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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

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Water Education Colorado

North Platte Basin Roundtable

By Jayla Poppleton

From the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, the North Platte River flows down the Medicine Bow Mountains, through the meadows of North Park and to the Wyoming border, where it exits Colorado through Northgate Canyon. The elevation in the North Park valley never drops below 8,000 feet. At that altitude, the growing season is a mere 60 days, and the agricultural sector consists of growing high-meadow hay and cattle ranching. The largest town in the basin is Walden, with a population of just over 700 people.

Like other high-altitude forests in Colorado, the North Platte's forests are under attack by the mountain pine beetle. The spruce bark beetle is also killing trees, and the basin expects to lose between 80 and 90 percent of its forest. Concerned about the possibility of catastrophic fire damaging the watershed and ultimately, the water supply, the North Platte Basin Roundtable approved a Water Supply Reserve Account grant for a study on the ‘Effects of Mountain Pine Beetle and Forest Management on Water Quantity, Quality and Forest Recovery.’

‘We want to assess the changing forest composition and what is going to happen in our basin for water yields as lodgepole is killed and younger, successional stages of regrowth come in,’ explains the roundtable's chair, Kent Crowder, who is Jackson County's manager.

Carl Trick, an Interbasin Compact Committee representative and Colorado Water Conservation Board member for the North Platte, adds, ‘Snowmelt is going to be coming off earlier, and without the ability to store it and retime it, it's going to be an issue.’

Hopeful of making something good of the bad, the roundtable is supportive of industries setting up to use beetle-kill timber as a resource. A pellet plant is already operational in Walden, making wood pellets to use in special residential stoves. As the only basin concerned with its lack of growth, Crowder says they could stand to see a few new industries. ‘We have a very small population. And we've been losing people. The young people don't come back. There is a lack of opportunity.’

In addition to beetle-kill industries, Trick says there is potential for significant oil and gas development based on recent finds. ‘If those industries do move into the basin, our needs will go up.’

The Statewide Water Supply Initiative forecast future municipal and industrial demand increasing by a mere 100 acre feet in the basin by 2030. Though small compared to statewide water needs, addressing this shortfall is one of the roundtable's priorities. The roundtable requested an in-depth water supply evaluation by the CWCB for the town of Walden, and based on the results, the group approved a $385,000 WSRA grant to help Walden improve the reliability of its water supply.

The basin's overall water supply is largely governed by a decree that limits how much Colorado can use, as opposed to a compact that says how much it must deliver downstream to Wyoming and Nebraska. By decree, the basin can't irrigate more than 135,000 acres, transport more than 60,000 acre feet out of the basin in a 10-year period, or store more than 17,000 acre feet from the North Platte River.

In addition, they are tied to the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program -- or three-state agreement between Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska -- which seeks to recover endangered species on the Platte River in central Nebraska. By participating in the agreement, the North Platte Basin water users preserve their ongoing use of the river while the species recover. ‘Our concern is to make sure we are still allowed to develop the waters allotted to us under the decree,’ says Trick.

As the basin continues to negotiate numbers related to the three-state agreement and its consumptive needs, the roundtable is seeking better data related to agricultural water use. A WSRA grant approved last September funds a study by the Colorado Climate Center on evapotranspiration rates in North Park's hay meadows. ‘High altitude crop coefficients vary a lot with altitude and weather,’ explains Trick. ‘The state has used some coefficients we don't necessarily agree with.’ If the crop coefficients are too high, the basin's water consumption may be overestimated; if the coefficients are too low, the basin's consumption is likely underestimated.

Another issue presenting a challenge or, as Crowder puts it, an opportunity to solve a problem, is finding the balance between consumptive and non-consumptive needs. ‘Our community was a resource-based economy — ranching, mining, timber, oil and gas — for a long time. But we see tourism and recreation as a diversification of our economy,’ says Crowder.

The basin supports both high-quality fishing and, according to Ducks Unlimited, the second-best duck hatchery in the state.

In seeking the balance, Trick reminds people that many of the environmental attributes they value wouldn't be there if it weren't for the development of the ag community. ‘Historically, many of the streams essentially dried up. Irrigated agriculture has created a huge alluvial aquifer that slowly seeps back to support the trout fisheries and waterfowl that we have.’

Through this process, the roundtable is also vested in the success and prosperity of other basins. Much of the hay and cattle grown in North Park finds its way to market in the neighboring South Platte Basin.

Says Trick, ‘We're all interconnected.’

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