Big day: #COwaterplan is due on Governor Hickenlooper’s desk today

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Anyone who attended meetings about the state water plan during the past year knows that the need to protect the environment and wildlife habitat were frequently discussed topics.

But there appears to be a rainbow of opinions among conservation groups about how those comments will be interpreted in the draft water plan, which is scheduled to be delivered to Gov. John Hickenlooper by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Denver today. The final plan is still a year from completion.

The spectrum ranges from satisfaction that conservation voices have been heard to alarm that the plan will further hurt the state’s rivers.

The Nature Conservancy applauded the plan for opening the discussion of water development to environmental values and science.

“The current draft plan clearly articulates a shared commitment to protect our rivers,” said Tracey Stone of the Nature Conservancy. “We are developing a greater appreciation of water’s value to Colorado for all interests including cities, agriculture, industry, environment and recreation.”

In a recent interview with The Pueblo Chieftain, Bart Miller, water program director for Western Resource Advocates, said the plan needs stronger language to protect the environment, citing a poll in September that showed this is what Coloradans want.

“We heard loud and clear from the comments from people all over the state that conservation is needed,” Miller said.

Western Resource Advocates is among those that are active in the process and pushing a program that encourages stretching current supplies rather than developing new sources.

But some groups are charging they have been excluded from the process and say the plan will only encourage further destruction of rivers…

The draft plan pushes development of proposed projects that will further damage the rivers by increasing withdrawals and streamlines the regulatory process, Wockner said.

James Eklund, executive director of the CWCB, bristled at the suggestion that any environmental advocates were not heard during the process. Many of the 13,000 comments on the draft plan were aimed at preserving flows for the environment and wildlife habitat.

Here’s a in-depth look at James Eklund and the Colorado Water Plan written by Kate Siber that’s running in 5280 Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

On summer mornings, young James Eklund would often wake before dawn. When daylight was just a suggestion on the horizon, the eight-year-old rode with the cattle from his family’s Flying Triangle Ranch to higher pastures in the mountains. Occasionally he would accompany his grandfather, Edwin Gunderson Jr., on the walk from the house to the irrigation ditch to bring water to the fields. He’d help his uncles fix fences, clean the ditch, and move cows on the Mesa County ranch near Collbran. These were the moments when Eklund first learned about water, the life-giving force, an inalienable right, and a critical ingredient to the business that sustained his family. He learned the water that flowed through the head gates from Plateau Creek was theirs to use because they had been in the area long before others upstream—ever since his great-great-grandfather arrived from Norway and homesteaded the land in 1888.

Gunderson believed ranchers were the original environmentalists. They cared for and made good use of the water, and no one should mess with that right—not the neighbors, not the town, and certainly not the state government. No one. To Gunderson, water was personal.

Three decades later, James Eklund, 39, resembles his grandfather—long-legged with a five o’clock shadow, neatly combed hair, and a pronounced brow—but he sits on the other side of the state, in a government office in Denver. His ranch-bred body seems restless, confined by these four white walls, despite the seventh-floor views that overlook south Denver, the giant cloudless sky, and, on a good day, the Rampart Range. But he has a mission, and it’s something he believes in—something that has made some of his family members anxious and that his grandfather would have looked upon with caution. Eklund is the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB),1 one of the state agencies that oversee water management and finance projects such as dams and stream-restoration programs, and he is in charge of overseeing Colorado’s first statewide water plan…

“We’re going to see that there’s just not enough water for the things everybody wants at the same time,” Eklund says. “Rather than pin our hopes on pipelines from the Mississippi River or icebergs being towed down from Alaska or these pie-in-the-sky schemes, we need to be solving our own problems with our own water.”

From Inkstain (John Fleck):

Everyone on the Colorado River has a legitimate argument that they’ve already sacrificed, and that they have a legal entitlement to what’s left. If everyone digs in their heels on these points, the system will crash. We need to be willing to share the pain. But (scroll to the bottom) there is hope on that front.

longer – The Unhopeful Part

In reading and interviews for my book, I frequently run across arguments of the form that “we” (usually a state, but also sometimes a smaller water-using entity) have already done “our” share for solving the Colorado River’s problems by (insert specific sacrifice already made here).

