#COWaterPlan: “I think we’ve made some major improvements and reached a better understanding throughout the state” — Karn Stiegelmeier

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From The Summit Daily News (Elise Reuter):

“I think we’ve made some major improvements and reached a better understanding throughout the state. But we still have a long way to go,” Summit County commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said of the water plan.

The final draft of the plan will go to Hickenlooper on or before Dec. 10. In the meantime, each individual basin has drafted a set of local initiatives, as well statewide goals to help address the growing water supply gap that Colorado faces…

“Prioritizing the environment in that planning process, it’s exciting,” Theresa Conley, a water advocate for Conservation Colorado said. “The governor has repeatedly said since the executive order, every conversation about water needs to start with conservation. I think the plan advances that.”[…]

Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey
Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

STREAM MANAGEMENT

The Colorado Basin, consisting of Summit, Eagle, Mesa, Grand, Routt and Garfield counties, has set its own implementation plan to be carried out under the Colorado Water Plan.

“For us in this part of the state, our economy is absolutely integrated with our water,” Stiegelmeier said. “That is also the economy of the whole state. The Front Range is very much tied to our economy.”

She noted that on the Western Slope alone, the water recreation industry brings in $9 billion.

To promote recreation and healthier rivers, the Colorado Basin has led state discussions on stream management, with a plan to assess streams that are crucial to the basin and are in need of improvement. The first step of the plan is to assess water flows and predict the impact of current usage as well as unused water rights on fish, the surrounding riparian habitat, water flows and several other factors.

“We don’t know what the real on-the-ground, in-the-stream impact is until we do a really complete stream management plan,” Stiegelmeier said.

Pennsylvania Mine Upper Peru Creek Basin
Pennsylvania Mine Upper Peru Creek Basin

Take the example of Peru Creek — a stream that runs through the former Pennsylvania Mine, picking up waste from toxic metals unearthed during the mining era. Summit County is working on a collaborative effort to redirect the water away from the toxic metals, to allow more aquatic life in the Snake River downstream.

“We think it will take at least a year to see what that does to the stream by moving clean water out of the mines,” Stiegelmeier added.

This concept trickles up to the state level, where $1 million will be allocated per year for stream management planning, according to the current draft of Colorado’s Water Plan…

BRIDGING THE GAP

A key feature of the plan is to set a statewide conservation goal, to be implemented at the discretion of local water departments…

“We have stated over and over and over that there needs to be better land-use connection,” Stiegelmeier said. “You have your Kentucky bluegrass with every house, and that doesn’t make sense in a desert.”

A few proposed solutions are to leave native vegetation as open space and cluster buildings together. She pointed to Breckenridge as an example, with a tiered water-rate system encouraging conservation.

The state is also looking to improve water efficiency for agricultural uses. In the Kremmling area, part of the effort is to work on hay fields, where more efficient irrigation could benefit both farms and streams to an extent…

“When you have two years of low snowpack, you don’t have the luxury of having a conversation about conservation,” [Jim Pokrandt] said. “If things went to hell in a hand basket here in Colorado, you’d see the conversation getting sharper.”[…]

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

A DIVISIVE ISSUE

The most contentious piece of the water plan concerns the creation of new trans-mountain diversions, such as Lake Dillon Reservoir, that direct flows across the Continental Divide. The framework does not take a stance so much as create a series of requirements a new project must reach before getting started…

“Is it a radical shift? No. But it gets people on the same page,” Conley said. “In terms of guiding our water future, it’s a big step forward.”

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