Colorado water plan cost estimate doubles to $40 billion – maybe more

Kevin Fixler
In November 2015, the Colorado Water Plan set a framework for the state's water conservation, quality and storage future. The new overseeing director now believes its originally estimated cost of $20 billion has at least doubled for full implementation.
Bill Linfield / Special to the Daily |

When the Colorado water plan was formally adopted in November 2015, its aims were lofty: expand storage capacity on a grand scale, bolster conservation efforts, meet agricultural demands and provide for as many as 10.5 million people by 2050. At the time, it was estimated to cost around $20 billion. Even then, the number seemed staggering.

“Everyone’s eyes lit up, including the governor,” said environmental activist Gary Wockner, who attended the announcement at the Capitol in Denver. “So it’s a big deal now that the price tag basically doubles.”

Yes, you read that correctly — the price has doubled. New estimates released this month suggest that full implementation of the water plan will cost roughly $40 billion.

In 2013, Gov. John Hickenlooper tasked the Colorado Water Conservation Board with coming up with the plan and then-director James Eklund came up with his best approximation on the overall expense. New board director Becky Mitchell, in the position since early-July, recently took her own stab at the total, though, and believes full implementation to be closer to twice Eklund’s figure.

Messages left with Mitchell went unreturned Monday. But she spoke with the Colorado Independent last week and addressed the considerable miscalculation.

“Cost projections have always been just estimates, and part of that is because not all the information is in,” said Mitchell. “What we’re already seeing as folks are solidifying our numbers is that it’s going to be more than earlier predictions.”

Despite the possible sticker shock, water experts aren’t dissuaded by the new ballpark figure, realizing that any of these proposed projects would come at heightened costs.

“I know big numbers and exact numbers have a big attraction, but it’s too early in the game to hang a hat on either of those numbers,” Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, said of the two multi-billion-dollar guesses. “Things are expensive, and some of the environmental projects apparently look really expensive.”

Regardless of whether it turns out to be as much as $40 billion — or more, given inflation and additional projects pinpointed in the future — the question remains: Where will the money come from?

“That’s still a legitimate question, and true whether it’s $2 billion or $20 billion, or $40 billion,” added Pokrandt. “Colorado does not have a sustainable source of funding to accomplish water projects of any ilk — environmental or water storage, or conservation. That’s still out there, and still to be solved.”

Following the request of the state water conservation board, Colorado’s General Assembly identified $10 million during its last legislative session. The money is intended for completing a few basic projects listed in the water plan, ranging from increased storage to those with an environmental bent or working with the agriculture industry to uncover results.

Other ideas for financing projects floated within the plan include possible water container taxes, water bill surcharges or bonds and additional statewide revenue generators. Those are still a ways out, and may not begin to be broached, let alone introduced on the legislative floor until at least 2020.

The strategy has its critics, however. Wockner — executive director of Save the Colorado, a nonprofit that aims to curb irresponsible water projects — believes taxing citizens to fund water plan projects should not be a statewide objective.

“Traditionally this is a local government problem — they pay for the street lights in your park, they pay for the water and they pay for the water treatment,” he said. “A lot of money has to be raised if these local governments are to be taken off the hook, but the state shouldn’t be on the hook for paying for any of this.”

As federal dollars through the Bureau of Reclamation have dried up the last few decades, though, most reservoir, dam and stream restoration projects have either been paid for by self-funded water agencies like Denver Water or through loans and collaborative grants. What appears as important as the total cost of the state’s water plan is where funds are first committed, and where further implementation goes moving forward.

“It’s not productive to get hung up on the cost,” Mitchell told the Colorado Independent. “That’s divisive. What’s more productive is framing this around how much progress we’ve made coming together around this plan. We have to look at the whole picture right now.”

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