Regular readers of this column are probably aware that Colorado is on course for a significant "gap" between municipal water demands and supplies by 2050, when the state's population is forecast to reach 10 million people - about double what it is now.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has charged water leaders with developing a statewide water plan by 2016 to meet that gap.
The nine "basin roundtables" of stakeholders established by the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act in 2005 are major players in developing the plan. This process is contentious.
In addition to water projects that are already planned, the primary options for filling the projected gap are to take more water from agriculture, take more water from the Western Slope, or seriously ramp up conservation - none of which provides an easy, pain-free solution.
Taking water from agriculture through buying water rights and drying up farmland ("buy and dry") has already economically devastated some eastern plains communities. Most stakeholders agree that further losses of irrigated agriculture should be minimized. Meanwhile, the approximately 500,000 acre fee per year already diverted across the divide from Upper Colorado Basin streams has left many streams in ecological trouble, and the surrounding communities are not happy about the prospect of more depletions. Farther downstream, concerns center around water quality and what could happen if we fail to allow sufficient water to flow to downstream states, as required by the Colorado River Basin Compact.
Conservation is the only approach no one has a problem with - until they are on the hook for actually doing enough of it to make a real difference.
On Monday, Dec. 3, representatives from several basin roundtables met in Silverthorne to hash out how to move forward on the conservation piece, which has long been a point of contention between Front Range and Western Slope interests.
As one Gunnison Basin representative put it, typical Western Slope sentiment has been: "Conservation is good for you (the Front Range), but maybe not for us." This isn't as cheap as it sounds, since there are legitimate issues related to the large cost relative to small benefit when you try to get small water providers to implement the kinds of conservation programs big, urban water providers do.
However, Front Range water providers pointed out that they've already poured millions of dollars into conservation strategies, which have in fact saved a lot of water, but they simply can't achieve enough conservation through their own efforts alone to take significant pressure off of agriculture and Western Slope water as sources for additional future supplies.
After much inconclusive discussion about exactly how ambitious and wide-ranging conservation targets should be and insightful comments about the counter-incentives to conservation in current water law, one strong point of consensus emerged: Everyone, on both sides of the divide, needs to do more to conserve water.
And we'll likely need some statewide legislation to conserve enough (even though it's still not quite clear what that is). Whether that's legislation to require low-flow appliances or something related to land-use that would limit how much water new development would use was not decided, but the consensus was nonetheless significant. The desire to keep water on the Western Slope and on farms was, at least among this group, beginning to win out over the desire to oppose any statewide encroachment on local control. That's a big step. Stay tuned to see how big it will really be.
Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.