On the second anniversary of the release of Colorado’s Water Plan, a few key facts are unchanged: A swelling population is stretching our water supplies, evidence is mounting that climate change is already reducing flows on the Colorado River and securing and sustaining Colorado’s supply of clean, safe drinking water continues to be top of mind.
But there is one important difference today, two years have passed to measure the plan’s success in securing water for our communities, preserving our agricultural heritage and protecting our rivers.
The multiyear process to develop Colorado’s Water Plan engaged our state’s farmers, ranchers, businesses, outdoor recreation companies and communities, proving the wide range of values and importance all Coloradans place on water. Of the 30,000 public comments submitted during drafting, the vast majority spoke to the importance of clean drinking water, increasing water conservation in our cities, improving river protection and supporting flexible water policies that promote water sharing between farms and cities while protecting our state’s proud agricultural heritage.
The plan successfully crafted this input into reasonable criteria: Projects must be sustainable and cost-effective, meet real needs and have community input and support. But the plan also noted that existing public resources are all too often spent disproportionately on expensive dams and diversions that damage Colorado’s rivers.
Cost-effective tools that enhance and protect rivers while ensuring clean drinking water, like water conservation actions and river flow improvements, are currently undervalued and underfunded. After all, fish cannot write checks. Because there is not enough money to go around, Colorado must do a better job at balancing funding critical projects that are good for communities, rivers and wildlife with projects that have traditionally received state support.
This funding imbalance is one reason why progress on implementing Colorado’s Water Plan has been lopsided. First, the good news. Communities across Colorado, like those in the Roaring Fork and Gunnison valleys, have developed stream management plans identifying specific projects to improve the health of the river and nearby communities. In 2016, the Colorado Legislature appropriated $5 million for the development of watershed plans and another $1 million for implementing environmental and recreation projects, the latter receiving requests for funding far exceeding the allotment.
However, progress on urban water conservation, flexible water sharing, and river protection – projects that Coloradans said they value most – has been elusive and difficult to measure. Transparency is necessary so that Coloradans can see how well we are, or aren’t, doing on meeting urban conservation goals, environmental goals and other measurable objectives in the plan.
We must address the uneven focus on water storage projects, too. The state has routinely spent tens of millions of dollars on storage and infrastructure projects over many years, while spending just a few million dollars on conservation, environmental and recreational projects – and that only recently.
Two years in, it is clear what we need to do. We need Colorado to make smart investments in only the water projects that meet all of the criteria in Colorado’s Water Plan. We need state leaders to be more transparent about progress toward the plan’s goals. We need the Legislature to increase funding for urban water conservation, stream management plans that improve river health and innovative water agreements with agriculture.
And, because we don’t have enough money to implement the full suite of projects needed to maintain clean, safe drinking water and protect rivers and wildlife – even with a rebalancing of existing funds – we need to secure a new source of money to move Colorado’s Water Plan over the finish line.
Coloradans can be proud that together, we have crafted a forward-looking water strategy that is the gold standard for every Western state struggling with scarce water supplies. Our farms, businesses and communities depend on maintaining healthy rivers and making smart choices for our water future. It is time to turn some of the most important parts of Colorado’s Water Plan from words into action.
Drew Beckwith is the water policy manager at Western Resource Advocates. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.