DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday received a draft of a historic water plan that aims to offer a framework for how the state should grapple with shortfalls in the future.
Colorado’s Water Plan begins a conversation that is sure to intensify in the coming years. Overall, the plan outlines $20 billion worth of infrastructure projects to consider through 2050, according to James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. That means that voters likely would need to approve a tax increase.
There also are legislative hurdles, with an aim to approach lawmakers for measures in the 2016 session. Fighting between rural and urban lawmakers could muddy the waters at the Capitol, especially if lawmakers start to push conservation mandates.
Policy officials would need to balance the interests of rural Colorado – where water is precious for agricultural needs – with the needs of the rapidly expanding Front Range and suburban communities.
The backdrop always has been private ownership of water rights. Colorado uses a so-called “prior appropriation” system. In this system, rights are granted to the first person to take water from an aquifer or river, despite residential proximity.
“This first draft strikes a good balance between so many different interests and yet upholds our core water values,” Hickenlooper said at a news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday.
While the crafting of the Water Plan took about a year-and-a-half, conversations through eight regional basin roundtables have been going on for about 10 years, meaning stakeholders were able to hit the ground running.
The Southwest Basin Roundtable is more complicated than other basins in the state, flowing through two Native American reservations – the Ute Mountain Ute reservation and the Southern Ute Indian reservation. Also, the basin includes a series of nine sub-basins, eight of which flow out of state.
But Eklund is confident the roundtables can come together, and he said they already have. He said it is time to put to rest the old adage from Mark Twain, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.”
“We challenge the statement that water is only for fighting. Colorado’s Water Plan suggests that water is too important for bickering and potential failure. Water demands collaboration and solutions,” Eklund said.
Hickenlooper ordered the plan through an executive order in May 2013; a final plan must be completed by Dec. 10, 2015.
The municipal water supply gap is growing in Colorado, with shortfalls expected by 2050. The result could be agricultural dry-up and fish and wildlife extinction, as well as increased demands and pressure on municipalities.
But the plan stops short of prescribing how the state should move forward. For example, it does not present mandates for transmountain water diversions for Front Range communities, a usually contentious subject.
It does, however, try to steer municipalities away from the practice of purchasing water rights from farmers when there is no diversion, leaving agricultural land dry.
Travis Smith, director of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, said he is optimistic about ending in agreement through a collaborative process.
“This plan, at no other time in history, recognizes the importance of agriculture and the environment and the recreation economy for Colorado, and it also recognizes that we’re going to have a vibrant economy on the Front Range,” Smith said.
Hickenlooper said he is not worried about legislative gridlock when the time comes to get more prescriptive.
“There are long histories of discord around water. To a lot of us outside of government, we looked at that as just illogically dysfunctional,” Hickenlooper said. “But what these guys have all done is built the foundation.”
Eklund said, “This isn’t lip service.”
“We’re actually doing this,” he said. “We’re taking this conversation out to Coloradans for a genuine conversation.”