Water, water everywhere for Colo.?

Hickenlooper calls on experts to help quell regional conflicts

WESTMINSTER – More than 300 of Colorado’s top water experts gathered Thursday for a first-ever attempt to design a statewide strategy to supply cities while keeping farms in business for the next century.

There was no gunfire.

Just five years ago, the east-west tension about water was so potent that no one could have contemplated such a gathering. But on Thursday, Gov. John Hickenlooper charged the water experts with developing a statewide solution that will overcome regional water conflicts.

“This is the point in Colorado history when we have an opportunity to get this done, to actually have a long-term sustainable vision for our water,” Hickenlooper said.

Colorado never has had a statewide water strategy. Instead, growing cities buy water from farmers and the dry eastern side pumps it through controversial tunnels from the Western Slope.

Most water experts agree that without changes, cities will dry up the farms and mountain valleys.

Thursday’s meeting was the first summit meeting of the roundtables for each major river basin. The Legislature created the roundtables in 2005, with the intent that they eventually meet together to discuss a statewide water plan.

“I don’t know where we could have a better brain trust of water experts and enthusiasts than in this room,” said John Stulp, Hickenlooper’s chief adviser on water.

A statewide water roundtable known as the Interbasin Compact Committee released a controversial report in December that dominated Thursday’s agenda. The report calls for a greater role for state government in water policy, both in mandating strict conservation for cities and in speeding up the slow process of building major water projects.

Reaction to the report has been mixed. Some people complain the conservation requirements are not strict enough, while others say they are too strict, including a proposed new law that homeowners install water-efficient appliances before they sell their houses.

People from Western Slope river roundtables have said that even if the state requires cities to pay extra for water transfers, no amount of money is enough to compensate for the loss of water, according to a written summary of comments gathered the last two months at public meetings around the state.

Hickenlooper wants the group to have a water strategy ready to go in the next four or five years – light speed compared with the pace of east-west water negotiations so far.

The twin goals, Hickenlooper said, should be to preserve agriculture’s place in the economy while still keeping enough water in the streams to keep the Western Slope a lush and attractive destination for rafters, kayakers and anglers.

The water community must end the sniping between farmers and environmentalists, the governor said.

“We can do this in a discussion that holds agriculture high ... but at the same time also protecting our environment. Those are not in any way exclusionary,” Hickenlooper said.

But both agriculture and the environment are under pressure from growing cities. The latest projections show that cities will have only half the new water they need for population growth by 2050, even if they build all the dams and pipelines that have been planned.

jhanel@durango herald.com