2016 Year in Review: Summit County environmental news still revolves around water | SummitDaily.com

2016 Year in Review: Summit County environmental news still revolves around water

Summit County's year in environmental news hinged on many of the same themes of the past decade — depleted federal funds for the U.S. Forest Service and increasing human-wildlife interactions as mountain populations expand — but one subject in particular continued to dominate the headlines and topics of conversation: Water.

As the source of Colorado and many neighboring states' drinking water, great attention is paid each year to ensuring Summit and other area towns help maintain this vital resource. From supplying the amount necessary for everyone to wet their whistle and feed their plants and lawns, to supporting the foremost industry of the region, water remains the key to making Summit County grow and prosper now, and well into the future.

"I see it as the lifeblood of our environment and our economy," County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier told the Daily in October. "We talk about our beautiful mountains and trails, but we need water for everything to thrive. And a lot of recreation really is on water, whether on the river or on river water that's in the form of snow."

During this election cycle, the District 3 incumbent Stiegelmeier successfully campaigned on a platform rooted in the environment. She pledged to press forward with the protections she's helped establish in her prior eight years of office, primarily championing existing and forthcoming regional water preservation projects.

As adjacent states instituted water plans the year prior, Colorado finally got its act together in late 2015 after nearly two years of research and stakeholder collaboration. While not a law or even strict policy, the document functions as a formalized set of guidelines to help the state ready itself for consumption needs of a projected population increase of more than double by the year 2050. Obviously a lot can happen in 35 years' time, but the idea was to at least get the ball rolling on a strategy of preparedness.

"I think of it as a down payment," Brad Miller of Western Resource Advocates stated at the time. "It's an important first step."

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In the year since adoption, however, not much happened. Some of the plan's biggest proponents acknowledged as much, and now the focus must shift toward fulfilling the actual language of the recommendations.

"The plan is only as good as its on-the-ground implementation," Drew Beckwith, also of Western Resource Advocates as a water policy manager, told the Daily in September. "If we really do want to secure our water future for communities and agriculture, and business, and wildlife, and rivers, we've got to put some of these things into action."

Some of those objectives include 400,000 more acre-feet of urban conservation, that same amount in new storage, and the use of established alternative methods to split 50,000 more between agriculture and other needs, depending on the water year. (An acre-foot is the standard unit for measuring bodies of water, and the average American family uses 1 acre-foot a year, or about 326,000 gallons.)

One major problem has sprung up to impede these efforts, though, and that's where the money will come from to support these proposed programs. A fund known as the Water Supply Reserve, which was designated for these projects, is based on severance taxes collected from oil, gas and coal purchases. As those industries have dipped the last few years, so have the dollars intended to go toward water conservation. It's this same funding source that's hindering attempts to stymie aquatic nuisance species from entering our local water bodies from visiting boats.

"The fund has just been hammered," Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District, said in November. "That's in the short term. Because even with full funding, the fund wouldn't begin to scratch the surface of some of the work that needs to be done."

Meanwhile, some endeavors are landing on solid footing, including an ambitious one in Summit. In November, the Colorado Water Conservation Board awarded a $94,000 grant to a collective push from the town of Frisco and the High Country Conservation Center to design a Blue River watershed planning enterprise. The idea is to increase efficiencies on the Colorado River basin tributary covering all of the county, by finding and sealing leaks, as well as identifying optimal appliances and faucets over the next 14 months to promote conservation. Of course, implementation will cost much, much more, but at least initial board endorsement provides eligibility for future state funding.

There's not much the region, nor its seven dependent states in the West that make up the Upper and Lower basins, can do about how much snow falls each season. The 2015-16 ski year was ultimately about average for snowpack, but there's no telling how it will shake out for 2017, especially with a slow start to the year. And that's precisely why water will carry on as the prevailing environmental subject matter in the county, state and Western United States for decades to come.