From The Fort Morgan Times (Marianne Goodland):
It’s hard to imagine, in the midst of flooded fields and basements, the possibility that Colorado could face a major water shortage sometime in the next several decades.
But Colorado this year is just now coming out of its latest drought, and another is never far away. And Colorado officials expect the state’s population to grow by almost double in the next few decades. That means more water will be needed than Mother Nature can provide.
That’s one of the reasons the state is putting together its first comprehensive water plan, to manage future droughts and future population increases.
In the next several weeks, the Colorado Water Conservation Board will release the next draft of the statewide water plan. It’s been in the works officially for two years, although basin roundtable and other groups have been looking at the state’s water situation since just after the 2002 drought…
James Eklund, director of the CWCB, said it’s easier to plan for the state’s water future when Colorado isn’t in a drought, as opposed to California, which is imposing emergency restrictions. California is in the fourth year of its drought, and that state’s emergency restrictions recently began extending to agriculture…
The heart of the plan is proposals submitted by the state’s nine basin roundtables. The state has eight major basins, so there’s a roundtable for each, made up of representatives from agriculture, recreation, local and domestic water providers, industrial and environmental interests. Five additional members must hold water rights or have a contract for federal water. A ninth roundtable represents the Denver Metro area.
Each basin roundtable submitted what’s called a Basin Implementation Plan (BIP). Denver and the South Platte River Basin Roundtable submitted a joint plan. Suggestions on how to manage Colorado’s water future come from those BIPs.
The draft state plan explains that one of the most controversial issues around water is the diversion of water from the Western Slope to the Eastern part of the state. The South Platte/Denver roundtable BIP said the groups believe in preservation of the state’s ability to use water from the Colorado River. That water is governed by a series of compacts with four “lower basin” states: California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. One of the concerns is that a “compact call” could require the state send more water to those lower basin states, which would put agriculture more at risk in Colorado. Eklund says a compact call is not likely anytime in the next ten years.
The South Platte/Denver BIP notes that the basin is a key economic driver that includes seven of the top ten agricultural-producing counties in Colorado. The BIP estimates the water gap in the South Platte/Denver basin by 20950 at 428,000 acre-feet for municipal and industrial use, and 422,000 acre-feet for irrigated agriculture. Morgan County’s projected gap is the largest in northeastern Colorado, at more than 12,000 acre-feet.
The South Platte/Denver basin faces significant challenges in the lifespan of the plan. That includes competition for water, continued transfers of agricultural water rights to municipalities and industrial water users, and a significant need for more storage. Lack of storage is forcing the area to rely on groundwater, which is water that resides below ground, often in aquifers.
The South Platte/Denver BIP presents a number of solutions for the area and for cooperation with the state’s other basins.
Currently, the area’s growing water demands are met largely by agricultural transfers: selling water rights to other users, mostly municipal and industrial, such as oil and gas. It’s a touchy subject, according to state water czar John Stulp: how to preserve agricultural water rights and at the same time recognize that those rights are private property. The BIP notes this, calling for a system where farmers can “decide for themselves how to manage those water rights while maintaining their right to use or sell” them. That system, at the same time, must include new ways to conduct those transfers to minimize the impact on the rest of the area. Those impacts are frequently economic: once water rights are permanently transferred, the community can suffer through loss of economic activity.
People often point to Crowley County, in southeastern Colorado, as what that looks like. Most of the water rights in Crowley County were sold off in the 1970s to municipal water providers; farming is nearly non-existent and the land has reverted to prairie grassland. The county now relies on a private prison as its major economic engine; fully 45 percent of the county’s population are prison inmates.
While the state has already taken steps to minimize the impact of “buy and dry” for agricultural water rights, the BIP suggests much more can be done. The BIP calls for additional water from the Colorado River, a suggestion that makes Western Slope residents nervous; and additional storage, either in reservoirs or in below ground aquifers.
The BIP also calls for new multi-purpose water storage in the basin area and to look for ways to more effectively use groundwater.
But storage costs money. A lot of money. The statewide water plan estimates a cost of $18 to $20 billion to fully implement the plan. That’s not all going to be paid for by the state: the plan lists more than a dozen financing options, including bonding and public/private partnerships.
The next draft of the statewide plan, due in July, will include legislative recommendations, although Stulp recently said they hope to avoid asking for a lot of new laws to implement parts of the plan. Another draft is likely in September; the final plan is due to the governor in December.
In the meantime, watch for another round of public hearings on the statewide water plan. The legislature’s interim water resources review committee will be part of a statewide tour that will visit each basin area. For the South Platte, that meeting is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Island Grove Event Center in Greeley. The Denver Metro hearing will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 15 in the Aurora City Council Chambers.
More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.