Hannah Holm: Colorado’s water balancing act
May 18, 2012
In Colorado, the distribution of people and natural water flows don’t match up very well. About 80 percent of our precipitation falls on the western side of the Continental Divide, and about 80 percent of the people – plus the lion’s share of the state’s flat land – are on the Eastern side.
As a result, for over 100 years, Eastern Slope farmers and towns have been digging ditches and drilling tunnels to transport water from our side of the Divide to theirs. For just about as long, people on the Western Slope have worried and fought about how much of “our” water “they” are taking – even as reservoirs built to compensate Western Slope have provided more reliable late-season flows to farmers in the Grand Valley and elsewhere.
With the state’s population predicted to nearly double to about 10 million people by 2050, the bulk of that on the Front Range, “basin round tables” of stakeholders around the state are trying to reach consensus on a statewide plan to meet this new water demand. How much should come from agriculture? How much from the Colorado River system? And how much from conservation?
Conservation was the focus of a four-hour meeting in Montrose recently between members of the Gunnison, Colorado, Arkansas, Metro and South Platte basin round tables. Western Slope roundtable members have been making the case for ambitious Front Range conservation strategies to minimize losses to agriculture and the Colorado River system, while Front Range representatives have expressed reluctance to build high yields from conservation into planning scenarios.
No consensus was reached in Montrose, but participants were left with a greater appreciation for each others’ points of view and agreed to continue the discussion.
Some key informational points set the stage for the discussion:
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> Per capita water use is expected to decline significantly due to replacement of old, worn-out appliances with newer, more water-efficient ones.
> Front Range cities, spurred into action by the 2002 drought, spend more and employ more people on their conservation programs than Western Slope communities – but efforts are building on this side of the hill, too. Measures include rates that increase with increasing use; leak detection programs; and education.
> Since the 2002 drought, Front Range water providers have seen per capita demand decline about 20 percent – but they don’t fully understand why and if this will persist.
> Despite per capita savings from conservation, population growth is expected to lead to additional aggregate demands, requiring the development of additional supplies.
Participants aired the following views (among others):
> We should all use water wisely: East and West Slope – not just drinking water providers, but all water users.
> We need a statewide conservation ethic that outlines a reasonable and achievable level of conservation for the whole state.
> What is “reasonable” depends on the level of crisis perceived – actions that seem too expensive now could seem like a bargain in 20 years.
> Colorado headwaters communities are already paying a steep price for trans-mountain diversions, in the form of damaged fisheries and curtailed development – is that fair?
> High conservation scenarios may not be achievable without regulatory action. Regulations may not currently be feasible or desirable – but a crisis could change this picture.
In the end, the conversation settled into a discussion of risk management – more development of Western Slope water to meet Front Range needs may be acceptable to Western Slope interests if strategies are adopted to ensure that the risks of overdeveloping the river are appropriately shared. Undoubtedly, this will involve continual renegotiation of what conservation measures are “reasonable,” and who should follow them.
Hannah Holm is the coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. The Center is working with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about how water works in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter