In July, Becky Mitchell was announced as the new director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. That’s great news for Southwest Colorado and the rest of the state.
Here’s why. Water management continues to be one of the trickiest out-of-sight, out-of-mind challenges of our era.
Water resources are stretched thin because the state continues to grow (with about 100,000 new residents added every year) while water sources are shrinking – scientists predict a future with less water on average, with “drought” being more like the new norm. Fast-growing Front Range cities continue to rove in search of water, including from Western Slope streams and Front Range farmers.
The challenges above led to the creation of Colorado’s Water Plan in 2015. The two-year process to develop the plan engaged many around the state. Over 30,000 public comments were submitted. The vast majority of them highlighted the need for more urban water conservation, river protection, and increased flexibility of water policies to allow more voluntary and compensated agreements for water sharing between farms, cities, and rivers.
The plan did a good job of articulating the wide range of values Colorado has around water and set out objectives to meet our future demands. But it noted the vast majority of existing public funding is focused on traditional water infrastructure projects and not the often cheaper and more river-friendly water supply tools of expanding water conservation in cities and on farms, water reuse, and flexible water-sharing agreements. In fact, there is a multibillion dollar “gap” that prevents fully implementing these water security tools and improving river flows to support local river-dependent economies.
Here is where Mitchell comes in. As the new director of the CWCB, she has a huge opportunity to kick the plan into action. She is as well-suited for the job as anyone could be. She has nearly a decade of experience at the Conservation Board, including as a section chief. She’s technically savvy and politically astute.
She has gained trust from all water sectors and has shown a strong willingness to meet with water users and river enthusiasts all across the state, balancing her heavy work schedule with raising five kids at home.
Perhaps most importantly, Mitchell knows Colorado’s Water Plan like the back of her hand. After all, she had a major role in writing it. She seems ready to realign the agency’s priorities to support the full spectrum of water management tools that support our communities, rivers and agriculture.
Her selection to head the CWCB reflects a commitment at the highest levels of state government, up to and including the governor, to put the water plan into action.
Colorado’s communities need her to be a strong catalyst to turn the plan from words into action on all fronts. At its two-year anniversary, we have yet to reach many milestones, and progress has been lopsided. Two large water project proposals, Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir and Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project – both large infrastructure projects that tap into water from the Western Slope – continue to head toward construction, and together would meet nearly half of the plan’s goal of 400,000 acre-feet of new water storage.
In contrast, there has been limited progress on water saving by cities, flexible water sharing and river protection.
It’s important that many other aspects of water management be addressed, not just water storage. According to the 2016 State of the Rockies Survey by Colorado College, 77 percent of Colorado voters said they prefer using our current water supplies more wisely to meet the state’s needs, rather than diverting more water from rivers in less populated areas of the state. Thus, it’s critical to implement and fund the full range of Colorado Water Plan objectives.
Colorado’s future depends on healthy rivers, clean drinking water and smart choices. We are counting on Becky Mitchell for a fresh start, to ensure we continue to build consensus among a wide range of stakeholders to accelerate water plan implementation, and to create a dedicated source of funds to make that possible.
Bart Miller is the Healthy Rivers Program director at Western Resource Advocates. Reach him at email@example.com.