Conservation, urban interests clash at water board meeting
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The importance of green lawns to maintain quality of life and urban home values was heard alongside that of maintaining river flows for the Western Slope’s recreation-based economy in comments to the Colorado Water Conservation Board Thursday.
“Back yards are our recreational amenity,” Mark Pifher of the Front Range Water Council said during testimony before the CWCB on the draft Colorado Water Plan in Glenwood Springs as part of a two-day meeting that continues today at the Hotel Colorado.
Pifher also took to task Winter Park real estate broker Dennis Saffell, who cited statistics from Grand County that suggest riverfront properties sell for 134 percent more than other types of residential property, and even properties with a view of a river are 24 percent more valuable.
“It’s really important to keep our rivers viable economically, not just for the recreational aspects but for the entire economy that supports our communities,” Saffell said. “Rivers create a lifestyle, attract tourists and attract the people that live here.”
But aggressive conservation measures aimed at limiting outdoor water use in Front Range cities can have the effect of lowering real estate values in those areas, countered Pifher, who pointed out that outdoor irrigation makes up only 4 percent of consumptive water use in the state, according to statistics referenced in the draft water plan.
Joe Stibrich, representing the city of Aurora Water Department, suggested that, just as anglers and whitewater enthusiasts expect the state’s water plan to preserve the recreation experience in the mountains, urban dwellers have a right to expect a “reasonable residential experience.”
That includes reasonably irrigated lawns, public parks and sports fields, and golf courses, he said.
Statewide conservation measures also need to be considered on equal footing with viable alternatives to meet Front Range water needs, including new supply development through future trans-mountain diversions, he said.
“Frankly, everyone can’t have everything that they want, and there will have to be some compromise,” Stibrich said, adding that his city has cut its water use.
While Aurora grew 33 percent from 1996 to 2011, its water use increased only 2 percent, he said.
“Water utilities do recognize the importance of healthy rivers and ecosystems,” Stibrich said. “But it’s equally important to maintain an urban environment with healthy landscapes.”
The debate pointed up the difficult task before the CWCB to deliver on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s directive to present a statewide water plan by December that addresses the often divergent views between the Western Slope interests and those of Front Range communities.
The first-ever statewide water plan is intended to address a significant gap in the amount of water needed to meet growth projections, especially on the Front Range, and what’s now available through both in-basin and trans-basin diversions.
But a key goal is also to protect healthy river flows on the Western Slope, including in the Colorado River Basin where members of the basin roundtable have recommended a strong emphasis on conservation in the water plan, along with opposition to any new trans-mountain diversions.
At some point, “the line has to be drawn … enough is enough” when it comes to Front Range water diversions, said fishing guide Jack Bombardier, owner of Confluence Casting in Gypsum in his testimony before the water board.
Bombardier was part of a coalition of river recreation business owners and enthusiasts, along with conservation groups, who spoke during the Thursday session. The coalition cited a study that shows river-based recreation in Colorado generates $9 billion a year and is responsible for 80,000 jobs.
“We all have skin in the game,” Bombardier said. “But we’re approaching a crossroads. The whole western [Colorado] ecosystem and economy hinges on healthy rivers.”
Water Conservation Board member Patricia Wells, representing the city and county of Denver, said one of the state’s recreational amenities that is reliant on water is missing from the equation in reference to those statistics — golf courses.
She requested that golf be mentioned in the section of the water plan that addresses recreational and environmental projects.
Wells also challenged speaker Annie Henderson, representing the Upper Colorado Private Boaters Association in Glenwood Springs, when she made reference to “wasteful and irresponsible water use” in relation to the need for better conservation measures to help protect the Western Slope’s quality of life.
“Quality of life exists in urban areas too,” Wells said. “Different people use water in ways that are valuable to them.”
The CWCB and staff will continue to refine the draft water plan over the next three months before rolling out a final version in December, which will then undergo review by the state Legislature and another round of comments from stakeholder groups and the public.
The CWCB meeting continues at 8 a.m. today at the Hotel Colorado with reports from each of the nine board members, who represent the nine river basins in the state. The board will also hear reports and grant requests for various water projects throughout the state.
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