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Guest opinion: Water plan must focus on conservation, not diversion

Bart Miller
Bart Miller
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Until 50 years ago, dams and water diversions were seen by many as symbols of progress, ingenuity and man’s triumph over nature. By 1970 we had built 100,000 dams in rivers and creeks across the country, and their negative impacts — on fish, wildlife, wetlands, recreation and communities — were becoming increasingly visible.

Colorado rivers like the Blue, Eagle, Fryingpan and Roaring Fork were depleted by water diverted out of their basins to the Front Range, in some places becoming mere shadows of their natural selves. Water projects currently tap 500,000 acre-feet (163 billion gallons) from the West Slope each year. Additional diversions could further endanger the wildlife, fishing, rafting and recreational economy we’ve all come to enjoy. The good news is we have cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly options to invest in to ensure our cities, industries and farms meet their water needs while protecting our rivers.

The draft Colorado Water Plan will be finalized by December 2015. It presents a one-of-a-kind opportunity to modernize how we manage this scarce and invaluable public resource. Indeed, the Governor’s Executive Order in 2013 said the plan should embrace modern water values, including vibrant and smart-built cities, viable agriculture, healthy rivers and a strong recreation economy. It’s key that we all harness this opportunity.

But we’re only partway there. The draft Colorado Water Plan, released in mid-December, did a good job of providing a detailed snapshot of where we are today. The final water plan needs a lot more detail to chart a path forward to embody our water values. The final water plan should set goals and priorities for a new status quo and provide incentives to launch into a new era of water management that recognizes we are all in this together.

Several topics in the Colorado Water Plan deserve greater attention, including: (1) setting goals for urban conservation; (2) accelerating reuse of existing water supplies; (3) modernizing and increasing flexibility for agricultural water use; (4) protecting and improving river health; and (5) avoiding large, new transmountain diversions.

Over the past decade, my organization — Western Resource Advocates — issued a series of reports that drew a blueprint for how we can more than meet projected water demands without large new transmountain diversions. Our portfolio of flexible water strategies could provide 250,000 acre feet (81 billion gallons) of water in excess of the Front Range’s 2050 demands. In sum:

Improving water efficiency has a solid history of speedy implementation and costs often five to 10 times less than structural projects. Colorado can reasonably commit to conserving 20 percent between 2010 and 2030, and give water utilities and citizens incentives to increase efficiency while maintaining our high quality of life. Our governor has said repeatedly: “the conversation should start with conservation.”

Accelerating reuse of water from legally reusable sources can utilize new treatment technologies, help connect delivery systems and provide more “in-basin” solutions. We can do much more on water conservation and reuse, but we need a statewide commitment to make these strategies a high priority.

Modernizing agriculture’s infrastructure enables more flexible and efficient water management to benefit on-farm productivity and stream flows. We need to find a path to enable irrigators to control their destiny through flexible, voluntary and compensated sharing agreements with cities inside their basin. We can protect our state’s rich farming and ranching heritage while enabling new ideas to flourish, too.

Protecting our rivers and streams must be a high priority in the final water plan. For too long, stream health was merely an afterthought. That’s changed. Citizens in all of Colorado’s river basins now recognize the value of rivers for local communities, recreation and the environment. The plan must fund local streamflow management plans all across the state, to enable the identification and implementation of measures to protect rivers for fishing, kayaking, wildlife viewing and other ways we enjoy rivers.

Avoiding large, new transmountain projects is a natural outcome of all the elements above; and it’s just plain smart. Water diversions from the West Slope are costly, prone to controversy and delay, and irreversibly devastating to local ecological, recreational, and economic values. As noted above, we have numerous alternatives to meet our demands. Large transmountain diversions are a strategy of the past: R.I.P.

As Colorado residents we get it, and our leaders should, too. A statewide, bipartisan poll recently found 78 percent of Coloradans prefer water conservation and recycling instead of diverting water from the Western Slope. It’s just a small sampling of how we, as Colorado’s 21st century residents, have embraced new water values. It’s time our leaders adopted a plan that reflects our values.

Bart Miller is the Water Program Director at Western Resources Advocates.


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