The future of Colorado rivers: Final draft of state water plan to be released on Nov. 19
The final draft of Colorado’s Water Plan will be released on Thursday, Nov. 19, after nearly two years of work. The plan, sparked by an executive order by Gov. John Hickenlooper, is based on several years of discussion by the Interbasin Compact Committee, representing each of the Colorado’s eight major river basins.
“I think we’ve made some major improvements and reached a better understanding throughout the state. But we still have a long way to go,” Summit County commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said of the water plan.
The final draft of the plan will go to Hickenlooper on or before Dec. 10. In the meantime, each individual basin has drafted a set of local initiatives, as well statewide goals to help address the growing water supply gap that Colorado faces.
By 2050, Colorado is expected to see a population increase of 5 million people, with a projected water supply gap of 560,000 acre-feet of water. The state’s goal is to conserve 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water by 2050.
“Prioritizing the environment in that planning process, it’s exciting,” Theresa Conley, a water advocate for Conservation Colorado said. “The governor has repeatedly said since the executive order, every conversation about water needs to start with conservation. I think the plan advances that.”
The Colorado Basin, consisting of Summit, Eagle, Mesa, Grand, Routt and Garfield counties, has set its own implementation plan to be carried out under the Colorado Water Plan.
“For us in this part of the state, our economy is absolutely integrated with our water,” Stiegelmeier said. “That is also the economy of the whole state. The Front Range is very much tied to our economy.”
She noted that on the Western Slope alone, the water recreation industry brings in $9 billion.
To promote recreation and healthier rivers, the Colorado Basin has led state discussions on stream management, with a plan to assess streams that are crucial to the basin and are in need of improvement. The first step of the plan is to assess water flows and predict the impact of current usage as well as unused water rights on fish, the surrounding riparian habitat, water flows and several other factors.
“We don’t know what the real on-the-ground, in-the-stream impact is until we do a really complete stream management plan,” Stiegelmeier said.
Take the example of Peru Creek — a stream that runs through the former Pennsylvania Mine, picking up waste from toxic metals unearthed during the mining era. Summit County is working on a collaborative effort to redirect the water away from the toxic metals, to allow more aquatic life in the Snake River downstream.
“We think it will take at least a year to see what that does to the stream by moving clean water out of the mines,” Stiegelmeier added.
This concept trickles up to the state level, where $1 million will be allocated per year for stream management planning, according to the current draft of Colorado’s Water Plan.
“I think of it as down payment. It’s an important first step to do stream management planning,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director for Western Resource Advocates. “Most Western Slope towns, they really build their towns around rivers. It’s the reason people come there. It’s the lifeline for all these towns.”
BRIDGING THE GAP
A key feature of the plan is to set a statewide conservation goal, to be implemented at the discretion of local water departments.
As it currently stands, the plan is set at a “high conservation goal” or reducing water usage to 137 gallons per capita per day. The reduced amount of water usage would remove 310,000 acre-feet of water from the projected supply gap.
Across the state, outdoor landscaping consumes large quantities of water, accounting for nearly half of municipal water use in the summer months.
“We have stated over and over and over that there needs to be better land-use connection,” Stiegelmeier said. “You have your Kentucky bluegrass with every house, and that doesn’t make sense in a desert.”
A few proposed solutions are to leave native vegetation as open space and cluster buildings together. She pointed to Breckenridge as an example, with a tiered water-rate system encouraging conservation.
The state is also looking to improve water efficiency for agricultural uses. In the Kremmling area, part of the effort is to work on hay fields, where more efficient irrigation could benefit both farms and streams to an extent.
Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District, said that the old irrigation diversions make it difficult for ranchers to bring water to their headgates, while causing turbidity or other issues within the stream.
“We’ve actually funded efforts to improve irrigation diversion, so irrigators are more efficient, but, at same time, environmental issues with the rivers are improved,” he said.
While the means of reaching the goals are ultimately up to local water departments, as each basin faces different challenges, he said now was the time to start talking about conservation. He pointed to the drought-stricken state of California as an example.
“When you have two years of low snowpack, you don’t have the luxury of having a conversation about conservation,” he said. “If things went to hell in a hand basket here in Colorado, you’d see the conversation getting sharper.”
A DIVISIVE ISSUE
The most contentious piece of the water plan concerns the creation of new trans-mountain diversions, such as Lake Dillon Reservoir, that direct flows across the Continental Divide. The framework does not take a stance so much as create a series of requirements a new project must reach before getting started.
It took 18 months of discussion to create the list of “seven points of agreement,” which including mitigating environmental impacts and not preventing future development on the Western Slope.
“If you look at those, they actually put us in a really good position,” Stiegelmeier said. “It has no teeth, but, because it was agreed upon by the entire water community, it would be very difficult to walk back on any of these.”
However, some would argue that the framework is still in need of some fine-tuning, as it does not give local governments as large of a role in the conversation. Torie Jarvis, co-director of the water quality/quantity committee for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, said the points focus more on the conversation at the state or basin level.
“It doesn’t really consider the local government process and the localized community impacts of a transmountain diversion,” Jarvis said. “The environment is pretty damaged historically from diversions and it would be hard to imagine another diversion in our region.”
While the document has been criticized for a lack of enforcement, conservation groups recognize its value in changing the focus of the conversation.
“Is it a radical shift? No. But it gets people on the same page,” Conley said. “In terms of guiding our water future, it’s a big step forward.”
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