Population growth, drought could create a dire situation for the cities along the Colorado River | PostIndependent.com

Population growth, drought could create a dire situation for the cities along the Colorado River

The Colorado River as it flows through Rifle and elsewhere might have considerably less water flowing in it by 2050
Mike McKibbin/Citizen Telegram |

There is no more unclaimed water in the Colorado River basin, so if the state’s population nearly doubles by 2050, as some have projected, the consequences for everyone along the river — including Rifle — could be dire.

That was the message Louis Meyer, a civil engineer, president and CEO of SGM in Glenwood Springs, told City Council as he detailed the ongoing Colorado Water Plan process at an April 2 workshop.

Meyer, who has helped the City of Rifle with water issues since 1982, and Karl Hanlon, Rifle’s assistant city attorney, are Garfield County’s representatives on the Colorado River Basin roundtable.

Meyer noted Colorado is one of only four Western states without a water plan.

“But we do have one of the highest numbers of water lawyers in the country,” he added.

Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order, directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop a state water plan by the end of 2015. That board charged each of the nine roundtables with developing basin plans to include in the state plan. SGM was hired to help prepare the plan for the Colorado River basin and Meyer said a draft plan is scheduled to be released in July.

More Population = more water demands

The state demographer’s office projects Colorado’s population will double from five million people today to nearly ten million by 2050, Meyer noted. The gap, or amount of additional water expected to be needed by 2050, is some 500,000 acre-feet, Meyer stated.

“So there’s going to be a need for more water, but we’re not making any more water than we have today,” Meyer said.

Of the counties in the Colorado River basin, he noted, Garfield is projected to have the most growth, around 274 percent, or 119,900 people, by 2030.

“The Front Range is expected to have serious water shortages by 2020, unless they find more water,” he said. “They can’t take any more from agriculture on the Front Range, so they want a new supply from the Colorado River basin.”

“We have a target on our back,” Meyer continued. “But we have no more water to give.”

If every entity on the Front Range implemented some strict conservation measures, such as banning all new lawns and perhaps the removal of some existing lawns, Meyer said, the water gap could possibly be eliminated in coming years.

“But if we put that in the [water] plan, we need to do the same thing in our basin,” he added.

All storage water in Ruedi and Green Mountain reservoirs is allocated, along with nearly every other reservoir in the state, Meyer said.

Water quality issues are already becoming acute, Meyer said, because there is less water in the Colorado River.

A possible solution to meet future demands might be what’s called “the big straw,” he added, a huge pipeline to pump water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir just over the Colorado-Utah border, into Wyoming and down the Front Range.

Drought could lead to water “call”

Along with increased demand for water in Colorado, the other basin states of California, New Mexico and Arizona are in serious drought condition, agricultural water rights are being bought to supply urban areas and “it can take 25 years or so to get a new water reservoir built these days,” Meyer said.

If Colorado does not supply 7.2 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the downstream states in the Colorado River Compact, a 1920s agreement that Meyer said widely miscalculated the available water in Colorado, downstream states can demand more water.

“That most likely could occur around 2026,” Meyer said.

Most water rights along the Colorado between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction are conditional to downstream states, he noted.

“The risk is going to be on all of us,” Meyer said. “What we think of as senior water rights will be junior” to a downstream “call” for water.

“And every loss or diversion from the Colorado basin affects Rifle,” he added. “That’s why I think it’s important that Rifle keep the Beaver Creek water plant operational. It’s very important you have some redundancy” in water treatment capability.

And the interests of headwater counties, such as Grand, and Garfield and Mesa counties are different, so local control issues become involved, Meyer said.

“You never know what to expect when you have all these factors and interests involved,” he said.

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