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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.

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Water Education Colorado

South Platte Basin Roundtable

By Eryn Gable

Emerging from the mountains southwest of Denver, the South Platte River flows through the city and continues northeast into the plains before exiting into Nebraska just east of Julesberg. The South Platte Basin, which covers an area of about 22,000 square miles in northeastern Colorado, is a diverse region including mountain towns near the headwaters, large cities like Boulder and Fort Collins along the Front Range, and agricultural communities in the Eastern Plains including the Republican River Basin.

The basin supports both the largest number of irrigated acres—more than 1 million -- of any basin statewide and the largest population when the Denver metro area, which lies in the basin but was delegated to the distinct Metro Roundtable, is included. By 2030, the South Platte Basin including the metro area is expected to have a 90,600 acre-foot shortfall between supply and demand, the largest in the state. Water demand in the region already exceeds supplies, and finding a way to close the gap is a top priority for the South Platte Basin Roundtable's 51 members.

In order to complete its consumptive needs assessment and determine precisely how big that gap is, the roundtable is wrapping up a joint study with the Metro Roundtable. Still in draft form, the analysis evaluated areas where water providers are competing for the same water and examined the impact of municipalities reusing their wholly consumable effluent. Reuse is increasingly being pursued to maximize efficiency, but may result in diminished return flows downstream. In addition, the study surveyed for any remaining unappropriated water, finding none. According to Harold Evans, roundtable member and chair of the Greeley Water and Sewer Board, the roundtable will complete this assessment by mid-summer.

Many roundtable members are anxious to keep the process moving. Mike Applegate, roundtable member and president of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, says, ‘We need to stop talking and start doing. I don't think there's any mystery that we'll have a huge gap in future water supplies. How far we refine the numbers really isn't going to make that much difference.’

But Evans says finding more water for the South Platte is a challenge, especially considering the river has no more unappropriated water. There's also increasing competition from the Denver metro area, along with resistance from the West Slope against transbasin diversions. Roundtable members want to avoid large-scale dry-up of irrigated agriculture, a distinct possibility as municipalities increasingly look to purchase agricultural water rights. If the basin were to meet all of its 2030 municipal needs using ag water, it could put 133,000 to 228,000 acres out of production.

The roundtable is investigating alternatives. The idea of encouraging cities to lease agricultural water rights rather than buy them outright has gained popularity because it would allow farms to continue operating, hopefully preventing the devastating economic impacts that have resulted from past agricultural buyouts. But the high cost of the infrastructure required to move ag water to cities could hinder this strategy.

Importing more water is another alternative. In 2007, the roundtable requested a meeting with delegates from the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable to discuss the Yampa Pumpback, a $4 billion project studied by the NCWCD that could provide 300,000 acre feet of water to the Front Range. Jim Yahn, the roundtable's chair and secretary-manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District, says the roundtable is interested in the pumpback but won't pursue it directly, partially due to skepticism about whether the project will ever come to fruition. Yahn notes that other less controversial projects like the Northern Integrated Supply Project and Halligan-Seaman Water Management Project have faced resistance, which doesn't bode well for the pumpback.

The lack of available water also means conservation will have to play a critical role in reducing future demands, says Eric Wilkinson, NCWCD general manager, Colorado Water Conservation Board member, and one of the roundtable's IBCC representatives. ‘We really have to try as best we can to work toward conservation and to put best management practices in place,’ Wilkinson says. At the same time, he stresses that conservation without the infrastructure to manage conserved water isn't as effective.

Permitting and constructing new water storage projects is seen as a critical piece to addressing the basin's water supply gap. The roundtable approved a $176,000 Water Supply Reserve Account grant to study Ovid Reservoir, which would be a 5,700 acre-foot off-channel reservoir near the Nebraska state line that could augment well depletions and prevent a compact call. Well users would benefit from the project: Many of their wells were shut down in 2006 after senior water rights owners and several cities along the South Platte complained the wells were lowering the water table and reducing flows in the river.

The roundtable has earmarked its WSRA funds for projects that accomplish more than one purpose. ‘When we're looking at proposals, we're looking at which ones have multi-purpose benefits, not just for water supply,’ says Tom Iseman, water program manager for The Nature Conservancy who sits on the roundtable. ‘We've done a lot of projects that include environmental benefits as well.’

According to Iseman, the joint South Platte/Metro roundtables' non-consumptive needs subcommittee presented its draft map of the basin's environmental and recreational attributes to the roundtable in February. Once the roundtable approves the map, it will decide which areas are most important to protect given the concentration of attributes. Iseman says some roundtable members were concerned that by mapping valuable reaches, the areas would be protected indefinitely, but he emphasizes the map is a tool they can use to make better decisions but carries no legal significance.

The Nature Conservancy is currently engaged in a shared vision planning process with the cities of Greeley and Ft. Collins for their Halligan-Seaman project. The project, which would enlarge the two reservoirs — Halligan and Milton Seaman on the North Fork of the Cache La Poudre River — would supply approximately 35,000 acre feet. But it could affect the Nature Conservancy's Phantom Canyon Preserve, which includes a largely undisturbed riparian forest. Greeley initiated the shared visioning process, and the roundtable doled out WSRA funds to support it. The cooperating parties are attempting to integrate environmental flows with the operations of the project on the front end. ‘It's a great model for the kind of things the roundtable should be funding,’ says Iseman. ‘It's where we want to go in the future.’

As the future approaches, Applegate says the easiest option continues to be buying up agricultural lands and drying them up. And, he notes there is still little incentive for municipalities to look at alternatives. The question, says Applegate, is whether eliminating agriculture to provide water for growing cities is in the best interest of the basin. ‘Are we going to turn one part of the state into a sacrificial zone for the benefit of another part of the state, or can we figure out a way to get through this morass and come up with something that will leave agriculture relatively intact and provide the metro areas with a reliable water supply? That, in my mind, is the biggest issue out there in the South Platte Basin.’

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