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State officials are hoping dire climate predictions and water shortages will convince Coloradans to get involved in planning how to share a dwindling resource.
Colorado Water Conservation Board staff released the second iteration of the Colorado Water Plan on Thursday, which is now open for public comment. The first version of the plan was implemented in 2015.
Words from the late water expert and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs set the tone on page 1 of the document: The 21st century is no longer about developing a resource, it is now an era of limits and learning how to share a developed resource.
“I think we get to educate and engage and inspire and be an example and I think that’s the benefit,” said CWCB Executive Director Becky Mitchell. “I think when we are given the opportunity to lead, Coloradans do that.”
The updated plan lays out four interconnected areas for action: vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds and resilient planning. Although municipal and industry does not currently experience a gap, the plan predicts a 230,000 to 740,000 acre-foot shortfall for cities and industries by 2050. According to the plan, about 20% of agriculture diversion demand is currently not met statewide, and that gap could grow to a 3.5 million acre-foot shortfall by 2050 under the “hot growth” scenario that would see temperatures rise 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meeting these supply-demand gaps will require hundreds of water projects throughout Colorado’s eight river basins, and carries a price tag of $20 billion. These projects, many of which have benefits to more than one water-use sector, are laid out in each roundtable’s Basin Implementation Plan.
Backdrop of climate change
The 239-page document is set against the backdrop of climate change, which plays a bigger role in this water plan than in the 2015 version. The first water plan did not include projections of future climate change in its analyses. Three of the five planning scenarios now include assumptions of hotter conditions in the years to come.
According to the plan, Colorado has had three of the top five driest years on record since 2000 and has experienced a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature. The state may see an additional 2.5 to 5 degree warming by 2050. Most projections show a decline in spring snowpack and more frequent heat waves, drought and wildfire, all of which have implications for water.
Environmental and recreation water needs could see the worst impacts since those uses generally have the most junior water rights.
“Peak runoff may shift as much as one month earlier, which could lead to drier conditions in summer months and impact storage, irrigation and streamflow,” the plan reads. “Decreased peak flows across the basin create risks for riparian/wetland plants and fish habitat. Instream flows and recreational in-channel diversions may not be met if June-August flows decrease due to climate change.”
Old tensions and trends
The new plan addressed a tension from the first plan: Front Range water providers would like the ability to develop new transmountain diversions in the future, while Western Slope stakeholders say not to look to the Colorado River basin for more water for thirsty cities. Colorado’s Front Range currently takes about 500,000 acre-feet of water a year from the headwaters of the Colorado River basin across the Continental Divide.
The plan stopped short of a detailed analysis of transmountain diversions because of ongoing litigation and permitting processes, but promised that state staff would facilitate discussions about transmountain diversions before the next update to the plan.
“Our promise to West Slope folks was when we could get past those legal barriers, we would take an honest look at trying to have a better conversation,” said Russ Sands, senior program manager for the CWCB’s water supply planning section. “I think we owe it to our stakeholders to try and focus on analysis.”
The plan says Colorado will continue the slow but steady transformation of moving water from agriculture — by far the largest water user — to cities, with nearly 14,000 acres of irrigated land expected to be urbanized, one-third of that in the Grand Valley. Stakeholders estimate the loss of irrigated land to “buy-and-dry” to be even greater at 33,000 to 76,000 acres, which is three times higher than the 2015 Water Plan estimate.
But this could be eased by innovative and flexible agreements between water users that allow the temporary transfer of water from one use to another. Formerly known as Alternative Transfer Methods, state officials have rebranded them Collaborative Water Sharing Agreements, which allow water sharing, but prevent the permanent removal of water from the land.
Equity and engagement
State officials have also made an effort to be more inclusive this time around and in March 2021 convened a Water Equity Task Force to help shape a guiding set of principles around equity, diversity and inclusion to inform the water plan. Abby Burk, the western rivers regional program manager with Audubon Rockies, was an equity task force member.
“People are engaging and leaning into the space other than just the water right owners,” she said. “We are all supported by water every single day. How do we expand this decision-making to include more voices? How do we open our arms and encourage more people to come into this space?”
The 2015 Water Plan racked up more than 30,000 comments and state officials are hoping Coloradans become even more involved this time around. The plan lays out three levels of engagement citizens can take and encourages Coloradans to promote water conservation, join water-focused stakeholder groups and coordinate with local leaders to advance water policy.
And there is a small bright spot that shows the potential for change when citizens get engaged: The plan says that Coloradans have reduced their per-person water use from 172 to 164 gallons a day, a 5% reduction in demand since 2008, mainly due to conservation efforts.
Sands said the tough conditions can open people’s minds and make them more willing to come to the table to talk.
“I think we are actually going to see more collaboration than ever,” he said.
The update to the Colorado Water Plan is open for public comment until September 30 and CWCB staff will also hold four online listening sessions. The plan is scheduled to be finalized by the CWCB in January 2023.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.