The default way for Colorado cities to increase their water supplies is to "buy and dry," buying agricultural water rights and permanently transferring them to urban use.
According to Jacob Bornstein, a program manager for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) who spoke Feb. 25 at a water seminar at Colorado Mesa University, continuing along this path could lead to the drying up of up to 40% of irrigated agriculture in the South Platte River Basin by 2050, an outcome state leaders are eager to avoid. Western Slope agriculture is also at risk, although "status quo" water sourcing practices would dry up closer to 20% of irrigated farm and ranch land over the same period.
Bornstein explained that permanent transfers of agricultural water are more appealing than temporary leases and rotational fallowing agreements because both kinds of transfers require lengthy, expensive water court processes, and permanent transfers provide more long-term certainty to urban water providers.
Bornstein described how the CWCB, Colorado's primary water policy agency, is working with roundtables of stakeholders in river basins across the state to try to develop a more balanced plan for meeting the water demands expected from population growth in coming decades. Part of the challenge is to prepare for multiple scenarios, since no one can be sure precisely what the climate and economy will serve up for the state in terms of water supply and demand.
Carlyle Currier, a fourth generation rancher who raises cattle near Collbran on Grand Mesa, commented on Bornstein's presentation. He argued that it would be a mistake to assume that the dry-up of irrigated agriculture on the Eastern Plains wouldn't impact the Western Slope, explaining that he and other Western Slope ranchers depend on feed crops and feed lots east of the Continental Divide to add value to their cattle.
Currier has been active in the statewide water planning process and in the formation of the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance to bring a unified voice to state water policy discussions. Agriculture accounts for about 85% of the water use in Colorado.
Rick Brinkman, water services manager for the City of Grand Junction, also provided a local perspective on the statewide water planning process Bornstein described. Brinkman is on the Gunnison Basin Roundtable and also served on the Flaming Gorge Task Force, which examined potential impacts and benefits of a project to pipe water from Flaming Gorge on the Green River in Utah to Colorado's Front Range. The task force developed a report for Colorado water policymakers on issues that should be addressed before undertaking any such major transfer of water from the Colorado Basin to the Front Range. Both Brinkman and Currier noted that bringing together diverse stakeholders was working to enhance mutual understanding.
In commenting on the local water supply situation, Brinkman noted that the Grand Mesa snowpack, which provides most of the Grand Valley's drinking water, is looking good this year, despite disturbingly low snow levels across the rest of the state. "I can't say it's because of our cloud-seeding program," he said, before quipping, "but it's because of our cloud-seeding program." Grand Junction is a partner in a project to shoot small particles of silver iodide into incoming storm clouds in an effort to increase snowfall.
The panel on statewide water supply planning was part of the 2013 Water Course, an annual, three-evening seminar series organized by the Water Center at CMU. The purpose of the course is to help interested citizens understand current water issues and become informed participants in water policy debates.
Other topics discussed at the Feb. 25 session included legislative proposals on graywater re-use and agricultural water conservation and new groundwater monitoring rules for oil and gas development. Previous sessions included an overview of Colorado water law; a whirlwind tour of how water use has shaped and been shaped by Colorado's human history by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs; and a review of collaborative efforts to reduce salt levels in rivers, harness canals for hydro-power, improve riparian habitat, and improve flows for fish in the Dolores River without harming water users of the human variety. This last initiative has required years of difficult deliberations and is still in process.
Materials presented at all of these session can be found at www.coloradomesa.edu/watercenter
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.