From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle, Kristin Green, Rob Harris, Brian Jackson)
A recent article suggested that the Colorado Water Plan could cost much more than anticipated – but estimates of higher cost are misguided, as all the proposals for proposed projects, and smart prioritization, is not yet final. Low-cost conservation measures will bring down the cost of the plan, and protect Colorado’s rivers for drinking water stability and healthy rivers.
SMART PRIORITIZATION AND COLLABORATION CRITICAL
Most everyone in Colorado knows that we can’t take a reliable water future for granted. Having clean, secure water for our communities, businesses, and agriculture, along with healthy rivers for respite, recreation, and to fuel our economy is not a given. In 2015, Colorado adopted a water plan, setting a course to achieve a reliable water future. Many applauded the balance of solutions and goals, including bolstering water conservation and reuse, looking for favorable ways to share water between cities and agriculture, and ensuring we had plans, and ideally actions, to keep our streams healthy.
Recently, the cost of the plan has come up in discussion.
There is no firmly identified cost to implement the water plan. We only have estimates at this time for what it will take to secure reliable water for our communities, agriculture, and environment. Those costs will become clearer as the state and water providers prioritize what water conservation, new supplies, water reuse, and stream restoration we want to do.
What we do know is that it will take resources to preserve the Colorado we love, and keep our farms productive and taps flowing. We also know that the money we need to restore and protect our rivers and streams, and find innovative ways to conserve water, are currently underfunded.
The initial estimate for the plan put the cost of implementation around $20 billion. That estimate includes the cost of the projects proposed from each basin around the state, but given the state’s limited resources that number could change as stakeholders further prioritize those projects.
We recently heard a much higher estimate cited that is simply wrong. When a Colorado family needs a new car, most are not going to go out and buy a Ferrari when a Ford affordably meets their needs – and that’s what we have here. We can achieve all of what’s needed to secure Colorado’s water needs into the future while investing only in those ideas that provide the best return to ratepayers and taxpayers. That’s what Coloradoans expect and it can be done. We need to identify what projects are a priority and which are financially feasible. We need to make sure we don’t double count projects that overlap with each other.
We encourage the state to prioritize funding the most cost-effective and feasible projects to secure a reliable water supply and protect our rivers and streams. Water conservation is one of the most cost effective ways to get where we need to go. Other innovations like water reuse and agricultural-urban sharing can provide multiple benefits and help us achieve a reliable water future.
Do we need more money? Yes. There are water funding needs identified in the plan and we will likely need to find new sources of dedicated funding. New funding sources should be used to support stabilizing a clean water supply for people, river health, agricultural conservation and efficiency, municipal conservation for smaller and medium-sized communities, and environmental water transactions. These projects are modest in costs, like adding air conditioning to a Ford, not a splurging on a lavish luxury car.
Collaboration will be critically important to shaping our water budget. We look forward to working with water providers, businesses, consumers, the state, local leaders, and other stakeholders in exploring the best way to meet the goals of the Colorado Water Plan.
Western Resource Advocates and Wilderness Workshop are opposing the city of Aspen’s efforts in water court to maintain conditional water storage rights tied to two potential dams on Castle and Maroon creeks. But the environmental organizations are formally collaborating with the city on finding water-supply alternatives to the two potential dams.
In late July, Western Resource Advocates and Wilderness Workshop joined the city in filing a preliminary application with the Colorado Water Conservation Board seeking state funds for a local study of potential “agricultural transfer mechanisms,” or ATMs.
Such programs provide alternatives to the “buy and dry” approach often used by cities to obtain water from ranchers and farmers.
“We all recognize that the issues that face our region will only be solved through the creative interaction of the entire community, and we hope that this effort will lead to more productive and collaborative projects,” Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager with the city, wrote in an email about the joint application.
CWCB officials recently asked water managers in the state to file either grant applications or notices of intent to apply so they could gauge interest for a new $10 million grant program designed to spur projects and programs spelled out in the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.
By the Aug. 1 deadline the state received 28 such notices for future grant cycles, including the one from the city and the environmental groups. In total, the “intent” notices identified more than $7.6 million in spending on various projects, according to a CWCB newsletter sent out Aug. 3. The CWCB also received 32 regular grant applications, requesting a total of $8.9 million for projects worth $60 million.
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The scope and details of the emerging collaborative effort among the city, Western Resource Advocates and Wilderness Workshop were not included in their preliminary application to the CWCB, including how much money the groups might seek.
