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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

Envisioning an alternate future: IBCC takes aim at status quo approach to water planning

By Judi Buehrer

Few tasks could be more daunting than ensuring Colorado's future water supply. Consider these projections: The state will have nearly double the residents — from 5 million in 2008 to 10 million in 2050; climate change could decrease Upper Colorado River runoff anywhere from 5 to 20 percent by 2050; and oil shale development, if heavily pursued, may gulp more water annually than the amount stored in Lake Dillon. In short, Colorado may face a critical water shortfall by 2050 and beyond.


The state's current planning process, through the Interbasin Compact Committee and nine basin roundtables, is an attempt to gather all the knowledgeable, vested and otherwise interested parties to address that shortfall. As the IBCC and 300-plus stakeholders put their heads together, they face the difficult challenges of balancing competing needs and assessing the tradeoffs of pursuing various water supply strategies.

In early 2008, Harris Sherman, director of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources and the IBCC's head of compact negotiations, posed four questions to drive careful thought and discussion about planning for Colorado's future — considering both the ‘business as usual’ route and alternate paths.

Sherman asked the committee: (1) What will Colorado look like in 50 years if we let our current approach to water supply play out, following the status quo? (2) Is this the Colorado you would like to see? (3) If not, what would your Colorado look like? And (4) If your Colorado looks different than the status quo scenario, then how and when should we investigate water supply alternatives that would lead to the Colorado you would like to see?

The questions sparked a visioning process by which the IBCC's 27 members, with input from the basin roundtables, began developing a vision statement and related goals, while analyzing a medley of water supply strategies. This year, they will work with the roundtables to identify programs, methods, and future water projects that fit within that framework.

Competing interests complicate visioning process

Initial responses to Sherman's questions were overwhelmingly in favor of pursuing an alternative to the status-quo-driven future. Alternate visions, however, were varied and hazy. The IBCC continued to digest various presentations about agricultural needs, growth, climate change, energy needs, and legislative initiatives as it sought a cohesive vision.

Jay Winner, IBCC member and general manager of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District, says, ‘The biggest concern was that the process be very inclusive. We had 12 tumultuous months that involved listening to everyone's concerns.’

The group found common ground in ensuing discussions related to some of those concerns. They agreed the state is transitioning to an era of reallocating water between competing uses, rather than solely developing new water. The related question of whether the free market will be effective in achieving that reallocation with desirable outcomes, however, was debated. The IBCC also agreed that water supply is closely tied to larger economic, demographic, and cultural trends of the state, especially agriculture. ‘I think the general feeling is that it is important to preserve the state's $16 billion agricultural economy. Agricultural lands provide food, jobs, open space, wildlife habitat, and a vibrant rural economy,’ says Sherman.

Despite such concurrences, the IBCC stumbled on crafting a specific vision statement. Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and one of the governor's at-large appointees on the committee, says, ‘There are vastly competing interests on the IBCC concerning consumptive, agricultural, and recreational needs. I think we all agreed on many things, but we didn't make much progress on the vision statement. There was a lot of wordsmithing rather than substantive input.’

The wordsmithing involved such discrepancies as using ‘sustainably meets’ as opposed to ‘balances’ in the current draft vision statement: ‘We envision a Colorado that balances municipal, industrial, agricultural, environmental, and recreational water needs and promotes cooperation among all water uses.’

Melinda Kassen, managing director of the Trout Unlimited Western Water Project, preferred ‘sustainably meets.’ She says, ‘It puts everyone on the same footing,’ including environmental and recreational stakeholders. ‘I think most people get that we have to protect the environment and recreation, which are important to Colorado's economy.’

Others felt ‘balances’ more appropriately recognized that while not all of Colorado's current water uses will conceivably be met all the time, it is important to ensure water is available in some amount for municipal, industrial, agricultural, environmental, and recreational uses to sustain Colorado's diverse economy.

Kassen, also a governor's appointee to the IBCC, says she compromised because, ‘The vision statement is not as important as what happens.’ She hopes the state will invest in ‘smart’ projects that do no harm to the environment or the recreational economy.

Eric Hecox, chief of the Colorado Water Conservation Board's Intrastate Water Management and Development section, says last October marked a turning point. ‘At first, people were staking out their territory. At the October meeting, we recognized the need to move on, agreed to keep a draft vision statement, and decided to move forward on the strategies.’

Major issues drive water supply discussions

The IBCC will consider the state's strategic options in the context of confronting three major issues: climate change, population growth, and oil shale development.

According to the CWCB's recent Colorado Climate Change Report, Colorado's average temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 4 degrees over the next 50 years. That degree of warming could decrease the Upper Colorado River's runoff by 5 to 20 percent and alter the seasons when precipitation occurs and even the form in which it falls.

On the growth issue, the IBCC discussed the relationship between water demand and land use at length in December. Colorado's population is expected to reach about 10 million by 2050; 80 percent of the 5 million new residents will reside on the Front Range. Sherman says land use decisions are important because high-density residential development significantly decreases per capita water consumption.

The land use discussion raised several questions: Would incentives encourage developers to build more high-density developments voluntarily? If so, should incentives be local initiatives or statewide programs? And a half-serious question that drew nervous laughter at the meeting — will new Coloradans all be living in apartments?

