Western Slope still vulnerable to drought
March 14, 2014
A looming water shortage for Front Range cities is largely driving current efforts to develop a Colorado Water Plan, but that doesn't mean that towns and cities on the Western Slope are entirely prepared for their own water future.
According to Louis Meyer of the consulting firm SGM, most water providers that serve households in communities from the Colorado River's headwaters in Grand and Summit counties on down to Grand Junction have done a pretty good job of planning for the range of climate conditions that have been seen over the past several decades.
However, most are not prepared for the more extreme droughts that both climate change models and ancient tree ring studies indicate could occur in the future.
SGM is working with the Colorado Basin Roundtable to assess water needs and potential projects for a "Basin Implementation Plan" that will help inform the Colorado Water Plan that Gov. John Hickenlooper wants drafted by the end of this year. The Colorado Basin Roundtable, like its counterparts in other major river basins around the state, is a group of water managers and stakeholders charged by the state legislature with doing "bottom-up" water planning. Meyer and his team have been interviewing domestic water providers throughout the river basin to determine what their needs are and what kinds of projects would help them be more prepared for the future.
One factor making communities vulnerable to prolonged or extreme droughts is the fact that many lack sufficient reservoir storage upstream from their water treatment plants. These communities rely largely on water in streams to serve their customers while releasing water from reservoirs in other drainages to satisfy any downstream senior calls on the river. This is more of an issue in headwaters communities in the upper Fraser, Eagle, Blue and Roaring Fork river watersheds than in the Grand Junction area, where water providers enjoy access to reservoirs that are physically, as well as legally, upstream.
Today's regulatory and permitting requirements for reservoirs have resulted in planning horizons that can take longer than 20 years. Permitting costs can exceed many millions of dollars with no assurance that reservoirs can even be permitted. Both in order to ease permitting and to respond to increasing competition for water between different user groups, Meyer argues that, "reservoirs of the future must provide multiple benefits to provide water for safe drinking water, agricultural irrigation and water to provide in-stream flows to protect environmental and recreational needs."
Another challenge for water providers attempting to plan for the future is the wild card of population growth. This region is expected to grow at the fastest rate in the state, and much of that growth could occur outside of established municipalities. In unincorporated areas, water supplies tend to be less developed and secure. Increasing conservation is one way to reduce the impact of population growth, and many water providers have strong conservation programs, but there is a lack of consistency in these efforts across the basin.
Forest health is also important to many Colorado Basin water providers. While having intakes high up in pristine tributaries has great benefits in terms of water quality, it also means that a catastrophic wildfire in a source watershed could be particularly devastating.
Increasing reservoir storage, promoting conservation and addressing forest health all require money, and increasing storage requires permits as well. The small size of many water providers in the basin limits their capacity to take on big projects, so Meyer and his team have suggested more regional cooperation may make projects to increase the reliability of community water supplies more feasible.
Water customers also have a role to play in determining the capacity of their water utility to plan and prepare for the future. If customers are not willing to help pay the necessary costs through their rates, it limits a utility's capacity to act. Water providers are not only faced with providing safe drinking water to customers at prices that are often less than 1/10th of one penny per gallon, but now customers are much more aware of water-demand impacts on local stream health.
How do you think water utilities should prepare for the future, and what are you willing to pay for? To let the Colorado Basin Roundtable know your thoughts, answer a quick survey by clicking on this link: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CommunityWater.
To learn more about the Colorado Basin and statewide water planning processes, go to http://coloradobip.sgm-inc.com/.
— Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center 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 http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.