“At this point, there isn’t much information to share as project details still need to be developed,” Medellin said. “Once we jointly identify a pilot project, we will submit an application to the CWCB for funds.”
The application says a statement of work, a budget and a list of other funding sources will be forthcoming.
The CWCB’s board of directors will review and approve the new water plan grants in a two-step, two-meeting, process. The next grant application deadline is Oct. 1.
Work with irrigators
The three entities told the state they “seek to work with one or more irrigators in the Roaring Fork Valley to develop an alternative transfer mechanism that will help meet local water needs and demonstrate an alternative to buy-and-dry.”
According to the state water plan, ATMs can include techniques such as “rotational fallowing,” where irrigators voluntarily enter into a lease to stop watering parts of their fields during drought conditions. Or they can take the form of “interruptible supply agreements,” where irrigators agree to lease a certain percentage of their water to a city.
The joint application to the state says “the exact type of ATM would be determined in collaboration between Aspen, irrigators, Wilderness Workshop and Western Resource Advocates, and be in accordance with ATM types described” in the water plan.
On Aug. 3, the city put forth a settlement agreement to the two environmental organizations it is now collaborating with and to eight other opposing parties in the water court cases regarding the potential dams.
The city said it was willing to move its conditional right to store 4,567 acre-feet of water on Maroon Creek to other locations in the Roaring Fork River valley, including land in Woody Creek next to the Elam gravel pit, and the gravel pit itself.
However, the city did not commit to moving its 9,062-acre-foot right in Castle Creek, apart from a small portion that might flood a sliver of the wilderness.
While Wilderness Workshop and Western Resource Advocates are collaborating with the city on alternatives to storage, they are firmly opposed to the city maintaining storage rights in either Castle or Maroon creek valley.
“Moving the dams out of these two iconic valleys is dead center with our mission,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. “Working collaboratively with partners in exploring alternative approaches to water supply will help achieve that mission-centric goal.”
A status conference was held about the cases with the water court referee Aug. 10. The parties agreed to another 90-day period to continue settlement efforts, with the next status conference in the case set for Nov. 9.
Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization collaborating with The Aspen Times on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017.
Here’s a guest column from Bart Miller that’s running in The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:
Here’s why. Water management continues to be one of the trickiest out-of-sight, out-of-mind challenges of our era.
Water resources are stretched thin because the state continues to grow (with about 100,000 new residents added every year) while water sources are shrinking – scientists predict a future with less water on average, with “drought” being more like the new norm. Fast-growing Front Range cities continue to rove in search of water, including from Western Slope streams and Front Range farmers.
The challenges above led to the creation of Colorado’s Water Plan in 2015. The two-year process to develop the plan engaged many around the state. Over 30,000 public comments were submitted. The vast majority of them highlighted the need for more urban water conservation, river protection, and increased flexibility of water policies to allow more voluntary and compensated agreements for water sharing between farms, cities, and rivers.
The plan did a good job of articulating the wide range of values Colorado has around water and set out objectives to meet our future demands. But it noted the vast majority of existing public funding is focused on traditional water infrastructure projects and not the often cheaper and more river-friendly water supply tools of expanding water conservation in cities and on farms, water reuse, and flexible water-sharing agreements. In fact, there is a multibillion dollar “gap” that prevents fully implementing these water security tools and improving river flows to support local river-dependent economies.
Here is where Mitchell comes in. As the new director of the CWCB, she has a huge opportunity to kick the plan into action. She is as well-suited for the job as anyone could be. She has nearly a decade of experience at the Conservation Board, including as a section chief. She’s technically savvy and politically astute.
She has gained trust from all water sectors and has shown a strong willingness to meet with water users and river enthusiasts all across the state, balancing her heavy work schedule with raising five kids at home.
Perhaps most importantly, Mitchell knows Colorado’s Water Plan like the back of her hand. After all, she had a major role in writing it. She seems ready to realign the agency’s priorities to support the full spectrum of water management tools that support our communities, rivers and agriculture.
New price tag reflects costs of water treatment projects, which governor says were “never intended” to be part of the water plan
Implementing Gov. John Hickenlooper’s ambitious water plan likely will cost at least twice what the administration projected.
When releasing the statewide strategy in 2015, James Eklund, then director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board [CWCB], estimated that amassing enough water to avoid a critical shortfall mid-century would cost $20 billion. He didn’t indicate what that amount would pay for, saying the figure was more of a “back-of-the-napkin analysis” than the sum of specific costs for specific projects in a set list of priorities.
