Guest opinion: Striving to head off water bankruptcy

Eric Kuhn, Jim Light, Rick Lofaro, Louis Meyer

The white ring "around the tub" shows how much elevation the surface of Lake Mead has lost with drought stress on the Colorado River.
Rose Davis / Bureau of Reclamation |

In the Roaring Fork Valley, water is everyone’s business. Winter and summer, it fuels our economy and our fun.

The Roaring Fork, Crystal and Fryingpan rivers feed the Colorado River. Today, the Colorado River system supplies drinking water, irrigation, snowmaking, recreation and economic activity to 38 million Americans. It irrigates 4 million acres of rich farm and ranchlands and provides power to seven states. These rivers are everyone’s business.

And that system is in trouble. For 16 years, the Colorado River basin has seen dramatic drought. That, and overallocation of the river’s water, means that, since 2003, the demand for Colorado River water has consistently exceeded available supply. The few exceptional years, such as 2011, have saved the system – so far. Storage in lakes Powell and Mead has dropped to levels that threaten hydroelectric-power production and dramatic cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada by the end of 2017.

Simply put, if water in the West were a small business, we would be heading for bankruptcy.

And, yes, these challenges impact life here in the valley. Interstate agreements dictate Colorado can keep only a third of the water originating in our headwaters. Additionally, water rights owned by Denver Water and other Front Range water providers allow 30 diversions to send water from the Roaring Fork and other rivers through the Continental Divide to satisfy the Front Range thirst. Fill a glass of water in Denver and roughly half of the water started as snow on the Western Slope. In Colorado Springs it’s closer to 80 percent.

Our water future is challenged, a challenge we must address as a community, as a state and with our downstream neighbors. We must be water smart, and we have to do more with less.

That means being at the table where water decisions are being made. We need a Roaring Fork voice – and business is key to our voice. Why? Because when business talks, politicians and policymakers listen. Our Colorado River system supports a $26 billion recreation economy, with $3.8 million in local revenues from fishing on the Fryingpan alone. Elected officials and water managers from Aspen to Aurora to Anaheim need to know that.

That is why we sponsored the Business of Water summit here in the Roaring Fork Valley, gathering more than 50 business, nonprofit and community leaders to advance engagement on sustainable water practices and policies, and healthy rivers. We believe any plan to get the Colorado River out of the red must rely first on conservation, efficiencies and the full participation of the business community.

These facts are not lost on Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, who crafted our first state water plan highlighting the community and economic importance of our rivers and the need to invest in them. The Colorado Water Plan outlines projected shortfalls in water supply in the state by 2050 and how to address them, including a conservation goal of saving 130 billion gallons of water a year from municipal and industrial efficiencies (the equivalent of just 1 percent per year).

We can do this. Alpine Bank, with 36 West Slope locations, cut water use by 18 percent, while saving money. Denver Water customers use the same amount of water today as they did in 1973.

Finally, implementation of the Water Plan and safeguarding our water future will require money. Current state funding for critical water and stream restoration programs is limited by declining severance tax revenues. New funding mechanisms must be found.

Our Business of Water summit was the first step, and we will keep going — working with chambers of commerce and business leaders to host sessions on water education and engagement, linking businesses to share water-saving innovations and technologies, educating those who travel here on what a precious resource water is in the West.

If you own or operate a business and would like join us, please contact:

Eric Kuhn is general manager of the Colorado River District; Jim Light is chairman of Chaffin Light Management; Rick Lofaro is executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy; and Louis Meyer is co-founder of SGM.

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