Competing for resources, varying flows are expected of Colorado River Basin, draft water plan states

The Blue River flows through the center of Silverthorne. (Photo courtesy of Town of Silverthorne)
The Blue River, part of the Colorado River basin, flows through Silverthorne.
Town of Silverthorne/Courtesy photo

Colorado water leaders met on Thursday to discuss the recently released draft for the 2023 Colorado Water Plan, which outlines actions that aim to create a more water resilient state. 

The plan focuses on four “interconnected action areas,” including resiliency planning, thriving watersheds, robust agriculture and community. It describes 50 “partner actions,” or project ideas that could be supported by Water Plan grants, as well as 50 “agency actions,” to support local projects, conservation and wise-water development. Overall, however, basin roundtables and stakeholders identified more than 1,800 potential future projects statewide, and 321 are in the Colorado Basin with 36 being in Summit County. In total, over $20 billion would be spent on the projects by 2050. 

Russ Sands, senior program manager of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that projects in the database are designated as near-term, midterm or long-term when it comes to getting them done. They’re also not all infrastructure projects. Some may work toward water conservation and others may be educational projects or environmental. 

“I think the Water Plan does a good job of highlighting that in our Water Plan grants. There is the need for multi-benefit, multipurpose projects,” Sands said. “So a lot of those projects, whether they’re 15 years out on the horizon, or the kind of things that could start next year, and we’re certainly trying to move forward, but we’re hoping that all of those are really going to work increasingly hard to provide multiple benefits across the state.”

According to the plan, the Colorado Basin — which includes Summit County and the Blue River — faces issues such as competing resources for agriculture, tourism, protection of endangered species and potential for Colorado River Compact administration. The basin encompasses about 6% of the state’s population, and between 2015 and 2050, population is expected to increase 48-88%. 

Flows are also projected to be variable over the next several decades. Decreased peak flows across the basin create risks for wetland plants and fish habitats. Instream flows and recreational in-channel diversions may not be met if summer flows decrease due to climate change. Each year, water providers in the South Platte and Arkansas Basins export approximately 480,000 acre-feet each year from the Colorado Basin for eastern slope agricultural, municipal and industrial uses. Across the basin, as much as 70% of the river’s water flows out of Colorado.

“The Colorado Basin will need to balance competing resources with a limited water supply,” the draft reads. “The protection of endangered species, sustaining the basin’s agricultural economy, and managing forests for improved resiliency and health throughout the watershed are all major challenges.”

Water that originates in Colorado averages 13.5 million acre-feet per year. More than 60% of this water is provided to the 19 states and Mexico that depend on Colorado’s headwaters. Less than 40%, or 5.3 million acre-feet, is consumed on average per year in Colorado. In the graph, AF stands for acre-feet.
Colorado Water Conservation Board/Courtesy image

In Colorado, the plan states, 91% of water use goes toward agriculture, 7% goes to municipalities and 2% is used by large industries. The plan adds that, statewide, municipalities and industries could see shortages between 230,000 and 740,000 acre-feet by 2050, and climate change could alter timing and amount of water available for trans-mountain diversion projects. 

Over the next several weeks, the public can submit comments on the draft plan by visiting The Colorado Water Conservation Board will also host four online listening sessions on July 27, Aug. 10, Sept. 1 and Sept. 28 from 4-6 p.m. 

“(June 30) opens up the 90-day public comment period,” Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said. “This updated new and improved Water Plan is designed to meet today’s water challenges and builds on the legacy that we have in Colorado of collaborative statewide water planning. We have been experiencing some very severe drought for more than 20 years, and more recently, some heavy aridification. The plan incorporates advanced tools for drought resilience (and) addresses climate change and population growth through scenario planning.”

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