WASHINGTON, D.C. – If population projections for Colorado and the region are on target, water supplies could be a critical issue by mid-century, experts say.
La Plata County’s population is expected to increase 76 percent, from just under 55,000 in 2015 to 95,000 by 2050, according to an annual state population forecast. In Montezuma County, the projected increase is 67 percent – or nearly 44,000 people by 2050.
The report also said the state population is expected to grow to 8.5 million people by then. Colorado is currently ranked ninth for fastest population growth among states, and some organizations are bracing for the influx.
Matt Mulica, the project facilitator for the Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue at the Keystone Policy Center, said his institute along with local communities want to reduce water waste through planning and development changes. He said examples include checking that the soil is amended for greater water retention in the ground.
“We do know there is some kind of significant population increase and now is the time to plan for that. You don’t have to have the all information on the future to save water ahead of time,” Mulica said.
He explained scenario processes they are working on, which look at future uncertainties and create a series of strategies for communities to prepare for whatever happens.
The team has worked on multiple fronts to give local communities “a menu of options on how to save water.”
Elizabeth Garner at the state demographer’s office echoed that planning is essential to prepare for the population increase. Otherwise, Colorado could lose out to other states who are doing to it better, such as Utah, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, she said.
“We need to be better about planning public finance system, and infrastructure. We need to sell ourselves better,” Garner said. “We can work through those challenges in a pragmatic way with thought and planning.”
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and his office said they are working on two water bills to prevent federal agencies from taking privately held water rights.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board has created a state water plan, which include the goal of closing the gap between water supply and demand.
The proposal reported that large industries such as beer brewing, mining and snowmaking require large amounts of water. These outlets and others use about 200,000 acre-feet of water annually, not including the biggest single user in the state – agriculture. With a larger population, the plan projects that number would increase to somewhere between 50,000 to 130,000 acre-feet of water by 2050.
Garner pointed out that the population increases shouldn’t come as a surprise. Job growth is a major drive to bring people into the state.
“You’ve never heard anyone wanting to slow down job growth. But what creates people? Jobs,” Garner said. “As long as we are pro-job growth, we are going to get people.”
The migration of people into the state is largely millennials, and Garner said she hopes they encourage continued growth for the state.
“We need millennials in the labor force, and we need them to be skilled. Every generation is a little different,” Garner said. “They might be a rough change, but after training they become an exceptional 45-year-old that moves into the highest bracket and spends the most on property tax.”
Garner also said affordability of housing has pushed people from Durango to areas such as Cortez. Southwest Colorado’s annual population percent change is projected to be higher than Denver and the state average, according to state findings.
Josephine Peterson is a reporting intern for the Herald in Washington, D.C., and a recent graduate of American University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @jopeterson93.