Headwater counties pack economic clout
Ryan Summerlin May 6, 2012
Water flows are inextricably linked with the economies of the headwaters counties and the West Slope, a fact well-known to residents but highlighted in a report that was recently presented to experts and officials in the Arkansas River Basin, which flows east to southeast Colorado.
It was prepared in reaction to the attention paid to consequences of purchasing agricultural water rights from properties on the eastern plains – and the claim that it would cause fewer adverse economic consequences if water suppliers relied instead on transmountain diversion projects from the West Slope.
The report contends that, though eastern plains agricultural interests are important, so are headwaters counties water flows. Recreation, agriculture (and related benefits) and mineral resources are at stake and are of interest statewide.
“For Denver to do well, we have to have thriving mountain communities,” said Jean Townsend of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Rivers are a statewide asset, as are the recreational benefits they provide, she said – and they need relatively little water. Almost no consumptive water, Townsend pointed out.
Even irrigated land has less consumption than transmountain diversions, with roughly 32 percent of water usage being non-consumptive. Domestic and commercial water uses return 77 percent and 87 percent, respectively, back to the rivers and streams.
In her presentation, Townsend pulled up a screenshot from the Metro Denver Chamber’s website. Under “living and working in Denver,” there’s a shot of a Vail gondola.
“Colorado needs young, high-value workers, as they are important to attracting employers,” Townsend said. “World-class recreation venues in the headwaters counties are a vital key” to keeping that population engaged and entertained.
But there’s already not much to draw from, with water responsibilities tugging from both east and west.
Statewide, tourism accounts for eight percent of all the key industries. In the combined headwaters counties, it comprises 48 percent of the total.
And that tourism component benefits all of Colorado and beyond: All headwaters counties homeowners are 44 percent local, 22 percent from the Front Range and 32 percent out of state.
Beyond the broad entertainment benefit, recreation based on rivers and streams also impacts the Front Range in ancillary businesses.
“For fishing, statewide, a lot of fishing occurs in headwater counties,” Townsend said. “But 57 percent of the benefit of fishing occurs in the Front Range. In many ways, the headwaters counties are an exporter of benefit. … A lot of people buy their equipment in the Front Range counties.”
Likewise, snowmaking has a high economic return per drop of water, because it guarantees skiing for those seeking holiday vacations, which boost the state’s overall revenue.
Recreation is important to headwaters counties, but so, too, is agriculture.
“It’s part of the historic culture. It dominates private-sector land use,” Townsend said, adding that the landscape, preserved through agriculture, has intrinsic value to residents and visitors – plus, irrigations eventually winds up back in the rivers.
A study from the Gunnison Valley illustrates the importance of landscape in both summer and winter tourism: “While it was assumed that ranching and ranch lands directly contributes to demand for Gunnison County vacations in the summer, it was less clear if the working landscapes made a contribution to winter tourism. … A little over half (51.2 percent) deemed farm and ranch attributes to be an important consideration in their choice of Gunnison County as their vacation destination. Other attributes related to ranching that were deemed important were valley views (83 percent) and open vistas (nearly 72 percent).”
Should the ranches be converted to higher density development, 58.4 percent of the same respondents said they would decrease their visits to Gunnison County. A large portion – 39.5 percent – said visitation wouldn’t change much.
Though Summit County doesn’t have much mineral extraction (other than the two nearby molybdenum mines), Gunnison and Routt counties focus on oil and gas and other headwaters counties are focused on natural gas extraction.
Though it’s not as important of an industry on the statewide scale (mineral resources development accounts for 1 percent of total wage and salary employment), it’s important to the headwaters counties. Those jobs are high-paying and important to maintaining some counties’ economies. They are also dependent on water to both produce and avoid potential problems, like water table depletion resulting in spontaneous combustion.
Other benefits are downstream, which require water releases and put additional demand on the headwaters counties.
“The heart of the report is focusing on the compromised economic consequences of water-diversion issues,” Townsend said. She hopes the report can be a valuable resource in the statewide water dialogue as well as ensure headwaters counties a “high-quality seat at the table when (water) is being discussed.”