Long-awaited S. Platte Basin water plan available this week; Some worry key points could get lost in statewide plan
July 22, 2014
After years of discussion, the river basin that faces the "biggest challenges" is nearing completion of its first draft of a long-term water plan.
That outline of how agriculture, cities and industries will coexist in the future — while minimizing expected water shortages — will be available to the public next week.
Sean Cronin, chairman of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, a group of water officials and experts who meet regularly to address water issues in northeast Colorado, said the combined draft plan from the South Platte and Metro roundtables is expected to be approved at a meeting Monday.
After that, it will go to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which will begin piecing it together with the implementation plans of the seven other roundtables in the state, to create the comprehensive Colorado Water Plan that Gov. John Hickenlooper has requested be done by the end of 2015.
It's been a long time coming, according to South Platte and Metro roundtable members, some of whom met Tuesday to finalize the language in its draft plan.
The basin roundtables across Colorado have been meeting since 2005.
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In the draft that will be completed soon are the major points northeast Colorado water officials and users have been driving home during the past nine years — protecting agriculture, water conservation, more water storage and keeping open the possibility of diverting more water from the West Slope, among other key points.
While the group has reached consensus on those issues, there remains some dispute on others, such as how groundwater management might be addressed in the plan, and how municipal land use — which has impacts on water functions — might factor in.
That's why the South Platte and Metro roundtables want public input once the draft plan is available next week, possibly as early as Monday evening.
All basin implementation plans are due by July 16. The South Platte and Metro roundtables pushed the deadline, likely because of the complexity and unique challenges in the basin — perhaps the biggest "challenges in the state," roundtable members say.
The South Platte Basin includes six of the state's 10 top ag-producing counties, including Weld County, which ranks ninth in the nation for its value of production. Three of the other top 10 are also in northeast Colorado in the nearby Republican River Basin, which is impacted by South Platte basin functions.
Also, eight of the 10 largest cities in Colorado are in the South Platte basin, including Denver and Aurora (which is why the South Platte and Metro roundtables are combining their implementation plans).
Because of that and continued growth, the South Platte basin, which stretches across northeast Colorado from southwest of Denver to the Nebraska stateline, faces the biggest expected water shortages in the state. According to projections, there will be a municipal and industrial water-supply gap of as many as 190,000 acre feet (about 60 billion gallons) annually by 2050, with as many as 267,000 acres of irrigated farmground dried up by then.
In addition to the challenges within the basin, members of the South Platte and Metro roundtables are concerned about how their plan will mesh with others and are worried that in trying to make all eight plans come together, some of the South Platte's priorities could get lost.
South Platte Basin water officials have been particularly concerned all along that, because of its controversial nature, talks of bringing more West Slope water across the Continental Divide could take a backseat to other aspects of the Colorado Water Plan.
The disagreement over trans-mountain water diversions between East Slope and West Slope water officials and users goes way back.
About 80 percent of the state's population lives on the East Slope ,but about 80 percent of the state's water supplies — primarily snowmelt in the mountains — sits on the West Slope.
To meet the needs of the growing Front Range and northeast Colorado's robust ag industry, East Slope water providers have long built projects that bring water across the Continental Divide. There are now more than 30 such projects bringing about 450,000 to 500,000 acre feet of water each year from the West Slope to the East Slope.
Many have stressed that without more water going to the East Slope, the ag industry, which uses about 85 percent of the state's water, will especially suffer.
But many on the West Slope have expressed concern and want the East Slope to stop diverting more of its water. The West Slope has its own water demands to meet, mainly its legal obligation to make sure several Western states downstream from Colorado receive certain amounts of water.
Meeting those needs, while also contributing to those of Colorado's East Slope, is stretching the West Slope thin, water officials from that part of the state say.