Summit County could face strain from Colorado’s new water plan

Summit County could face extra stress on water resources as outlined in the state water plan.
Susan gilmore / |

The fluffy, frozen white gold that attracts so many to Summit County is an asset visitor and resident alike anxiously await each ski season, but at the state level it’s now being recognized that the priceless resource to behold is actually the end product of that annual snowfall: Water.

Under guidance and directive of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), Gov. John Hickenlooper formally announced the state’s first-ever statewide water plan last week. The policy’s primary objective is, generally speaking, to prepare for the year 2050, when, according to the State Demography Office, Colorado’s population could more than double from its current approximation of 5 million to as many as 10.5 million people.

Before even gaining statehood in 1876, Colorado’s distribution and usage of its water has, at times, been a point of heightened squabbling. And it’s become even more intensely scrutinized the last several years, particularly in the wake of California’s extreme drought. Since at least 2008, the Golden State’s conditions have mostly diminished, to the extent that Gov. Jerry Brown was forced to issue an executive order in April for mandatory water restrictions to reduce urban consumption by a quarter below 2013 levels ahead of March 2016.

“Seeing what California is going through, it’s much better to plan ahead than having to react to an emergency,” said Karn Stiegelmeier, one of Summit County’s commissioners, and vice chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, a council tasked with management and assessment of the Western Slope’s water supply. “That’s why we’re focused on conservation, which is obviously the most cost-effective way to ‘get more water,’ or share more water.”

Many, including a wide array of environmental and conservation groups endorse the new plan, citing a balanced safeguarding of the state’s $9 billion outdoors and recreation economy with its robust agricultural industries as well as the wildlife that call Colorado’s waterways home. They say it helps lay out Colorado’s environmental and outdoor values, and the timing is key.

“It’s very crucial in this moment, because it’s the best narrative of what is going on,” said Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District, a public water policy agency in charge of protecting the Colorado River Basin. “Water is something people take so for granted until you go to your spigot and it doesn’t come out.”

Pokrandt, also the chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable (and former Summit Daily editor), used the swelling weekend traffic of the I-70 mountain corridor as an analogy for this story of the West and how, similarly, increased measures will be necessary to help counterbalance an already stressed system. The state’s water network, he said, needs the liquid equivalent of traffic metering, a toll road and extra lanes bored through Veterans Memorial Tunnels, to negate the effects of earlier decisions like water-centric Kentucky bluegrass across the state’s suburban neighborhoods.

“The offshoot of that is the water equation,” said Pokrandt. “Those people are already coming. They’re already here. How are we going to build water infrastructure for the next increments of residential development? Are we going to put more importance on urban, grassy landscapes, or are we going to moderate that and keep an eye on a better future for the Colorado River and agriculture?”

Those questions are what backers of this plan — two years in the making — assert are, with action and implementation, precisely what it’s intended to do. Environmental activist Gary Wockner is more skeptical.

The executive director of Save the Colorado, a nonprofit organization that emphasizes combatting irresponsible water projects, says the policy is already outdated and doesn’t go far enough in its ambitions. He points to California yet again in what he believes should be Colorado’s continued efforts toward preventing the region from being left completely parched.

“It was a big opportunity to move Colorado forward into the 21st century, and about half of the plan is still rooted unfortunately in the 19th century, with dams and reservoirs,” said Wockner. “California is leading the Western United States in ‘alternative transfer methods.’ That’s the future, that’s where Colorado needs to go.”

As they’re known in the water community, ATMs are various techniques combined to meet agricultural needs, including long-term rotational fallowing, short-term leasing and supply agreements, and use sharing. The state’s new water plan proposes 50,000 new acre-feet — the U.S. standard unit of measure for water supplies, or 1 acre of surface area (approximately the size of a football field), 1 foot deep — using these methods. The average American family uses an acre-foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons, annually.

Wockner contends Colorado’s program should be making efforts toward producing 10 times that amount through ATMs. He also criticizes the plan’s call for 400,000 acre-feet of new water storage, with multiple diversion projects along the Front Range already in the permitting process. Notably among them are the Moffat Collection System Project, which is expected to nearly triple the capacity of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, and the Windy Gap Firming Project to create the proposed Chimney Hollow Reservoir near the city of Loveland. For greater context, Dillon Reservoir measures at a hair more than 250,000 acre-feet when at full capacity.

The mountain communities have consistency voiced concern over additional trans-mountain diversions, taking more of that melted snowpack downstream to the state’s largest population zones, such as Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs, that demand and require it. Before the final water plan was announced, a community group calling themselves the Citizens for Western Slope Water submitted a petition to Gov. Hickerlooper with almost 15,000 signatures against any new diversions from the headwaters. Fears of doing so consist of more negative environmental impact due to the rivers being tapped further, which could affect the rafting and fishing industries, in addition to producing more strain on local farmers and ranchers.

Colorado was one of the last Western states to adopt a water plan. Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Texas and California all have one. Because Colorado’s individual municipalities are the ones that make decisions as to who gets water and how much, rather than the state itself, there is some question as to whether Colorado even needed one.

Proponents call the water plan historic in its deployment, even if at this stage, it provides no big solutions and produces little more than a suggested course of action that requires prolonged implementation of its guidelines. Few argue with the intent of the policy, however, in its attempts to solidify local awareness as well extend the conversation about Western water for decades to come — a move which even the plan’s harshest critics can agree upon.

“If — if — the plan promotes more water conservation, more river protection, and ways that cities can work with farmers to share and lease water, then it was a good step forward,” said Wockner. “If the state gets in the dam-building business, then it was a terrible idea and it’s going to meet with stiff resistance.”

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