in the Arkansas Valley or the mountains of Colorado, communities already have engaged in extensive land-use planning and long-range water supply planning that should be honored in the Colorado Water Plan.
Some on the Front Range have called for new supply projects from the Colorado River basin to address the anticipated demand for water to supply new growth. We hope that the governor, the CWCB, and the advocates for new supply projects will consider the lost agricultural production, degraded fisheries and compromised wildlife habitat caused by existing transmountain diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado River.
These environmental impacts translate to socioeconomic impacts. Agricultural land stripped of water rights produces no revenue and alters the community fabric. Reduced stream flows means fewer recreational opportunities for rafting, kayaking and fishing. Higher water temperatures produce a danger to healthy fish populations and threaten the status of “Gold Medal” fisheries. Water quality and clarity degradation impacts tourism and property values. And reduced flushing flows increase the cost of water and wastewater treatment.
The Front Range also has proposed a moratorium on new applications for recreational in-channel diversion water rights until new supply projects have been identified. This is an alarming proposal for two reasons.
First, RICDs are water rights under Colorado water law. The Colorado Water Plan is designed to honor this law.
Second, RICDs are a critical economic development tool for communities that are lucky enough to be located along stretches of river conducive to rafting, kayaking and other water-based recreation.
A moratorium would have the effect of denigrating one class of water rights while elevating the desire for new growth on the Front Range over economic development plans of existing communities.
I propose that, in identifying future water supplies for a growing population, each water basin in the state will first consider how to fill those needs within its own basin before eyeing sources of water supply outside the basin. The Colorado Water Plan should identify processes and requirements for each basin to conserve, reuse and maximize in-basin water supply.
New development accommodating new population should use smart growth principles such as xeriscaping, water wise appliances, and cluster development so that our scarce water supply will be used efficiently, and agricultural lands can be protected for future generations if the landowner desires.
No water project should be supported by the state without the approval of the local government where it would be located.