State plan takes on the challenges of water future — The Crested Butte News #COWaterPlan

Gunnison River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey
Gunnison River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey

From The Crested Butte News (Alissa Johnson):

The plan has been getting a lot of attention for addressing potential transmountain water diversion projects that would carry water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, including the Gunnison River. But local water experts say that’s one small part of a comprehensive document.

“One thing that’s interesting is the amount of attention that transmountain diversion has gotten in the Colorado Water Plan. That’s really just a page or two out of about 500 pages, but it has gotten more attention than the rest of the document combined,” said Frank Kugel, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

In fact, the plan doesn’t address specific project proposals for transmountain diversion. It provides a conceptual framework to guide the consideration of any future proposals—what Kugel calls sideboards for future discussions—including protection for local communities.

“There will be strict principles applied to any future transmountain diversion projects. The diverter has to accept the risk of that project and understand that if there is no water available, they are the first ones to be shut off,” Kugel said.

The full plan considers many other aspects of water management. As Kugel explained, “We’re facing the risk of having twice as many people [in Colorado] by the year 2050 and some 10 to 15 percent less water supply due to climate change. Those two paths are going in opposite directions, so we need to figure out how to serve more people with less.”

To do that, all nine of Colorado’s Water Basin Roundtables, the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board have been providing input to the plan.

As the Water Plan website states, “The 27 members of the IBCC, representing every water basin and water interest in Colorado, have agreed that unless action is taken, we will face an undesirable future for Colorado with unacceptable consequences.”

The process has attracted a lot of attention from the public. Julie Nania, water director for High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), says that more than 24,000 public comments were submitted on the first draft of the plan.

“As a plan itself it’s important, but it also facilitates a conversation, taking a closer look at the difficult water issues in Colorado… and how to move forward and protect natural resources while ensuring that communities have the water they need to thrive,” Nania said.

After an initial review of the second draft, Nania is encouraged by the progress that has been made: there are strong urban conservation goals; emphasis has been placed on the importance of healthy rivers, watersheds and watershed planning (including a recognition of the $2 billion to $3 billion needed to keep them healthy); and stringent principles have been developed to vet any future transmountain diversions projects.

“Two things HCCA will look at as we move forward are funding… and more robust criteria for projects before the state decides to fund them,” Nania said. While the plan acknowledges the cost of maintaining healthy rivers and watersheds, there is no funding mechanism identified for other types of projects.

“And we would always like to see stronger language against new transmountain diversions,” Nania continued.

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus) via the Cortez Journal:

The July 2 release of the plan marks a critical juncture for Colorado’s Water Plan, which has been hailed by Gov. John Hickenlooper as one of the most important pieces of policy facing the state. The draft was actually released about two weeks early…

Local and state water officials will hold a meeting July 20 at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Durango, where state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango; James Eklund, director of the Water Conservation Board; and Mike Preston, chairman of the Southwest Basin Roundtable, are expected to give an overview.

Preston said the plan represents an opportunity to frame the future of water in Southwest Colorado and throughout the state for the next 50 years…

Policymakers must balance the interests of rural Colorado – where water is precious for agricultural needs – with the needs of the rapidly expanding Front Range and suburban communities. One sticking point could be transmountain water diversions for Front Range communities. Front Range plans call for more transmountain water, but Preston questions the viability of such a strategy.

Officials must also preserve the state’s “prior appropriation” system, in which rights are granted to the first person to take water from an aquifer or river, despite residential proximity. Water rights often dominate policy conversations.

The Southwest Basin is complicated, flowing through two Native American reservations and including a series of nine sub-basins, eight of which flow out of state. Complexities exist with agreements with the federal government, which owns large swaths of land in the region…

Preston said he has a team currently combing through the second draft of the plan to determine what changes occurred from the first draft. He was not immediately able to comment on any updates to the plan.

“We’ve got a lot of substance, really a 50-year strategy in the plan, and then a bunch of unresolved issues on a statewide level,” Preston said. “So, we’re really going to press for broader community education and engagement from here forward.

“This is a living document,” Preston said. “We’re pretty serious about what’s in it, both in terms of trying to develop our own supplies for the future and how we need to participate in the statewide exercise.”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Leave a Reply