In the southwest corner of the state, there should be enough water to serve the population through 2050, but many new infrastructure projects will be needed to transport it.
The same generally is true in other areas of the state, as well, said Colorado Water Conservation Board Director James Eklund.
“We’ve got the water. We don’t have the infrastructure to use it when we want it,” Eklund said.
Future needs across the region and strategies to tackle the problem are outlined in a basin implementation plan that will be incorporated into a statewide water plan scheduled to be finalized in December.
The basin plan outlines water needs across seven counties, including Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, Montrose, San Juan and San Miguel.
To write the plan, consultants compiled research, citizen concerns around water quality and quantity and proposed infrastructure projects.
The plan predicts, as the population grows, the demand for water from towns across the region could almost double by 2050.
The most conservative estimate calculates municipal water use across the region will increase from about 7 trillion gallons currently to about 13.6 trillion gallons annually.
In La Plata County, municipal demand will follow the same trend – demand could increase from about 3.2 trillion gallons to about 5.8 trillion a year.
The region also encompasses about 216,000 acres of irrigated farm land. The plan encourages the preservation of irrigation land, but it predicts that between 7,300 to 12,400 could be taken out of agricultural production.
The municipal and agricultural demand in the plan is spread across nine sub-basins served by 10 sizable rivers.
“It’s helped to reduce conflict because we’re not arguing over the same bucket. We have several different buckets to argue over,” said Ann Oliver, a consultant who worked on the plan.
Right now, the plan predicts that La Plata County will have enough water storage to meet its needs because of the water storage in Lake Nighthorse. But projects currently proposed by the La Plata Archuleta Water District and the La Plata West Water Authority will be necessary to transport the water to the western part of the county, said Carrie Lile, with Harris Water Engineering.
These are just two of the 160 construction and research projects that have been proposed or are currently in process across the region.
The basin plan does not give cost estimates or analyze the feasibility of the projects, but it will help give the state a general idea of the approaching needs.
To meet 2050 water needs, Colorado could need to invest $20 billion on water projects, Eklund said.
“We have to think outside the box on financing,” he said.
Some of the infrastructure projects could include more trans-mountain diversions.
Up to 80 percent of Colorado’s water falls west of the Continental Divide, but up to 90 percent of the population resides east of the divide, according to the statewide water plan. Currently, two dozen tunnels and ditches transport some 500,000 acre-feet of water from the western to eastern slope annually.
None of the other basins has proposed directly diverting water from the southwest basin to meet their needs, said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwest Water Conservation District.
However, the basin could be affected if a northern Front Range basin, such as Metro Denver, reached a transmountain diversion agreement with another basin on the Western Slope. This type of diversion could place greater pressure on the southwestern basin to provide other states with water, he said.
The final basin plan will be submitted to the state on April 17.