Colorado Water Plan: ‘I recommend that all Coloradans engage in this important effort’ — Gail Schwartz

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013
Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

Here’s a guest column about the Colorado Water Plan, written by State Senator Gail Schwartz that is running in the Aspen Daily News:

On May 14, Governor Hickenlooper signed an executive order directing the development of the first long-term State Water Plan by and for Coloradans. The “gap” between our water supply and demand is of critical concern today and in the future. This planning process will be the foundation of a larger discussion about water needs and allocation. I recommend that all Coloradans engage in this important effort.

The state water plan will pave the way for water decisions that responsibly and predictably address future challenges. The Governor’s executive order detailed that the plan must promote a productive economy that supports vibrant and sustainable cities, viable and productive agriculture, and a robust skiing, recreation and tourism industry. It must also incorporate efficient and effective water infrastructure planning while promoting smart land use and strong environmental protections that include healthy watersheds, rivers and streams, and wildlife.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has been tasked with creating the Colorado Water Plan. The board must submit a draft of the plan to the Governor’s office by Dec. 10, 2014, and a final plan by Dec. 10, 2015. The CWCB will incorporate the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and nine basin round tables’ recommendations to address regional long-term water needs.

As chair of the Interim Water Resources Review Committee (WRRC), I will help ensure that the diverse voices of Colorado’s water community are heard during the development of this plan. The 10-member WRRC is comprised of legislators representing districts in each of the state’s major river basins. The committee has a full agenda as we are charged to review water issues and propose legislation. The WRRC will also remain actively engaged with the CWCB in development of the State Water Plan.

A recent public opinion survey on water issues in Colorado indicated that only 30 percent of Coloradans believe the state has enough water to meet its current needs. Furthermore, nearly 70 percent of Coloradans indicated they believe there is insufficient supply for the next 40 years. Colorado’s perennial drought has diminished our reservoir levels, which not only impacts our state, but has immense implications for neighboring states. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may constrain water releases for the first time in modern history from Lake Powell to the minimum required by the 1922 Colorado River Compact for the next two years unless precipitation significantly increases in the Colorado River Basin.

As charged, the water plan has a broad scope and will inevitably need to address difficult and contentious issues. I believe that we should first focus on conservation and efficiency both at the municipal/industrial level and in agriculture. Water conservation is an area with broad consensus. A recent public opinion study of Coloradans identified conservation as the most important water related issue. Other studies have strikingly demonstrated that 80 percent of Coloradans favored conservation over new construction projects. In 2013 I sponsored SB13-19, which gives landowners a new tool to conserve water without injuring their water rights. New conservation and efficiency tools are needed in the State Water Plan as they stress wise use of our precious water resource.

Conservation may be just one piece of this larger puzzle, and I want to hear what pieces are important to you. The dialogue around the state water plan is a critical discourse to ensure the protection of Western Slope water, reduce the “buy and dry” cycle on our agricultural lands and demand responsible urban and industrial use. In order to make your voice heard, contact me at gail.schwartz.senate@gmail.com, your regional round table, and IBCC members to help identify water issues and solutions that you feel are critical to this process. Thank you for caring about Colorado’s future.

To follow WRRC interim meetings, find materials, and read potential state water legislation as it becomes available please go to http://www.colorado.gov/lcs/WRRC.

For more information about the State Water Plan, the CWCB, your regional round table, and the IBCC, please go to http://cwcb.state.co.us/water-management/CO-Water-Plan/Pages/main.aspx.

Follow the Colorado Water Plan on Twitter at @COWaterPlan and Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Colorado-Water-Plan/546079485458568.

From The Goat (Sarah Jane Keller):

Last week, while speaking at lunch during the Upper Colorado Basin Water Conference in Grand Junction, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board could have put his audience to sleep in their cannoli. He was talking about the narcolepsy-inducing topic of water planning, after all. Instead, James Eklund captured the room’s attention by quoting “the great water philosopher, Mike Tyson” who said, “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been punched in the face.” And there’s no doubt that Colorado’s been punched in the face.

Those blows have come from the combination of a 14-year drought, population growth, wild fires and floods. Now the state is figuring out how it will “pick itself off the canvas,” as Eklund described it, and move forward. But Colorado is one of the few Western states without a water plan.

In Colorado’s case, Eklund said, there are already enough glossy reports that sit on shelves. The state wants a document that analyzes the state’s water challenges and leads to meaningful action. So Colorado’s been working on one since this past summer, based on input from grassroots water planning groups called basin roundtables, which have been meeting for the last eight years. The first draft is due to Gov. Hickenlooper in December. Hopefully, having a road map will help soften the blows of further hydrologic bludgeoning…

One solution to stave off buy-and-dry would be creating a marketing system to let farmers lease water to cities in select years, or for a series of years, instead of permanently selling water rights. Leasing already happens on a small scale, but the state has been providing grants so water districts or nonprofits can work out the legal, technical and financial hurdles to large-scale leasing.

For example, in the Arkansas Basin, land of famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes, irrigators have formed the Super Ditch Company. It’s an amalgamation of regional ditch companies that will bargain for irrigators who want to lease part of their water to cities like Denver and Pueblo. There’s now legislation in the works to make the pilot project permanent. (For more on buy-and-dry and the Arkansas Basin check out this 2012 HCN feature from Matt Jenkins).

Even in the recent past, Eklund said, there’s been resistance to state water planning because of fear that it will impinge on private property rights, or overthrow the legal doctrine that guarantees water to senior rights holders. But those days of foot-dragging may be coming to an end, and the state’s water managers have recognized that water management needs to change to address new climate norms. “I’m here to tell you why I think the landscape has shifted,” Eklund said, “and why (with) the variable hydrology these days coupled with the scarcity of the resource…we can no longer have enough water for every need, and we’ve got to start looking at what we’re going to do with these new pressures.”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

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