#NISP: “In a sense, water becomes a proxy war for growth management” — Reagan Waskom

From BizWest (Dallas Heltzell):

Even so, “it’s absurd to think the supply of water is going to keep people from wanting to be here,” [Landon Hoover] said. “Oh, sure, at some point, if the traffic is so bad, people wouldn’t want to live here anymore — or if the cost of living gets so expensive. But both of those have to get so extremely bad before it would inhibit growth.

“Just making water too expensive? That’s not a strategy for dealing with growth. People still want to live in Boulder even though housing costs are through the roof.”

Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said developers are “going to find the water. It’s doubled in price but still cheap. People will still want to live in Northern Colorado. It’s the economic driver of willing buyer, willing seller.”[…]

“Seven of the 10 fastest-growing cities in Colorado are in Northern’s boundaries,” [Brian Werner] said. “We can’t ignore it.”[…]

The cities of Fort Collins and Greeley and the Environmental Protection Agency have issued reports critical of the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement issued by the Corps in June, citing incomplete or even flawed data on issues including water quality and temperature. Moreover, Greeley officials have said reduced flows in the Poudre would force that city to spend more on water treatment.

“It would be a large one-time capital expenditure — we can only estimate tens of millions, plus additional ongoing maintenance and operations costs,” said Eric Reckentine, Greeley’s deputy director of water resources. “If you’re reducing flows in the river, you’re decreasing water quality. Less water in the river, but the same sediment load. Sediment and nutrient load increases, which decreases water quality.”

For Northern Water officials, however, the litany of complaints are just part of the process that will shape the Corps’ final environmental impact statement, expected by early next year.

“It’s always been our understanding that the Corps basically planned the process in this way — data from Phase 1 to be used in Phase 2,” Wilkinson said. “It will be developed and analyzed prior to the FEIS.”[…]

“We’re going to talk to Fort Collins and say, ‘Let us understand your concerns.’” — [Eric Wilkinson]

“There appears to be a difference in analysis between Corps consultants and Fort Collins’ and Greeley’s consultants,” Wilkinson said, “but obviously, that’s what the public comment period is for. There’s going to be a technical analysis. That’s part of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act of 1970) process — to sift through those facts.”[…]

When Waskom talks to water-utility managers, he said, “they tell me they have buyers coming to them on a regular basis, willing to sell water.”[…]

“The NISP project is to divert water from the Poudre into Glade. Some of that is our water,” he said. “So in order to make that up to us, they’ll have to draw water out of the South Platte into Galeton. In order to make the exchange, we still need to irrigate. There has to be ag use here.”[…]

Waskom outlined some possible alternatives to buy-and-dry, including “forbearance” agreements and fallowing arrangements.

“A farmer agrees not to plant a crop, and the water they’d use to irrigate they’d transfer to another use on a short-term basis,” he said. “Water law allows that to happen three years out of 10. It’s a business deal. The farmer plays golf and gets a check from the city. The limitation is that a farmer can’t walk away from his markets and labor and expect they’ll be there next year.

“My institute has been very involved in doing research around those agreements,” Waskom said. “We believe there is potential there. That said, municipal water managers want to own their portfolios. They would rather lease to ag than have ag lease to them.

“Our current water court structure makes it difficult and expensive. Is it a pathway for the future? Yeah. Does it abrogate the need for Glade now? Probably not.”

The reason, Waskom said, is drought.

“Water resource managers are always planning for drought,” he said. “Drought is what keeps them awake at night. It looks like we’re building more than what we need, but there will be drought in the future. We just don’t know when.

“The one thing the climatologists tell me they’re pretty certain about — temperature increases. We have frequent drought anyway on the Front Range, but hotter droughts are always more serious than cooler droughts. With the wildfires in 2012, cities had their water resources compromised.

“We don’t know what precipitation is going to do, but climatological records already show increasing temperatures in Colorado. That’s a trend we’re going to stay on, and that concerns water managers.”

Explaining climate change can get political, Waskom said. “We’ve been talking to extension agents, and there’s lots of resistance based on values.[…]

Another idea the institute is studying is underground water storage.

“In this area, we get three feet of evaporation off the top per year” from an impoundment such as Horsetooth or Carter Lake southwest of Loveland, Waskom said. “Storing water underground in aquifers tends to be nonevaporative. It is feasible, but there’s scientific debate about it, and policy limitations too. Could underground storage decrease the need for NISP? There’s scientific debate about that. Because of the unknowns in the science and the energy costs of recovering that water, though, it wasn’t deemed a viable alternative to Glade Reservoir. Could it be in the future? I think so.”[…]

“I doubt most developers know enough about NISP to judge whether the tactical implementation of it is good or bad,” [Landon Hoover] said. “But developers see that there needs to be a solution for water storage in Northern Colorado if people want affordable housing, places where teachers, firefighters, middle-income families can live, $300,000, $400,000 houses.

“There’s really a limited supply of water, and we’re nearing the end of that supply. Unless demand shuts off, there’s no relief for prices. The issue isn’t whether we have enough water rights, the issue is we don’t have enough storage. By having storage, it will at least temper water prices. I don’t know if it’ll ever drastically lower them.”

The bottom line, Waskom said, is that “we’re going to need reservoirs, infrastructure, conservation, underground storage, ag deals, all of the above, to keep Colorado’s economy strong and vibrant into the future.”

Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water
Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water