Colorado’s water future

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

On Colorado’s Western Slope as well as on the Front Range, water is not only a life-giving resource, it is a way of life. Southwest Coloradans enjoy the benefits that our snowpack and rivers bring to us.

As an essential resource, water supports the open space provided by the state’s productive ranches and farms, brings us recreational activities such as boating and fishing, is the source of high quality drinking water for our growing towns and cities, and provides life to the beautiful environment that surrounds us.

In the southwest corner of the state, the San Juan River springs to life on the Continental Divide near Wolf Creek Pass, and grows in size with runoff from rivers such as the Pine, Piedra, Animas, Mancos and La Plata on its journey to the Colorado River. The San Miguel joins the Dolores River after it turns back to the north to join the Colorado. Unlike many other parts of the state, there are individual rivers and multiple sub-basins that provide the water we rely on.

Water is also a limited resource. Studies show that in the coming decades, there could be a gap between water supply and demand of half a million acre-feet or more per year in Colorado. The entire state is threatened by this scenario, and it is particularly threatening to our rural communities. Unless something is done now to manage and plan for our water future, more and more agricultural water rights will be bought up to supply our growing cities, drying up hundreds of thousands of acres of productive farm and ranch land and jeopardizing the economy and livelihood of rural Colorado. Northeastern Colorado alone is expected to lose about 20 percent of the agricultural land currently under production from purchase agreements already in place.

This “buy and dry” process should not be the only source of water to meet our future needs. We must have a plan that provides a secure water future for all Coloradans. In May of this year, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop Colorado’s Water Plan. This is an unprecedented undertaking for Colorado, but fortunately, much of the work that is needed for development of the plan is already done.

During the drought of 2002-03, the state commissioned the most comprehensive study ever done of Colorado’s current and future water demands and supplies, a study which is continually being updated to include the most current information available. In addition, in 2005 the state Legislature created nine basin roundtables, groups of water leaders from each major river basin that have been evaluating their basin’s water challenges. The Legislature also created the Interbasin Compact Committee, a group of 27 leaders representing every major river basin and water constituency, including two representatives from each roundtable. For the last several years these groups have been engaged in thoughtful dialogue, working hard to understand and address Colorado’s water challenges.

The CWCB, IBCC and basin roundtables have reached consensus on a variety of actions that will lead to a sustainable water future, including support for alternatives to permanent buy-and-dry of agriculture, promoting water conservation, developing new projects that meet multiple needs, and more.

The development of Colorado’s Water Plan will not be a top-down process, nor will the plan be full of state-level mandates and directives. Instead, it will be built on the foundation of the work of the basin roundtables and the IBCC.

To create the foundation, each basin roundtable is in the process of developing a basin plan for their region. At the same time, the IBCC is developing a “no and/or low regrets” strategy for meeting future water needs that could be applied statewide. Because these efforts are currently underway, we don’t yet know all the components of Colorado’s Water Plan. What is known is that Colorado’s Water Plan will be a balanced plan that will reflect Colorado’s values. The governor’s executive order specifies that Colorado’s Water Plan must promote “a productive economy that supports vibrant and sustainable cities, viable and productive agriculture, and a robust skiing, recreation and tourism industry; efficient and effective water infrastructure promoting smart land use; and a strong environment that includes healthy watersheds, rivers and streams, and wildlife.”

Using the basin plans and the work of the IBCC, the Colorado Water Conservation Board will deliver a draft plan to the governor by Dec. 10, 2014. It will then work with the governor’s office to finalize Colorado’s Water Plan no later than December 2015.

To provide your insights and perspectives, participate in the next meeting of the Southwest Basin Roundtable at 3 p.m. Nov. 13 at Durango Public Library.

To learn more about the members of the roundtable and to find out when meetings are scheduled, visit www.cwcb.state.co.us and go to the IBCC and basin roundtables link. You can also submit your comments on the water plan to the CWCB by emailing cowaterplan@state.co.us.

For more information, visit Colorado’s Water Plan online at www.coloradowaterplan.com.

Bruce Whitehead is a member of the Southwest Basin Roundtable, Interbasin Compact Committee representative and executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District. Reach him at brucew@southwesternwater.org.

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