From The Denver Business Journal (Cathy Proctor):
“The Denver metro area wouldn’t be here but for those with the vision of being able to provide a secure, safe, healthy water supply to its people — it’s a responsibility that we take pretty seriously here as an organization,” Lochhead said.
And he worries about how the West’s codified system of legacy water rights — where the oldest rights are the strongest — is not flexible enough to deal with a changing climate.
“Our biggest challenge is climate change and what a warming climate does to the environment,” Lochhead said.
“One way to think about it is that the climate, and everything affected by it, is moving north. If you — pick a number — look 20 years, 30, 40 years into the future, the Denver climate may look more like Pueblo. In 100 years it may look more like the climate in Albuquerque today,” he said.
Such a change has dramatic impacts on the weather — and the water that comes with it.
Colorado’s water supply depends on a healthy mountain [snowpack] — with the winter’s cold holding the water in deep storage until the spring runoff. But weather changes could change snow patterns. It may rain more, or less. Higher temperatures could mean more water lost to evaporation. The trees, bushes and environment that dominate mountain valleys now may be different in the future.
“Yet we have a water right allocation system that is based on the notion that the future will look like the past,” Lochhead said.
“In 1890, a farmer in the South Platte River basin said, ‘I need this much water’ to irrigate the crops that he had at the time, based on the technology at the time, which was open ditches, and that water right still sits there today — yet everything under the water right is changing and shifting,” he said.
Caring for the environment surrounding the water also is crucial to long-term water quality and supply, especially for Denver Water’s network of streams, dams and pipelines supply span the Continental Divide.
“We have a responsibility for environmental stewardship in how we operate at Denver Water,” Lochhead said.
“If we mess up the river, what does that do for our future customers? We just destroyed our future water supply. So it’s our responsiblity to maintain the water quality and the enviroment, because the river, the environment, is part of our infrastructure.”