Conservation Conversations column: Putting the Colorado Water Plan to work on the Western Slope |

Conservation Conversations column: Putting the Colorado Water Plan to work on the Western Slope

Sara Dunn
Conservation conversations

The Colorado Water Plan marked its three-year anniversary in November of 2018. Developed in response to an executive order from Gov. Hickenlooper, Colorado’s Water Plan answers the questions of how to implement water supply planning solutions that meet Colorado’s future water needs while supporting healthy watersheds and the environment, robust recreation and tourism economies, vibrant and sustainable cities, and viable and productive agriculture.

Basin implementation plans were developed by each Basin Roundtable to implement the Colorado Water Plan objectives through identification of local water needs, priorities and projects.

To further define localized water needs and project challenges and solutions, stream management and integrated water management plans are being developed for prioritized rivers and streams. Stream management plans use hydrological, biological, chemical, geomorphological and other data to assess flows, water quality, aquatic and riparian health and other physical conditions of the stream. Integrated water management plans also consider the consumptive use requirements in the planning process.

The Colorado River was identified as one of the State’s highest priority rivers. Encompassing approximately 9,830 square miles, it is one of the State’s largest watersheds. The Colorado River supplies municipal, recreational, environmental and agricultural uses on both the West Slope and East Slope of Colorado.

Approximately 80 percent is utilized on the Western Slope while the remaining 20 percent is utilized on the Eastern Slope. Each year between 450,000 to 600,000 acre feet of water is diverted from the Colorado River system to the Eastern Slope. The Colorado River will play a central role in supporting Colorado’s growing population which is expected to be between 8.6 million and 10 million people by 2050.

The Colorado Basin Implementation Plan estimates that currently 584,000 acre feet of Colorado River Basin water is used to irrigate 268,000 acres and there is an existing annual average shortfall of 100,000 acre feet, sometimes referred to as the agricultural water gap.

Cattle and hay represent the highest percentage of agricultural production in the Colorado River Basin. Other crops include fruits, vegetables, wine grapes, grains and other specialty crops. Industrial hemp production is expected to have exponential growth and could represent a much higher percentage of agricultural production in the coming years.

The communities in the middle section of the Colorado River Basin from Glenwood Springs to DeBeque rely on tourism and the energy industry, in addition to agriculture, to sustain their economies. The Bookcliff, South Side and Mount Sopris Conservation Districts, in collaboration with the Middle Colorado Watershed Council are developing an integrated water management plan for the middle section of the Colorado River.

The goals of the plan include protecting and restoring streams, rivers and riparian health; sustaining and promoting agriculture; securing safe drinking water for our growing population; encouraging conservation across all uses; working with local land use planning authorities to develop water-conscious land use strategies; and ensuring reliable and predictable administration pursuant to Colorado’s water laws and interstate compacts. The initial evaluation and planning process undertaken by the districts and the Middle Colorado Watershed Council will continue through 2020.

The conservation districts are focusing on the consumptive use components of the integrated water management plan which include agricultural uses, municipal and drinking water uses, and industrial use. The districts are gathering information on current consumptive use practices and demands and identifying where shortages exist on a localized level to recommend possible solutions to address these gaps and to identify projects that can benefit multiple water demands.

The conservation districts’ objectives in the planning process are to reduce agricultural water shortages, minimize potential for non-voluntary transfer of agriculture water rights to municipal use, develop incentives to support agricultural production and increase education among the agricultural community and general public about Colorado River Basin water issues.

Offering opportunities to safeguard the ability of agriculture to continue producing food and fiber in a healthy and sustainable landscape has been the mission of the Conservation Districts since they were established in 1937 by Congressional Act. This grassroots leadership evolved out of the Dust Bowl Era and the recognition that individuals working on a local level can provide more effective assistance in conserving our natural resources.

The Bookcliff, South Side and Mount Sopris Conservation Districts coordinate technical, financial and educational resources to mitigate drought issues on private lands, improve riparian areas and wildlife habitat, and address water quality and quantity challenges. Please visit our website to learn how you can participate in the integrated water management planning process:

Conservation Conversations appears monthly in the Post Independent in cooperation with the area conservation districts. Sara M. Dunn is district supervisor for the Bookcliff Conservation District.

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