Karn Stiegelmeier: Weighing our future water needs
May 4, 2012
An osprey scans the river as the fisherman watches his line in a deep pool and a yellow clad kayaker floats by. The Blue River is commonly adored, but assumed to be just what nature offers. However, behind the flow of water is a complex history of Colorado water law, diversions, water attorneys, leagues of passionate recreationists, water providers and other water interests.
Skiers understand the value of early snowmaking at the resorts, but many assume that summer time means water just flows down the river. However, in summer, especially in a dry year, the complexities of water agreements and court decrees come into play.
This so far is a very dry year, and both climate change models and studies of ancient tree rings tell us that we could have many more dry years in the future – at the same time as the state demographer predicts a near doubling of the state’s population by 2050. Colorado’s Statewide Water Supply Investigation (SWSI) indicates a looming gap in municipal and industrial water supply for a growing population, chiefly on the Front Range, but also locally.
In 2005, the state Legislature established nine basin roundtables – one for each of the state’s major river basins – and the InterBasin Compact Committee (a roundtable of roundtables) to address such challenges. The structure was established to tackle Colorado water shortages in a collaborative manner through dialogue on interests, conflicts and commonalities in order to reach consensus. Lane Wyatt, with the NWCCOG’s Water Quality and Quantity Committee, and I represent Summit County interests on the Colorado Basin Roundtable (CBRT) along with a group of diverse Colorado Basin stakeholders.
The CBRT has participated in studies that identified gaps in the Colorado Basin’s future agricultural water supply and municipal needs, as well as the potential demand from the energy industry and a study of water needs for the environment and recreation. In Summit County, the water flowing down the river is as important to our economy as the water taken out of the river for growing peaches or providing municipal water. Recreation in the Colorado High Country and downstream on the Colorado is an important economic factor not only for the West Slope, but for the entire state of Colorado.
The CBRT wrestles with these issues in an attempt to protect and improve Colorado River water resources, while other River Basin roundtables eye the Colorado Basin for additional transbasin diversions, despite the fact that eight diversions already transport water from the Colorado’s headwaters to Front Range farms and communities. An IBCC Report to the governor last year clearly stated common views that the state water gaps will be solved through a four-pronged approach that includes 1) achieving success in conservation and reuse; 2) well-structured agricultural water transfers; 3) projects already on the drawing board; and 4) new water development. The state and the roundtables are attempting to reach consensus on what mix of strategies to draw on for a statewide water plan.
The CBRT consistently supports reuse and conservation first, retaining local control, and advocates that transbasin diversion be considered only as a last resort and only if there is cooperation and benefit to both sides of the Divide. Better land use decision-making could allow more efficient use of water and deserves more study and emphasis. A dire water supply gap will require serious consideration of landscaping, subdivision planning and building codes. Some loss of agricultural water is inevitable, so we want to see creative, local solutions for agricultural transfers that support Colorado’s agriculture on both sides of the Continental Divide. Any new water diversions from the West Slope impact our local recreation economy and the statewide economy.
These are complicated issues with wide ranging implications. The CBRT encourages Basin residents to learn more about our limited water resources, and to make their voices heard in policy debates about water. For more information about the Roundtable and its work, go to: http://bit.ly/IvFh0E
For information and resources on statewide water issues, go to http://www.water2012.org .
Karn Stiegelmeier is a Summit County Commissioner and Colorado Basin Roundtable member.