The daunting task for members of the Colorado River Roundtable to reach some consensus in developing recommendations as part of a statewide water plan took a couple of key steps forward this month.
The roundtable, made up of water users including municipalities, counties, conservation districts, ranchers and other representatives from a six-county area within the Colorado River Basin, decided at a meeting Monday to adopt a “high conservation standard” as part of its Basin Implementation Plan.
That means water conservation, both on the Western Slope and on the Front Range, to where a significant portion of the Colorado Basin’s water is being diverted, should be the primary emphasis in meeting the state’s water needs into the future, said Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District, who chairs the roundtable.
“Even if another transmountain diversion is possible, we’re saying that it has to be the last tool out of the box [to meet future water demands],” Pokrandt said. “And there are a lot of questions around whether it is possible.”
Outgoing state Sen. Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village agreed that conservation is key but warned that Front Range interests carry more legislative clout than Western Slope interests.
“Setting a high conservation standard both for ourselves and for the entire state is imperative,” she said.
Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards also suggested that, if additional water storage to serve Front Range needs is necessary, more storage projects should be built on the Eastern Slope.
“Especially in years like this, they should be capturing some of these floodwaters and store it when they have that ability,” she said.
If additional Western Slope projects are built, they should be for Western Slope needs first, other members of the roundtable said.
Much of the debate around Gov. John Hickenlooper’s directive to develop a state water plan has centered on the potential need for new Front Range water diversions from the Western Slope to accommodate growth demands over the next 40 to 50 years.
Front Range water planners say those diversions will likely be needed regardless of successful conservation efforts, and that the water plan should contain assurances for new water projects in addition to ones already on the drawing board.
Also Monday, initial approval was given to the draft Colorado Basin Implementation Plan (BIP) being prepared for the roundtable’s consideration by a team of water planning consultants from SGM.
Monday was the deadline for the first round of comments on the basin plan, which is to be presented to the Colorado Water Conservation Board by mid-July to weigh alongside recommendations from other parts of the state.
“We still have a lot of work to do in the next 30 days to get all of your comments into the document,” said Louis Meyer, president and CEO of SGM, who is heading up the BIP project. “We realize there are a lot of holes and a lot of editing to be done before this is ready.”
The draft action plan covers six key themes, including specifics on how to:
■ Cultivate healthy streams, rivers, lakes and riparian areas.
■ Implement smart growth strategies while emphasizing local control.
■ Assure dependable administration of water resources.
■ Sustain agriculture.
■ Secure safe drinking water.
■ Encourage basinwide conservation.
Meyer gave a summary of the comments received by the Monday deadline, which will be incorporated into the basin plan.
Many of the comments followed the “not one more drop” mantra against new trans-mountain diversions. Although the basin plan does not use those specific words, it does emphasize the belief that there is not sufficient water left in the Colorado Basin to develop for Front Range needs without causing serious harm on the Western Slope and for downstream water users, Meyer said.
Other comments centered around coming up with better definitions for what constitutes a “healthy river” and “smart growth,” he said.
There’s also disagreement about whether the state water plan should guide local land-use decisions at all, including feedback from the Garfield County commissioners after a presentation of the BIP during their Monday meeting in Parachute, Meyer said.
The county commissioners did vote to begin developing a regional water council or cooperative among water groups in the area as a way to increase awareness about local water concerns on the state level.
Meyer said the commissioners also expressed support for improving the permitting process for water projects, protecting agricultural interests and protecting the Shoshone water right on the Colorado River. ❖
John Stroud is a writer for the Glenwood Springs, Colo., Post-Independent.