Eklund resigned in March, taking his $20 billion napkin with him.
Now, less than a month into the job, his successor Becky Mitchell is setting more realistic cost projections for a plan that seeks to glean massive amounts of water not just to accommodate population growth, but also to keep farms and ranches in business and to protect Colorado’s rivers and the ecosystems that rely on them.
Mitchell is putting the anticipated price tag at $40 billion, and “maybe more.” Some $18 billion is likely to be paid by existing sources such as municipalities, water utilities, and ditch companies that deliver water to farms and ranches, she said. She described the remaining $22 billion as an “unmet funding need.”
“Cost projections have always been just estimates, and part of that is because not all the information is in,” Mitchell said. “What we’re already seeing as folks are solidifying our numbers is that it’s going to be more than earlier predictions.”
It’s not clear what Eklund’s $20 billion estimate included, but it seems to have reflected costs only for brick and mortar projects such as dams, reservoirs, ditches and other infrastructure needed to meet growing demands for municipal and industrial water use. It apparently didn’t include conservation programs, public education and keeping water in rivers for recreational and environmental purposes. It also didn’t factor in ambitious programs to encourage farmers and ranchers to collaborate with environmentalists on conservation, Mitchell said. “Those creative solutions will be high-dollar projects,” she added, and they “are coming in higher than predicted.”
Eklund now works at a prominent law and lobbying firm, but still represents Colorado in interstate water negotiations. Asked this week to explain the disparity between his $20 billion cost projection and Mitchell’s $40 billion, he said, “Boy, that’s a good one. I haven’t heard about the new figure.”
His estimate may have been “conservative” and “low,” he acknowledged.
“Maybe too low,” he said.
Gov. Hickenlooper told The Colorado Independent today that while he expects the estimated cost of the plan to change with inflation and as projects are added or deleted, the additional $20 billion comes largely from the cost of water treatment projects, which help turn wastewater into potable water. Such projects, he said, were not part of the original estimate “and were never intended to be part of the water plan.”
The governor’s water advisor, John Stulp, told The Independent in the spring that water treatment projects likely would add $8 billion to $12 billion to Eklund’s original, $20 billion estimate.
Hickenlooper ordered Colorado’s first statewide water plan in May 2013 as an attempt to thwart a shortfall that state water officials project for 2050. When he and Eklund heralded the release of the final version in November 2015, the governor made it clear that he didn’t want it to sit on a shelf gathering dust.
The plan aims to secure enough water to keep up with rampant growth, which is expected to boost the state population of 5.5 million people last year to as many as 10 million by 2050. It also needs to satisfy farming and ranching water rights, environmental necessities, increasing thirst brought about by climate change, and contractual water obligations to other states. Putting it into place will require enormous financial investments.
Eklund’s $20 billion price tag was daunting enough to politicos and policy advocates in a state that rejected a water bond issue in 2003. Referendum A sought voter approval for $2 billion in revenue bonds for water projects. Coloradans voted 2 to 1 against the measure, which failed in every county in the state.
Coming up with funding for $40 billion in water projects would require unprecedented unity among Colorado’s factioned rural and urban water users, leadership from the governor’s office and the legislature, and buy-in from Coloradans.
“It will be a much harder task to actually implement the water plan than it was to write it,” said Ted Kowalski [ed. emphasis mine], a water lawyer who now leads the Walton Family Foundation’s initiative on the Colorado River, which provides about half of Colorado’s water supply.
The doubling of the estimated cost of that implementation underscores the urgency of having conversations about sustainable funding now, Kowalski added, “so that we don’t have to be having these conversations during a crisis.” The philanthropy of Walmart heirs has taken an increasing role promoting balanced water policies, conservation, and watershed health in the seven states that rely on the river, as well as in other watersheds nationally and internationally.
In setting water priorities, the water board takes its cue from collaborative working groups called “roundtables” in Colorado’s eight river basins, plus another group in the Denver metro area. Those groups are in the process of telling the water board what projects – with price tags – they need to meet the goals set forth in the water plan, such as keeping up with growth, conserving water, and ensuring environmental protections on rivers. Their proposals are “flooding in,” Mitchell said, and have been giving her agency a clearer sense of how much the water plan will cost to implement. The water board will let each working group set its own priorities before deciding which projects should receive state funding.
