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Colo. River Basin reps discuss state water needs

Colorado River Basin interests are diving into a new effort to reach across regional divides to talk about the state’s water needs and how to solve them.Some 40 people, ranging from river district officials and utility representatives to ranchers and conservationists, gathered at the Community Center in Glenwood Springs Monday for a Colorado River Basin roundtable meeting. It’s part of a larger undertaking by the new Interbasin Compact Committee, which is creating a charter establishing criteria for water negotiations between basins in Colorado.The undertaking is the brainchild of Russell George of Rifle, head of the state Department of Natural Resources. It is modeled after the interstate negotiating process that has been in place for decades for dealing with water issues from Colorado to California.The in-state effort is required by a state law passed last year. It aims to help parties work through challenges such as the heavily populated Front Range’s big demand for water, and the reluctance of the Western Slope to agree to further water diversions to meet that demand.The discussions are nonbinding and would not invalidate existing water laws or supplant the current system of allocating water within the state. Instead, they are intended to work on a political rather than legal level to deal with water needs and disputes through collaboration between water interests.”You don’t have to have a mandatory process if you have principled individuals willing to work together on it,” said Dave Merritt, chief engineer for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, and chair of the Colorado River Basin roundtable.Greg Trainor, utilities director for the city of Grand Junction, said the new interbasin process formalizes the process of people coming together to seek solutions to the state’s water problems.Though the discussions are voluntary, there’s no avoiding dealing with affected people eventually when working on water solutions, he said.”It almost becomes mandatory if you want to get something accomplished,” he said.Among the affected interests are environmental and recreational ones. Taylor Hawes, associate counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, has been part of a group looking at environmental and recreational water needs as part of the State Water Supply Initiative. That initiative, known as SWSI, is a separate state effort that has been quantifying Colorado’s water demand versus its supply, and trying to identify how it can make up the gap between the two.SWSI’s environmental/recreation group is trying to put together better data on what water the state needs for uses such as fishing and rafting. That information – such as the value of segments of the Colorado River that serve the rafting industry – could be important for representatives of the Colorado River watershed as they participate in interbasin water discussions.”Couldn’t we all agree that those are segments are worth protecting? They bring in a lot of revenue to the state,” Hawes told Monday’s roundtable participants.As the interbasin process moves forward, the statewide committee will seek legislative approval of its charter this spring. Also, George is seeking passage of a bill providing $10 million in funding to assist the efforts of the Interbasin Compact Committee. It would pay for grants, technical assistance, and studies and analysis of water projects and other activities, as well as help fund projects and activities themselves.Meanwhile, Colorado River Basin representatives on Monday identified numerous possible goals for their group. One of them would be to seek more accurate numbers from the SWSI program regarding water demand, to reflect things such as current and anticipated usage related to energy development. Another is public education, and a third is taking a stance that what impacts part of the basin impacts the basin as a whole.Chuck Ogilby, a member of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation Board, said one concern for some of the basin representatives he met with is what he said is a moral issue involving ongoing attempts to “dry up Grand County” through water diversions.”What’s that going to do to the whole state? What precedent are we setting here? We all felt that we can’t let that happen,” he said.The basin group will continue to meet monthly in Glenwood Springs.


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