WATER LINES: Conditions proposed for future West Slope–East Slope water transfers
Free Press Weekly Columnist
One reliable way to rile up a room full of western Coloradans is to start talking about moving water from the Colorado River basin (“our water”) east across the Continental Divide for use by Front Range cities. You’ll hear lots of muttering, and someone will probably say something to the effect that not one more drop should go over while a blade of bluegrass remains in the Denver metro area.
It doesn’t even have to be water that resides in Colorado to get people’s backs up, as was demonstrated by the reaction to a proposal floated by entrepreneur Aaron Million to pump water from the Flaming Gorge reservoir in southwestern Wyoming east along the I-80 corridor and then south to a reservoir near Pueblo. In September 2011, billboards sprouted up along I-70 protesting providing funding to even study the idea. The billboards were funded by environmental organizations, but a host of resolutions approved by the City of Grand Junction, Mesa County and others roundly condemned the proposed project as well.
However, if Front Range cities can’t take water from our side of the hill, they have to look elsewhere — and that usually means “buying and drying” agricultural land. Since western Coloradans tend to like farms, even if they are east of the Divide, this creates a bit of a quandary. While some claim that ramped up conservation could preclude the need for more water transfers, it’s not easy to see how to push conservation far enough to close the 500,000-acre-foot gap between supply and demand that is forecast to afflict the state by 2050 if measures aren’t taken. Besides, if the Front Range has to dry up lawns, we might have to do the same — and that becomes a more complicated conversation.
Despite the billboards and resolutions, the state did fund a committee to study the potential benefits and impacts of the Flaming Gorge proposal. It included representatives from each of Colorado’s major river basins, including many highly skeptical of the proposal as well as potential beneficiaries, and it met once a month for a year. In short order, the committee broadened its mission and ended up developing a series of questions to be addressed for any proposed major movement of water across the Divide, as well as criteria for what would be a “good” project. This report was presented to the Gunnison Basin Roundtable and Gunnison “State of the River” meeting in Montrose June 3.
The key questions the committee posed included the following:
• How can Colorado maximize use of its Colorado River entitlement while also minimizing the risk of over-development of the Colorado River? The fear is that if too much water is taken out of the river, we could fail to allow sufficient water to flow downstream to California, Arizona and Nevada to satisfy the terms of the 1922 compact to allocate the river’s flows. This could lead to cutting off users with rights junior to the compact and set off a scramble for senior agricultural water rights — Western Slope “buy and dry” on a massive scale.
• What are the alternatives to a new supply project, how can they receive sufficient consideration and analysis, and how can they promote flexibility and reliability of current water supply systems? In other words, are we trying hard enough to find a way to combine conservation measures with some other tweaks to water management that could meet future water needs without another big trans-mountain diversion?
• Who would finance a project, who has bonding authority, and what would the State’s role be in funding a project? A concern here is that the Flaming Gorge project or any other big new trans-mountain diversion is going to be very expensive and require significant financing — and that whoever puts up the cash may be unwilling to tolerate the uncertain yields if the project’s water rights are very junior, with a risk of not being fulfilled in dry years.
Criteria for a “good” project largely provide the answers committee members would like to see to the questions it raised. They determined that they could support a project that (among other criteria):
— Facilitates Colorado’s use (but not overuse) of its entitlement under the Colorado River Compact.
— Decreases, or at least does not increase, the risk of Compact curtailment to existing water users.
— Provides a new water supply that is a viable option when compared to the conversion of East Slope agricultural supplies.
The questions and criteria extracted here barely scratch the surface of the full report, which you can find at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/watercenter/RoundtableEducationProject.html (look under the heading of “General Resources…”).
The Flaming Gorge committee made a stab at finding consensus among diverse stakeholders on one of the thornier issues related to how to meet the state’s future water needs. Given that Gov. Hickenlooper recently charged the Colorado Water Conservation Board with completing a draft statewide water plan (you can also find the Executive Order at the link above) in 2014, you can expect these themes to be raised again and again in the coming months — just as they have been, in various forms, over the past century.
Meanwhile, the drought continues, with particular severity in the Arkansas River Basin in the southeast corner of the state. For many water users, shortages already are a “here and now” issue, not just a nebulous future projection.
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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