WATER LINES: How will Colorado share the Colo. River?
Free Press Weekly Columnist
Gov. Hickenlooper’s recent Executive Order requiring the completion of a statewide water plan by the end of 2015 has brought new urgency to long-standing discussions about how to meet the state’s future water needs.
A central theme in those discussions has been, and remains, how much more Colorado River Basin water should flow across the Continental Divide to meet the anticipated needs of Front Range cities.
Eastern Slope communities see additional Colorado River imports to the Front Range as essential to prevent large-scale buying and drying of Eastern Slope agricultural water rights to meet growing urban demands. They’ve already suffered from this activity for decades, and they want as little more of it as possible.
Meanwhile, Western Slope communities are wary of additional depletions to the Colorado River’s headwaters and the risk of failing to meet downstream flow obligations. If downstream flow obligations are not met, water rights junior to the 1922 Compact between Upper Colorado River Basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) and Lower Colorado River Basin States (Arizona, Nevada and California) on how to share the river could be curtailed.
Since all the major Colorado River diversions to the Eastern Slope cities are junior to the Compact, there is concern that this would set off a rush to buy and dry senior Western Slope agricultural water rights to allow those diversions to continue.
So … East Slopers are afraid that failing to take enough Colorado River water east of the divide will lead to a massive dry-up of irrigated agriculture, and Western Slopers are afraid that taking too much will do the same.
Both sides are worried about how this conundrum will be dealt with in Colorado’s statewide water plan, so meetings are multiplying and memos are flying. “Basin Roundtables” of stakeholders on both sides are trying to figure out how to simultaneously strengthen their negotiating position and also find low-impact ways of accommodating each others needs.
Possibilities discussed include:
• Allowing new transfers of Western Slope water to the Front Range, but only when existing reservoirs are full.
• Building new reservoirs to hold Western Slope water that can benefit water users on both sides of the divide (that’s how past controversies of this type have been resolved).
• Ramping up urban conservation to the point where cities won’t need more water from either agriculture or Western Slope streams.
The route taken to resolve this sticky issue will have long-term impacts for the economies, environment and quality of life of communities all across the state. We should all be paying attention.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.
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