They all, of course, are right. Consider:

Arizona

With the 1968 approval of the Colorado River Basin Project Act, Arizona agreed to subordinate the bulk of its Colorado River water rights to California in return for the political supported needed to build the Central Arizona Project, which brings water to Phoenix, Tucson, farms and Native American communities in the central part of the state. As a result, Arizona currently shoulders (at least on paper) much of the risk in the face of shortfalls in the lower basin. Under the current law, all of Arizona’s CAP water would be cut off before California loses a drop. That was a major sacrifice.

California

But wait, didn’t California already lose a bunch of drops? Yup, in 2003 California was cut back from its historical use of in excess of 5 million acre feet per year to 4.4 million. That required major water conservation and supply shifts in metropolitan Southern California, and the fallowing of land in the Imperial Valley to free up enough to keep Southern California’s economic engine humming. So yeah, the next big cuts would hit Arizona if there’s a shortage, but that’s only because California already took a big hit.

Nevada

Nevada took its hit coming out of the starting gate. Its allocation of 300,000 acre feet, which goes to Vegas, is basically a rounding error if you’re rounding total Colorado River flow to the nearest million acre feet. Don’t look at Nevada for sacrifice (and even if you did, as I mentioned, sacrificing Nevada completely is just a rounding error on the Colorado River balance sheet).

Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico

Under the Colorado River Compact, the four states of the Upper Basin are entitled to use 7.5 million acre feet of water per year. When they signed the deal in 1922, they knew it would be a long time before they would grow into their entitlements, but it was water in the bank to support future growth. In 2012, they only used 4.6 million acre feet, which is pretty typical. The Upper Basin states have clearly done their share.

This isn’t cheap sophistry. Each of the above arguments is a reasonably held, legitimate view. It’s most on display this week in the development of Colorado’s water plan:

Colorado wants to ensure its farms, wildlife and rapidly growing cities have enough water in the decades to come. It’s pledging to provide downstream states every gallon they’re legally entitled to, but not a drop more.

“If anybody thought we were going to roll over and say, ‘OK, California, you’re in a really bad drought, you get to use the water that we were going to use,’ they’re mistaken,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The governance boundary problem

There’s a core issue here that involves the boundaries we draw around our Colorado River water problems. Doug Kenney and his colleagues in the new Colorado River Research Group captured this nicely in one of their first white papers, on “Repairing the Colorado River’s Broken Water Budget” (pdf). Each state, operating within what it thinks are the legal boundaries around its “share” of the Colorado River, has put down on paper a menu of future water options that are wildly unrealistic given the hydrologic reality. There is less wet water in the river than paper water embodied in each user group’s lawyers’ arguments.

Is that realistic? “[I]t’s not, and those water managers that look at the numbers through a basin-wide lens know this,” Kenney and colleagues wrote. But while the Colorado River’s problems have to be solved at a basin scale, much of the water use decision making that matters happens at the state and local level, where the basin wide problems are less visible.

I see this in New Mexico water politics all the time, where there is an expectation that a full firm yield of 96,200 acre feet of water per year through the San Juan-Chama diversion project is our compact-given right. Our sacrifices have been to cleverly live within that allocation, maximizing its beneficial use. The notion that the Colorado Basin as a whole is over-allocated, and that we might have to take a haircut along with everyone else, is simply not part of the discussion.

The hopeful part

To be clear, there are a lot of people up and down the governance ladder, from federal and state to local levels, who aren’t talking this way. Matt Jenkins’ excellent High Country News article today about the Pilot Drought Response Actions program highlights a great example. Here you’ve got a bunch of lower basin water managers trying to find a way to route around this problem, building a couple of different types of institutional widgets to reduce water use locally, but in the context of a basin wide effort.

The PDRA (PDRAP?) attempts to overcome the problem Eklund is referring to (If I conserve, won’t it just end up in California?) by matching conservation commitments. The big metro water agencies in each of the lower basin states agrees to take a haircut and leave the saved water in Lake Mead. Arizona, which is clearly the state with the most to lose, pledges 345,000 acre feet by 2017 (the Central Arizona Project is the actor here); Southern California (Met) pledges 300,000 af; Vegas (Southern Nevada Water Authority) pledges 45,000 af and the Bureau of Reclamation agrees to throw in another 50,000 af. The water stays in Lake Mead, to prop up levels and forestall the risk of shortage.

