Water Lines: How will Colorado’s water plan address West-East water transfers? | PostIndependent.com

Water Lines: How will Colorado’s water plan address West-East water transfers?

Hannah Holm
Free Press Weekly Columnist

As the first draft of Colorado’s Water Plan nears completion (it’s due in December), many who have participated in its development remain anxious about what will and won’t be in it — particularly in relation to the potential for more West Slope water to be transported east to serve growing cities on the Front Range.

Colorado’s Water Plan, which was ordered by Governor Hickenlooper in May of 2013, is intended to close a projected gap between water needs and developed supplies in coming decades. “Basin Roundtables” of water providers and other water stakeholders in each of the state’s major river basins contributed key building blocks to the plan back in July, when they turned in plans for how to address needs within their own basins.

Now, Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) staffers are scrambling to integrate information from each of the basin plans, as well as their own statewide analysis and public input, into a cohesive document. This would be a big task even if all of the basin plans agreed with each other — which they don’t.

The West Slope basin plans reflect an extremely dim view of additional diversions of West Slope water to the Front Range, citing damage to the environment and river-based recreation and the concern that failure to meet water delivery obligations to downstream states would put both West Slope and Front Range users of Colorado River water at risk. The South Platte basin plan, on the other hand, states that additional Colorado River imports will be needed to supply future urban growth and prevent the dry-up of irrigated land.

At a meeting on Oct. 6, Gunnison Basin Roundtable members asked how this conflict would be resolved in the statewide plan. The answer they got from the basin’s representative to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, John McClow, was that it wouldn’t. He said, as other CWCB representatives have also stated in previous meetings, that the plan will not endorse any particular type of transmountain diversion project. The individual basin plans will stand on their own, without any forced reconciliation.

An early draft chapter of the Colorado Water Plan, however, does contain a draft “conceptual agreement” on how to approach a potential future transmountain diversion. This agreement was hammered out between representatives from all the state’s roundtables and released for comment.

The draft conceptual agreement got a mixed reception at the Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting. Members welcomed an acknowledgment by Front Range parties that any new transmountain diversion may only be able to take water in wet years, due to existing demands and downstream obligations.

Language about the need for an “insurance policy” to protect “existing uses and some increment of future development” was greeted with much more skepticism, however. There was concern that this meant that irrigated agriculture could be sacrificed to enable continued urban uses, although no one could say with certainty what it really meant. There was also concern that the agreement would go into the December draft of Colorado’s Water Plan without sufficient additional discussion.

Some comfort was provided by the fact that, once the complete draft of Colorado’s Water Plan is released in December, the current timeline allows a full year for additional discussion and public comment before the document is final. You can find all the documents developed to date at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com.

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. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

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