Colorado’s river economy worth $9 billion; more protection needed, recreation industry says
October 8, 2014
As Colorado prepares its first statewide water plan, which will determine how water is managed across the state now and for decades to come, a crucial debate is taking place: how to divvy up Colorado's dwindling water supplies. That discussion actually began nine years ago in the "Basin Roundtables," set up under the 2005 Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act and designed to spur conversation among farmers, environmentalists, water providers and other stakeholders in each of Colorado's eight major river basins plus the Denver metro area.
When Gov. John Hickenlooper issued his executive order last year to create a state water plan, he charged the Colorado Water Conservation Board with the task and that body, in turn, looked to the Basin Roundtables for their ideas about what the overall plan should include. The goal said, James Eklund, the board's director, was to tackle Colorado's water problems "as one unit."
That's the theory at least. But with the roundtables dominated by municipal and agricultural interests, other groups are struggling to make their voices heard.
On Sept. 10, a group of Colorado business leaders made its case for the "river-based economy" at the Water Conservation Board meeting in Glenwood Springs, where the public could comment on draft sections of the plan.
The setting was fitting: Nearby, the rugged Glenwood Canyon runs alongside the busy Interstate 70 corridor. A good portion of the town's economy revolves around people coming to fish and raft on the Colorado River, which carves through the canyon walls. But that river, like so many on the West Slope — where the majority of Colorado's water lies — is shrinking. Every year, 180 billion gallons of water are sucked from rivers flowing west of the Continental Divide through a vast system of tunnels and pipes to thirsty farms and cities along the dry Front Range.
Now, faced with a growing gap between water supply and demand, they need more. In their draft plans, released in July, East Slope Basins like the South Platte emphasize the need "to consider new Colorado River supply options to meet future water demands" — which means keeping open the possibility of pulling more water from west to east through new transmountain diversions. But those plans, say members of Colorado's outdoor recreation, real estate and tourism industries, jeopardize a $9 billion economy that hinges on healthy rivers — and supports more than 80,000 jobs statewide.
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A report commissioned by Protect The Flows found that if the Colorado River was a company, it would rank 155th on the 2011 Fortune 500 list (that number is based solely on the revenue and jobs provided by the outdoor recreation industry), ahead of General Mills and US Airways. It would also be the 19th biggest employer on the list.
"It's really pure economics for us," says Dennis Saffell, a realtor from Grand County. Factoring in all the indirect beneficiaries of Colorado's rivers means the true economic value is likely much greater, he added, citing a recent report that found declining river flows across the Southwest could significantly hurt home prices.
Decades of overuse and a 15-year drought have taken their toll on Colorado's waterways. Reservoir levels have dropped 35 percent in the last 12 years and average flows on the Colorado River are half what they were two centuries ago.
"For 150 years we've done a good job of taking water out of the river," says Craig Mackey, the co-director of Protect The Flows, a coalition of business owners who rely on rivers.
Protect The Flows wants the statewide plan to place more emphasis on smart water management and remove the option of building new transmountain diversions. The group is pressing the Water Conservation Board to set concrete statewide conservation goals in the water plan, especially for towns and cities — something most other Western states have, but Colorado is lacking.
Both Mackey and Saffell noted that although most of the Basin Roundtables recognize the economic value of healthy rivers, far fewer have actually quantified those benefits — or included specific language to protect stream flows. Since each basin's recommendations lay the foundation for the statewide plan, it's essential that all of them include concrete standards.
But the river advocates are up against some strong, well-entrenched political forces. They pointed to the big agriculture and municipal interests that drive a large chunk of Colorado's economy — and hold much of the power at the Basin Roundtables.
In comparison, the recreation economy is "the new kid on the block," says Mackey, who grew up skiing on wood skis with cable bindings. "I'm a 60-year-old man and Patagonia, The North Face, the Vail Ski Resort — these companies grew up in my lifetime," he added. "So we really need to push our way into the conversation."
And there's another challenge: Colorado's water laws. Most were written in the late 1800s and though a few modifications have occurred over the years, the laws still reinforce a "use it or lose it" mentality, which makes it difficult to implement conservation strategies.
Thanks to those laws, says Saffell, farmers and cities have a legal right to keep using more water.
Think of it this way, he added: If we had the same traffic laws as we did 150 years ago, when the water laws were written, it would be utter chaos. Most laws change to accommodate new realities, says Saffell, "but for some reason our water laws are untouchable."
Instead, "we need to get away from this concept that any water left in the river is wasted water because it's not being put to beneficial use," he said.
Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News. Originally published on Oct. 2, 2014, at High Country News (hcn.org).
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