GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Protection of the river ecology and preservation of recreation and agricultural interests was the consistent message heard by a panel of Colorado legislators who convened here Thursday to gather public comments on the new state water plan.
And the best way to ensure that is through better statewide water conservation practices and no more trans-mountain water diversions from the Western Slope to the Front Range, those who testified before the state Legislature’s Interim Water Resources Review Committee concurred.
“What’s healthy for recreation is healthy for rivers and streams,” said Annie Henderson, co-founder of the Upper Colorado Private Boaters Association, an affiliate of American Whitewater based in Glenwood Springs.
“Additional diversions are not an acceptable solution,” she said, adding there should be a statewide conservation agreement to decrease water consumption.
Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards, who sits on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, one of nine roundtables that is weighing in on the water plan, said it’s important to “truly acknowledge the value of the environmental and recreation economy in the state.”
Tourism promoters across the state, whether on the Front Range or the Western Slope, almost always showcase some type of high country water recreation in their attempt to attract visitors, Richards noted.
“It’s what our state’s economy is built on, and it’s integral to all other aspects of our economy,” she said.
Conservation, Richards added, “goes hand in hand with saving agriculture.”
The Thursday meeting at the Glenwood Springs Branch Library attracted about 100 people, many of whom are members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable or have been involved in those discussions over the past several months.
The meeting was the second of nine sponsored by the 10-member legislative committee as it holds hearings within each of the major river basins as part of process to develop the state water plan.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has asked that a draft plan be done by the end of this year and ready for adoption by next year.
The Glenwood Springs meeting focused on concerns within the main stem of the Colorado River, including the Roaring Fork, Eagle and Blue river valleys.
Many of the comments echoed those contained in the draft Colorado Basin Implementation Plan, which emphasizes a high conservation standard statewide and discourages further water diversions.
The draft basin plan concludes that any more water diversions would severely damage the state’s recreation-based economy, agriculture and the environment, and would jeopardize upper basin users should there be an interstate compact call by down-river water users.
It also includes specific recommendations, such as preserving the Shoshone water right for Western Slope needs rather than allowing it to be sold to Front Range water interests, and encouraging small water projects in western Colorado to meet agricultural needs.
A major concern related to the prospect of new trans-mountain diversions “is the fact that there just is no more water” to divert,” said Ken Neubecker, a river resource activist who sits on the Colorado Basin Roundtable.
Neubecker summarized the comments of one of nine separate tables that engaged in small-group discussions with members of the legislative committee before the floor was opened up to general testimony.
“If you’re going to take a new supply for the Front Range, it’s going to come from someone else who is already using it,” Neubecker said.
Suggestion that any new diversions would come with an agreement that they occur only during peak runoff years “simply condemns the Western Slope to a permanent drought condition,” he said. “We need to educate everyone, especially the Front Range, about where their water comes from.”
Another concern expressed at the hearing included that the water plan is only intended to address water needs through 2050, even as growth pressures are likely to continue beyond that time. Others who spoke said it’s important to factor climate change models and predictions into the water plan.