In the meantime, what, specifically, the $40 billion would pay for still remains unclear. Mitchell said her staff will “gain more clarity” after the nine roundtable groups have come up with lists of proposed projects expected in 2018.
“I’d be very interested in how they got from $20 to $40 billion so fast, and what new projects will be included,” said Gary Wockner, a Colorado-based ecologist and activist for healthy rivers.
Pat Mulroy, a water policy expert for the Brookings Institution and former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said, “I would have had my head handed to me on a platter if I said we’re going to spend $40 billion in the next 30 years and people asked what are you going to spend it on and I said ‘I’ll let you know.’”
Also unclear is where $40 billion would come from.
The state collects severance tax revenues for its water supply reserve fund, which is up to $10 million. But that’s just a drop in the water plan’s symbolic bucket. Mitchell said Colorado’s Department of Transportation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment may need to take responsibility for some costs associated with the water plan. And she hopes that the federal government, under the Trump administration’s public works agenda and looser regulatory policies, “might also play a role.”
While running the water board – the agency leading water policy in the state – Eklund focused on promoting public-private partnerships to fund projects. Those are the water equivalent of toll roads. Whether the partnerships ultimately come to fruition and how much they could fund remain to be seen.
In the last several months, the Walton Family Foundation and philanthropies tied to the Rockefeller, Gates (as in Gates Rubber, not Microsoft), and other ultra-wealthy families have been discussing how to be part of the funding solution. Walton recently announced that it’s investing $100 million on the Colorado River from Colorado to Mexico. Kowalski, the foundation’s water man in Colorado, said Walton and other benefactors may be able to fund small pilot projects in hopes that they spur public investment, but can’t be relied on to help bankroll the billions of dollars Colorado needs.
“We’re trying to increase awareness and help generate conversations along the river,” Kowalski said. Those efforts include a recent Walton-funded study trip about the Colorado River for 18 journalists, including this reporter.
Ultimately, implementing the water plan will require public funding. The Nature Conservancy has been studying options such as a bottle tax, a tourism tax, and a surcharge on water rates. A ballot measure or referendum could go to voters as early as 2018, but the 2020 election is more likely given Colorado’s new law making it tougher to put such measures before voters.
Carol Hedges, executive director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, said the multi-billion-dollar price tag for water projects “is one more instance of how we’ve delayed making the public investments we need in a changing economy. And as a result of that delay, it’ll come at a substantial cost for all Coloradans.”
Mitchell is an engineer by training, accustomed to working with hard facts and figures, and to devising solutions. She knows that coming up with $40 billion to address Colorado’s water woes is a solution that, if achievable, will entail an epic level of political heartburn. Having to double the cost projection in her first month as CWCB director has given her a taste of the challenges before her.
“It’s not productive to get hung up on the cost. That’s divisive,” she said. “What’s more productive is framing this around how much progress we’ve made coming together around this plan. We have to look at the whole picture right now. We just have to.”
Those who watch water policy in Colorado say Hickenlooper won’t be moving the needle on water simply by having ordered the state’s first water plan.
Added Kowalski: “It would be great if (Gov. Hickenlooper) could secure his legacy as a water leader by having sustainable funding.”
Editor’s note: The Colorado Independent’s series PARCHED looks at how Colorado is preparing for a looming water shortage brought on by population growth and climate change.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
The CWCB is pleased to announce that Becky Mitchell is our new Director! Prior to becoming Director, Becky served as the Section Chief for the Water Supply Planning section, which focuses on ensuring sufficient water supplies for Colorado’s citizens and the environment. She’s played a significant role in working with the state’s Basin Roundtables, the Interbasin Compact Committee, the public at large, and CWCB staff in producing Colorado’s Water Plan.
“I’m excited and fortunate to have an opportunity to serve a state agency filled with committed and thoughtful stewards of Colorado’s precious water resources. Coloradans and our water communities are working like never before to solve our state’s challenges collaboratively. The same kind of cooperation that led to Colorado’s Water Plan will fuel the long-running effort necessary to continue putting the plan into action. What a privilege to be part of this process.” — Becky Mitchell, Coyote Gulch.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Supporting Stream Management Planning in Colorado
In 2016, the State of Colorado adopted the Colorado Water Plan which sets forth a water management roadmap to achieve a productive economy, vibrant and sustainable cities, productive agriculture, a strong environment, and a robust recreation industry. Specific to protecting and enhancing stream flows, the plan calls for 80 percent of locally prioritized rivers to be covered by Stream Management Plans by 2030. This goal builds upon years of conversation, research and some action to build a methodology to develop data-driven water management and physical project recommendations capable of protecting or enhancing environmental and recreational values on streams and rivers.
