Colorado Water Plan draft released for review
What does the plan hope to address?
The Colorado Water Plan outlines the following key challenges for the state’s water future: a growing supply gap, the drying up of agricultural land, critical environmental concerns, variable climatic conditions, an inefficient regulatory process and growing funding needs.
The first draft of the long-awaited Colorado Water Plan was released to the public Dec. 10, marking one of many steps to address the state’s looming water supply gap.
The 419-page document has been in the making since May 2013, following an executive order by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who described the draft as “a new way to conduct our water business.”
By 2050, the state forecasts a population of around 10 million people, equating to a water supply shortfall of 500,000 acre-feet if current conditions continue.
The draft seeks to avoid such a situation by balancing Colorado’s diverse and often conflicting water needs. The document outlines means to maintain the prior appropriation doctrine, identify cost-effective alternatives to the “buy-and-dry” of irrigated lands, protect compact entitlements and align state policies to reach statewide objectives.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the body that drafted the document for submission to the governor, said the document seeks to meet the needs of growing cities, a viable agricultural system, a robust tourism industry and a healthy environment. To evaluate the needs of each of these sectors, CWCB held roundtables in each of the state’s water basins to gather input from diverse communities.
“This plan represents hundreds of conversations and comments involving people in our cities, our rural communities, from both sides of the Continental Divide. It benefited from the engagement of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, utilities and water districts, industry and business, and the public at large,” said CWCB director James Eklund in a press release.
While balancing such diverse needs can be difficult and contentious, state water leaders largely described the draft as a necessary step forward in improving a complex system.
Randy Ray, executive director of Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley, called the plan a positive step forward in identifying the need for and sources of future supplies.
“This process has been a vehicle to get water users together to tackle tough issues – from in-basin coordination to trans-basin diversions. We (being representatives of water entities) do not always work together on basin wide strategies; this process has been invaluable,” he said in a prepared statement. “What I hope is the people of this state and our legislative leaders commit to not only talk about water storage projects for the future, but actually follow through with it.”
Ray said the plan did a good job addressing one of the largest challenges for the South Platte Water Basin: the transfer of water rights from irrigated agriculture for municipal needs.
“With the South Platte Basin having the largest population, the thirst for growing municipalities can easily be met via the willing buyer/seller agreement of senior water rights from irrigated farms,” he said. “The result of this process is the exportation of our most precious resource and what’s left are the crippling effects – economical, sociological, and arguable as the most important being the lost opportunity for future development in the region.”
Weld County farmer Randy Knutson said that while the plan does not yet offer firm solutions, it is a necessary start.
“In today’s agricultural economy and in a water contentious state, it addresses some problems that need to be rectified and hopefully can be. It’s not all going to happen at once and will take longer than the two years to draft the plan. It will be a work in progress,”
Northern Water General Manager Eric Wilkinson agreed that the plan is a start along the long path to addressing long-term needs.
“What we like about it is it’s at least a plan for the future; it’s a plan of action for continued communication, collaboration and hopefully cooperation before the daunting challenge of securing Colorado’s water supply,” Wilkinson said.
LaSalle farmer Glen Fritzler expressed disappointment that the plan did not directly address groundwater issues. Fritzler has been active in Weld County’s Groundwater Coalition, which aims in large part to address rising groundwater levels in parts of the county.
“Both the Groundwater Coalition and the Colorado Ag Water Alliance have been trying extremely hard to get groundwater included in the Colorado Water Plan and it has been excluded,” he said.
Ray said that while the plan identifies conjunctive use, the management and utilization of surface and groundwater in combination, it does not outline a legal framework to address the issue.
Ray also emphasized the importance of conservation, one of the many strategies outlined in the plan to stretch existing supplies.
“In the South Platte Basin, metropolitan needs are being addressed with conservation and reuse today and will increase overtime. What people in the basin need to realize is the South Platte River is dynamic; what isn’t consumed by one user is consumed downstream by another water user. Reuse in the Metro Denver region will create very significant South Platte River shortages in the future,” he said.
Additional work on the plan will be carried out throughout to 2015, leading to the final plan, to be submitted no later than Dec. 10, 2015.