DENVER – Sen. Mark Udall laid out a pro-business case for conservation of the Colorado River on Friday, and he also threw cold water on the idea of building new large dams on the Western Slope.
Although discussions about the Colorado River Basin are traditionally dominated by water utility mangers, anglers and rafting company owners, a broader array of businesses are starting to pay attention. About 50 businesspeople gathered Friday for a seminar by Protect the Flows, a group that urges conservation of the river that supports most of the cities in the southwestern United States.
“Hundreds of thousands of jobs depend directly on the Colorado River,” Udall told the group.
The fate of Colorado’s share of its namesake river is getting more attention this fall, as state leaders are ramping up a publicity campaign around Colorado’s Water Plan, a first-ever statewide water strategy that Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to debut by next winter.
The plan is supposed to present a framework to deal with Colorado’s water dilemma: Most of the water is on the Western Slope, where it is used for agriculture, towns and ecological preservation, while most of the people are on the Front Range, which has a water shortfall for its cities and farms.
Like Hickenlooper has in the past, Udall promoted a conservation-first strategy to the problem.
A decade ago, Front Range interests promoted a “Big Straw,” a massive new west-to-east pipeline.
But Udall said the future is conservation and smaller projects, such as enlarging existing reservoirs and recharging aquifers.
“Whether we’re going to build any more big projects, it seems to be more likely the answer is no,” Udall said.
He acknowledged that the northern Front Range is studying a pipeline east from the Yampa River, but he said most people in Northwest Colorado don’t want to dam their river.
James Eklund, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, shared Hickenlooper’s goals for the state water plan. The governor wants action to replace decades of talk about Colorado’s water woes, but at the same time he wants to make sure solutions come from people around the state, not from the offices of power in Denver, Eklund said.
“In water, you usually talk about decades. Instead, we’re in a position where we need to act in real time, not water time,” Eklund said.
The biggest problem is that more than 2 million people will join the state’s current population of 5 million by 2030, and without a new plan for water, the only alternative is to dry up farms.
Eklund reminded people during his lunch presentation that the Western Slope already supports the Front Range’s water consumption.
“The water in your glass – half of that comes from the Colorado River,” Eklund said.
Both Eklund and Udall cited prolonged droughts and climate change as forces that make it even more urgent for Colorado to get serious about its water supply.
As an aside, Udall promised he would not shrink from defending the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and it is almost certainly because of human activity.
“Climate change is occurring. I’m going to campaign next year on that fact, by the way,” Udall said.
Republicans lining up to challenge Udall next year include 2010 Senate candidate Ken Buck, state Rep. Amy Stephens, and state senators Owen Hill and Randy Baumgardner.