Draft of Colorado’s Water Plan points out conflicts, collaborations on path to secure water future
Whether you’re a transplant or a vacationer, you probably came to Colorado to ski, raft or enjoy another outdoor pursuit that depends on the state’s most fought over resource: water.
On Wednesday, Dec. 10, Gov. John Hickenlooper publicly presented the draft of Colorado’s Water Plan, a first-of-its-kind guiding document for the state.
“It’s a historic moment,” said Jim Pokrandt, communications director of the Colorado River Conservation District and chair of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “Our economy is built on a healthy environment, and a healthy environment is built on water.”
Hickenlooper ordered the plan’s creation in May 2013, and on Wednesday, he praised the work of the hundreds of people who have helped build a collaborative approach for navigating water challenges.
The governor added that the draft strikes a balance among competing interests and upholds Colorado’s values of protecting the environment, strong cities and industries based on recreation.
“This plan represents hundreds of conversations and comments involving people in our cities, our rural communities, from both sides of the Continental Divide,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “It benefited from the engagement of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, utilities and water districts, industry and business, and the public at large.”
The 400-plus-page draft outlines concerns including the growing gap between supply and demand, critical environmental issues like at-risk fish species, climate change, inefficiencies and policies drying up farmlands.
Pokrandt said the draft identifies thorny issues without trying to solve them and outlines some future actions.
“It’s a great leap forward,” he said. Critics say the draft isn’t specific enough about conservation measures or a new transmountain diversion, but “at this time it’s a huge victory.”
CROSSING THE DIVIDE
While the draft marks a milestone in Colorado history, the document still has a long way to go.
Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said Thursday that she’s been frustrated by people referring to the draft as if it’s a final plan, when it’s a compilation of eight often conflicting plans created by the state’s river basin roundtables.
She said she hopes those conflicts can be resolved as the regional groups continue to refine their own plans and work together over the next year. The final plan is due to the governor in December 2015.
The hardest part of creating the final plan will be agreeing on statewide solutions and concrete future steps, which is likely why the section of the draft where legislative recommendations should be was left mostly blank.
The two most controversial issues are the construction of a new transmountain diversion, or a pipeline that would cross the Continental Divide to bring water from the West Slope to the Front Range, and different levels of commitment to conservation efforts.
Because the Front Range has more people and more political power, Summit County and West Slope interests have always been minority voices, Stiegelmeier said, which can be scary when considering the future of water.
“The Front Range entities still have transmountain diversions as a way to solve their gap, and the West Slope feels strongly that there isn’t more water to take,” she said. “A transmountain diversion is devastating to our West Slope economy.”
The Front Range folks should remember that they recreate in the mountains and the state’s economy is driven by tourism and recreation, she said.
“Taking water away from skiing and fishing and boating just so that people can have sprawling development with (Kentucky) bluegrass on the Front Range is not in anybody’s interest,” she said. “There’s so many great xeriscaping designs out there that can solve our problems.”
Summit County can find one source of comfort in Denver Water.
The utility, which takes 20 to 30 percent of Summit County’s water across the Divide, committed in the 2013 Colorado River Cooperative Agreement to working with 18 West Slope partners before developing a new supply project.
“We’re not doing any further water development without sitting down” with the West Slope, said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO.
However, he added, the state should preserve the option of future water supply development. “It’s an option that we shouldn’t foreclose at this point and, frankly, that we should leave for future generations.”
WHO CONSERVES AND HOW
Conservation groups like Western Resource Advocates would like the final plan to set a specific target for conservation and strategies for meeting the target.
Reducing per-person consumption by an average of 1 percent per year would be an appropriate goal, said Bart Miller, Western Resource Advocates water program director.
Many cities have been doing that for the last decade or more, and some have been reducing annual use by 2 percent, he said, while the draft details conservation strategies that would equal a reduction of about 0.5 percent.
West Slope interests have called for committing to high levels of conservation, while Front Range groups talk about low- to medium-levels of conservation, Stiegelmeier said, calling the fear of commitment by Front Range folks absurd.
“If we simply reduce irrigation on the Front Range with future developments, then there is enough water,” she said. “We need to develop like we live in a desert, like we do.”
Some Front Range folks say they are focused on conservation.
Denver Water touts legislation the utility pushed along with environmental advocacy groups that mandated household water fixtures, like toilets, sold in the state be high-efficiency by 2016.
“At the same time, conservation isn’t the answer. It won’t solve all of our problems,” Lochhead said, adding that increasing conservation through a variety of methods is a “strategy to pursue across the state, and not just on the Front Range.”
Lochhead said Denver Water serves a quarter of the state’s people and a third of its economy but uses just 2 percent of its water.
About 90 percent is used by agriculture, he said, emphasizing the importance of preserving water for farming and creating solutions in that sector.
Over the next year, the Colorado River Basin Roundtable will keep analyzing possible projects and other ways of meeting the projected water shortage locally.
Pokrandt said that includes an ongoing environmental remediation project on the Swan River a few miles northeast of Breckenridge that will improve water quality and habitat after decades of mining turned the river upside down.
The basin roundtables will also keep working on building consensus, which Miller called a necessary step toward drawing up more specific statewide policy recommendations.
“There’s a lot of good material in the plan. There’s a ton of good research and thinking,” he said. “It’s at the 50 yard line.”
Over the next year, officials will continue to accept public input on the draft, which has received more than 13,000 comments.
“It’s important for the public to weigh in on it,” Stiegelmeier said.
She encouraged people to make their voices heard, even if they don’t have historical knowledge or technical expertise.
Speaking for Denver Water, Lochhead emphasized the importance of eliminating “us versus them” attitudes and remembering how water makes everyone in the state, and the West, interdependent.
“We know how to collaborate. We have proven that, and the West Slope has proven that,” Lochhead said. “If we bring that same approach to the development of an action plan to implement the state water plan, then I have every confidence we’ll be successful.”
To learn more about the plan and submit comments, visit coloradowaterplan.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 303-866-3441.
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