Matt’s story suggests Arizona’s already nailed down a portion of its savings, in the form of ag agency commitments. This is hopeful stuff.

From 9News.com (Maya Rodriguez):

For months, 9NEWS has been reporting on a crucial turning point in the water use issues that define life and grown in Colorado. Wednesday afternoon, state officials will release the first draft for the Colorado Water Plan. Governor John Hickenlooper issued an executive order in May of 2013 to get a water plan in place. The effort has been nearly a decade in the making and it is not without controversy.

9NEWS looked at an earlier version of the plan, which runs hundreds of pages. It divides the state into seven major watersheds.

On the Front Range, the focus is on the South Platte Basin, where both the population– and the demand from agriculture– is the highest in the state. The draft identifies 42 water-related plans, just for the South Platte Basin alone. Some of the plans include storing more water — specifically in underground aquifers.

It also brings up the controversial idea of a trans-mountain diversion. That’s where water from the western slope would be physically moved to this side of the continental divide, to meet the needs of the growing population here.

The price tag for all of the projects would be at least $690 million, with no details about where the money would come from. The early version of the draft points out that many of those projects still don’t have a price tag attached to them, so they are not included in that amount.

The plan will be released Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. at the Capitol.

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via ABCNews.com:

With demand increasing across the West, Colorado is drawing up a strategy to keep some of the trillions of gallons of water that gushes out of the Rocky Mountains every spring ? most of which flows downstream to drought-stricken California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

Colorado wants to ensure its farms, wildlife and rapidly growing cities have enough water in the decades to come. It’s pledging to provide downstream states every gallon they’re legally entitled to, but not a drop more.

“If anybody thought we were going to roll over and say, ‘OK, California, you’re in a really bad drought, you get to use the water that we were going to use,’ they’re mistaken,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which wrote the draft after a series of public meetings.

Eklund’s insistence on Colorado’s water rights drew diplomatic responses from his colleagues in other states on the eve of a Las Vegas meeting of water managers. The managers, from seven states, are working on ways to ensure 40 million people in the parched Colorado River basin don’t go thirsty.

“California has not sought any Colorado River water beyond its entitlement and has no intention of doing so,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He referred to the Colorado River Compact of 1922 that covers water allocations to Colorado, California, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and Nevada.

“Arizona has the same interest” as Colorado in ensuring its supply is protected, said Michael J. Lacey, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “I am not sure we will express it as pointedly as that,” Lacey said of Eklund’s remarks.

With drought making cooperation more important, members of the Colorado River Water Users Association deny there’s discord at their table.

The Colorado plan is being submitted to Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday. A final version is expected in late 2015 and will propose legislation.

Nearly 4.6 trillion gallons of water originates in Colorado every year, mostly from prodigious snowstorms high in the Rockies. Two-thirds of it belongs to users in downstream states, including California, under a collection of interstate agreements and court rulings.

The other third is available to Colorado users under a system of water rights, which are considered property that can be bought and sold.

Colorado suffered through its own devastating drought in 2002-03, an event that prompted the state to take a close look at how its water is distributed and how it could be used better.

That process led to the new plan, which addresses several major issues. Colorado’s cities will need more water as the population grows from 5.5 million today to a projected 8 million to 9 million by 2050. Irrigated agricultural land is drying up at an alarming rate as cities buy out farmers to get their water. And the state’s key recreational economy and its environment need to water in streams and lakes to survive.

The 1922 compact and agreements with Mexico today promise about 16.5 million acre-feet of water annually from a river that has historically taken in about 15 million acre-feet from rainfall and snowmelt. That amount has diminished during drought. One acre-foot of water is about enough to serve two average households for a year.

Colorado’s plan takes no position on one of the state’s most historically contentious issues: The century-old practice of pumping water from west of the Continental Divide to the populous but drier eastern side. The 163 billion gallons shipped through the divide each year is a major source for the urban Front Range corridor, including Denver.

It does say conservation and recycling should be considered before any more giant pipeline projects.

“All of the easy projects, those that are anywhere near the Front Range, those are already built,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, which guides Colorado River use in western Colorado. “My concern is we take a realistic look at the Colorado River as a new supply for the Front Range.”

Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water, the state’s largest municipal utility, said new transmountain projects shouldn’t be ruled out.

“It’s really going to have to be an all-of-the-above approach if we’re going to do that right,” he said.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.