Oil shale development, the third major component, ‘could be a game changer,’ says Sherman. After the first phase of the energy study conducted by the Colorado and Yampa/White/Green basin roundtables concluded oil shale development could consume up to 400,000 acre feet of water annually, people have drawn their own concerning conclusions. Oil shale could use up the balance of remaining water under the Colorado River Compact, affecting both agricultural communities on the West Slope and municipal water needs on the Front Range. Some oil industry representatives, however, disagree with the figures. And, as Hecox points out, that 400,000 acre-foot figure is only one end of the spectrum. A less-aggressive industry might use one-fourth of that much water.

Options include supply-side and demand-side strategies

In light of these concerning variables, the IBCC will evaluate both demand-side and supply-side strategies, pressing to reduce future water demands and boost the state's supply. Hecox and his team are analyzing three strategies — conservation, agricultural transfers, and new water supply development — to present to the IBCC and the CWCB in March.

The conservation strategy seeks to reduce water use by 20, 30 and 40 percent from 2000 levels. The analysis is looking at which best practices, such as tiered water-rate structures, rebates for low-water-use plumbing fixtures and appliances, and turf-replacement incentives, would need to be implemented to achieve those levels of conservation.

The agricultural transfers analysis will evaluate both traditional and alternative agricultural transfers in the Arkansas and South Platte river basins. In both basins, transferable water is located downstream of -- and will need to be pumped back to -- the basins' urban areas. ‘We're looking at what type of infrastructure and treatment would be required and how much it would cost,’ says Hecox.

The third strategy, new water supply development, primarily concerns the viability of Colorado River water storage projects and transbasin diversions. ‘We'll look at small, medium, and large water supply projects that would balance the needs of the Front Range and the West Slope,’ says Hecox.

IBCC weighs tradeoffs, risks

Of the various strategies, Kassen says she favors ‘more water conservation and reuse programs across the state. Conservation and reuse save water and money while maintaining healthy rivers, streamflows, and fish.’

Kuhn also believes conservation and reuse are the most promising strategies and points to Aurora's innovative $754 million Prairie Waters recycled water project that will increase the city's water supply by 20 percent when it goes on-line in 2012. But, he adds, few communities can afford to implement such projects.

Hecox agrees that conservation ‘makes wiser use of water supply to meet more needs with a limited resource.’ However, he says conservation has its limits. ‘The magnitude of the challenges posed by climate change, population growth and potential energy development means we will not be able to conserve our way out of this.’

In addition, overly-aggressive conservation measures stretch supplies to meet average water demands. If providers then use conserved water to sustain growth, they incrementally lose flexibility to implement stricter conservation measures during a drought, a process called water hardening.

Likewise, alternative agricultural transfers, which would replace the status quo ‘buy and dry’ transfers, offer benefits and disadvantages. One such alternative is rotational fallowing, which allows farmers to sell water from part of their farm and fallow that land while irrigating the rest. Another option is an interruptible water supply contract between a farmer and a municipality that sets aside a specific amount of water for the city in the event of a drought. The third alternative is water banking, which enables farmers to bank a portion of their allocated water for sale or lease to another user.

‘California is using all three of these tools,’ says Sherman. ‘We want to determine which tools and strategies are best for Colorado, and possibly [support] legislation to protect the state's agricultural economy and rural areas so they can thrive.’

On the plus side, Hecox says limited agricultural transfers re-allocate water from one sector of consumptive use to another, with no new stream depletions. On the down side, agricultural transfers often squeeze rural economies when water is transferred out of the region.

Even with conservation and limited ag transfers, many believe new dams and transbasin diversions will be needed to ensure a water supply for Colorado's future. Because the only remaining unallocated water in the state is in the Colorado River system, it is an obvious source for additional supply. But Kuhn has a problem with the state relying on the Colorado River; his organization helps oversee the state's Colorado River Compact interests.

The assumption is that we're using all the available water we're allotted in the Arkansas, Platte, and Rio Grande river compacts and the only new water to develop is in the Colorado River. The problem is, no one knows how much is there or what the impact of climate change will be,’ Kuhn says.

While the state awaits the conclusion of the CWCB's Colorado River Water Availability Study, scheduled for September, conjecture reigns. Anywhere between zero and 1 million acre feet remain undeveloped in the system, depending on conflicting interpretations of the Colorado River Compact and current hydrological data on the river.

Another often-contentious issue related to new transbasin diversions is assuring benefits to both the recipient and the basin of origin. Even as projects are built to divert water for the Front Range, attributes could be added to provide additional municipal or agricultural water to West Slope communities. Sherman believes the state should examine building transbasin diversions using pumpback technologies. By taking water from farther downstream, pumpback projects would protect the headwaters counties, ‘where there is tremendous concern and conflict about diverting water to the Front Range,’ he says.

Part of our charge is to bring regions together,’ Sherman says. ‘The Front Range needs to be engaged in an active dialogue with several of the roundtables. If there is trust, dialogue, and a win-win approach, I think we will do a lot of good.’

As the IBCC continues to envision an alternate future, doubts flicker along with a hopeful sense of possibility.

‘The IBCC is a very bold experiment,’ Sherman says. ‘I don't know of another state using this approach to bring regions together that have fought a lot in the past. When I inherited this job [as IBCC chair], I was somewhat of a cynic. But we have moved forward. It will take time, and it is hard to predict when we will be finished. I think we will make a lot of progress in the next two years.’

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