Colorado water no longer in surplus situation
the denver post
Colorado River water consumed yearly for agriculture and by the 30 million Westerners who rely on it now exceeds the total annual flow.
A growing awareness of that limited flow is leading to increased scrutiny of urban development – especially projects that require diverting more water to the east side of the Continental Divide.
“We’re no longer in a surplus situation,” said Bill McDonald, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy commissioner for policy and budget. “The teeter-totter has tipped.”
Federal data show that the average annual use of Colorado River water (15.4 million acre-feet) has surpassed the average annual supply (14.5 million acre-feet) in the river.
Factor in climate change – state officials project a 10 percent or greater reduction in water available – and the specter of scarcity looms even higher.
“We actually have run up against what the river provides,” said Bart Miller, water program director for Western Resource Advocates, a law and policy firm. “Our choices moving forward have to be very careful ones. Brand new uses are going to have to be displacing other uses.”
Colorado still doesn’t use all of its 3.88 million acre-feet allotment under the interstate compact that governs use of the river. An acre-foot contains 325,851 gallons, enough to sustain two families of four for a year. State officials are trying to calculate the unused share. Estimates range up to 300,000 acre-feet.
“Just because the Colorado River as a whole is overused” doesn’t necessarily prevent development in Colorado, said Eric Kuhn, manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “The lower states (California, Nevada, Arizona) are using far more than the upper states.”
Yet authorities here increasingly ask questions.
This month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped up scrutiny of Denver Water’s proposed diversion from upper Colorado River tributaries through the Moffat Tunnel to an expanded Gross Reservoir. Federal engineers demanded more data to evaluate environmental impacts.
The American Rivers advocacy group recently cited Denver’s project in designating the upper Colorado the nation’s sixth- most endangered river.
“We take that seriously,” said Scott Franklin, project manager for the federal engineers.
For Denver residents, project delays mean “that we would have less water in storage to cushion us and get us through a drought,” Denver Water project director Travis Bray said. “If we don’t have that much water in storage, then you could be looking at more severe restraints.”
Suburban metro water providers also are planning diversions of water out of the Colorado River Basin to enable population growth.
Energy companies, too, seek water – for drilling in the development of oil shale. Veteran water lawyer Glenn Porzak has recommended that energy executives work in concert to divert and store water they need.
“The state is at that critical juncture where demand is starting to outstrip available water supplies,” Porzak said. “Either you need to think about limiting development, or you are going to see massive conversions of agriculture to municipal use. It is going to be a trade-off. The day of reckoning is coming.”
Meanwhile, plans to let more river water run its course naturally, for environmental purposes, appear increasingly difficult. At Grand Junction, a stakeholders group last week recommended against a federal “wild and scenic” designation for a stretch of the river before it reaches Utah because this could hurt Colorado’s ability to use water.
Even incremental development within the Colorado River Basin on Colorado’s Western Slope is running into water sensitivities.
A plan to build a new town of 5,000 on former sheep pastures at Wolcott is up for review.
Developer Rick Hermes carefully converted ranchers’ agricultural water rights to municipal rights – and received an Eagle River Water and Sanitation District commitment to serve his “river-centric” town.
The town would be built without a new golf course, breaking the mold for Vail-area development. A new sewage treatment plant is planned, ensuring that water withdrawn for town showers, toilets and lawns could be returned to the Eagle River, which flows into the main stem of the Colorado River.
“In the early 1990s,” Hermes said, “water wasn’t in the top five items (discussed during permitting). You just assumed you would have the right to develop.”
Eagle County commissioners’ decision on whether to allow construction also may be based on efficient use of water. State data indicate daily water consumption per person in Colorado River Basin communities currently is 256 gallons per person, compared with 178 gallons in the South Platte River Basin along the Front Range.
Water “is increasingly something that local officials are aware of,” commissioner Jon Stavney said. “I have questions about whether we need to create a whole new town. . . . Do we need to create a whole new water service community where none existed?”
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