A well-developed Stream Management Plan uses biological, hydrological, geomorphological and other data to assess the flows or other physical conditions that are needed to support collaboratively identified environmental and/or recreational values. It uses this assessment to identify and prioritize management actions to maintain or improve flow regimes and other physical conditions at a reach scale.
In 2017, the State of Colorado allocated $5 million to a grant program to develop projects and plans that protect or restore watershed health and stream function. This funding has kick-started local interest across Colorado to develop Stream Management Plans.
A handful of communities have pioneered methodologies, including a collaborative coalition on the Crystal River through the Town of Carbondale, and the City of Ft. Collins’ assessment of the Poudre River. However, to meet the goal in Colorado’s Water Plan of covering 80 percent of locally prioritized streams with plans, much more needs to be done.
River-related recreation on Colorado’s western slope currently accounts for $6.4 billion in annual direct expenditures, and in the six counties that make up the headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries, tourism—including fishing and rafting—is the main economic driver. Many communities in the state have an economic interest in maintaining healthy rivers but few have developed strategies to comprehensively protect streamflows.
To address this gap, River Network, with support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Gates Family Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, has launched a two-year project to enlarge the pipeline of local coalitions that are interested, ready and capable of undertaking stream management plans.
The project focuses on three areas:
education to a broad constituency on what a stream management plan is, how and why communities undertake them and what lessons they’ve learned;
fostering cooperation among Colorado’s water management, NGO, academic, and research and science communities to help meet the capacity and knowledge needs of local coalitions as they initiate stream management planning;
and direct support to local coalitions as they scope, write and fundraise for their plan.
As more communities come together to examine river health and flow-related management strategies, and as plans are completed, we will share more examples and lessons here.
Following the lead of citizens who, in recent public outreach, expressed an interest in the county preserving agriculture and water, the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources spent $8.4 million in 2016 to buy the Malchow family farm and its associated water. The county is now calling the land the Little Thompson Farm because of its proximity to the river of that name.
The goal was to preserve the land as a working farm and to offset the cost of doing so with a water-sharing agreement, which is also a method the Colorado Water Plan endorses to stop simple “buy and dry” of farmland by municipalities that need the water to handle growth.
Extensive negotiations and studies by experts in agriculture, finance and water led to partnership agreement between Larimer County and the city and county of Broomfield. Experts made sure the farm could stay viable under the agreement by looking at water supply, economics and historic weather patterns.
That agreement, which was approved by Larimer County on Tuesday, basically sells Broomfield 115 shares of the farm’s Colorado-Big Thompson water outright, allows the municipality to use another 80 during three dry years out of every 10, and preserves 45 shares for the farm use.
The water that will stay on the farm — a mix of Colorado-Big Thompson and additional shares of Handy Ditch water — will be enough to keep the farm profitable and in production, growing corn and sugar beets in wet years and dryland crops in dry years, according to information from extensive studies.
For its part of the agreement, Broomfield will pay the county $3.7 million for the water. The price includes paying market value for the 115 shares that it will buy outright and 40 percent of market value for the 80 units that it can use only three out of every 10 years…
The municipality will be able to pull the 80 units of water in three dry years out of every 10, and the rest of the time, the water will remain on the farm to irrigate crops. During the years that the water leaves the farm, Broomfield agreed reimburse the farmer that is leasing the land from the county the cost of that farm lease to help keep the farm profitable in dry years.
Under the agreement, Larimer County will receive another $100,000 from a grant from the Gates Family Foundation and $52,750 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
This type of water sharing agreement is encouraged by the Colorado Water Plan as a way to protect farmland from the typical “buy and dry” that is occurring with growing municipal need across Colorado.
In fact, Larimer County officials noted that if the Malchow family had not wanted to sell to Larimer County to keep their family farm in production, buyers were lined up to pay top dollar just for the water…
A team of experts looked at historic weather data, financial models and water supply to determine if the farm could stay viable under this agreement, and deemed that it could.
With this model in place, Larimer County and state water officials hope this agreement, the first of its kind in the state, will result in more farmers and cities following suit instead of simply selling the water and taking the land out of production.