How will Colorado share the Colorado River? How much irrigated land will be dried up to slake the thirst of growing cities? How far should the state and local governments go in requiring residents to conserve?
These are some of the questions that will be addressed in Colorado’s statewide water plan, which is currently under development. Back in May, Gov. Hickenlooper ordered the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to develop a draft plan by Dec. 10, 2014, which is to be finalized by Dec. 10, 2015…
Both the CWCB and the Basin Roundtables are now seeking public input on the plan. There’s a survey link at the end of this article for you to provide general input, and future articles and surveys will address more specific issues.
First, though, let’s consider this basic question – why does Colorado need a water plan?
The Governor’s Executive Order notes that the gap between the state’s developed water supplies and growing urban demands could exceed 500,000 acre feet by 2050 (an acre foot is about enough for 2-3 families for a year at current usage rates). The biggest gap is anticipated in the South Platte River Basin, home to Colorado’s largest cities. A central challenge for the water plan is to fill the gap in a way that matches Colorado’s values. That’s a tough nut to crack.
The easiest way for cities to fill that gap is by taking it from agriculture, which currently accounts for about 85% of the water consumed in the state. But there’s a heavy price to pay for continuing to rely on that approach. A state water supply study released in 2010 projected a 15-20% decline in irrigated acreage statewide by 2050, with a 22-32% decline in the South Platte Basin over the same period. “Buying and drying” of agricultural water rights has already devastated some rural communities, and most stakeholders agree that this should be minimized in the future.
If not from agriculture, then where? East Slope Roundtables have been arguing for the need to preserve the option to develop additional West Slope water supplies. West Slope Roundtables point to environmental and economic impacts already felt from the roughly 500,000 acre-feet/year already transferred across the divide each year. More than 60% of the natural flows of the Upper Colorado River above Kremmling, for example, are diverted to the Front Range, impacting both Grand County building permits and gold medal trout streams.
Another concern is that increased depletions from the Colorado River and its tributaries would increase the risk of failing to meet legal obligations to downstream states. If downstream flow obligations are not met, water rights junior to the 1922 Compact between Upper Colorado River Basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) and Lower Colorado River Basin States (Arizona, Nevada and California) on how to share the river could be curtailed. If that means cutting off urban taps, it could set off a mad scramble for senior agricultural water rights on the West Slope.
Of course, neither drying up irrigated agriculture nor putting another straw into the Colorado Basin would be necessary if urban users reduced their consumption sufficiently. But how to achieve that isn’t easy either. Updated fixtures and education campaigns are a good start, but conserving enough to eliminate the need for other water sources would likely be impossible without the broad application of land-use and landscaping restrictions that may not be politically palatable.
There are no easy answers to the state’s large-scale water challenges. Creative solutions are needed to find more “win-win” solutions, with less of a need for losers – but hard choices may still need to be made. The more people that contribute their insights and opinions, the better the chances are that the final plan will fully reflect Colorado’s water values.
To begin contributing your insights to your Basin Roundtable and the CWCB, fill out this quick survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ColoBasinPlanValues.
If you want to get a little more background first, check out the new Colorado Water Plan website at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com/.