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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.

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Water Education Colorado

Colorado Basin Roundtable

By Jayla Poppleton

 

The mainstem of the Colorado River flows from its headwaters in Summit and Grand Counties down through the Grand Valley and across the Utah state line. The Colorado Basin Roundtable's concerns include protecting water in the 9,830 square-mile basin for in-basin supplies, determining how much water will be necessary to preserve environmental and recreational values, and providing for a growing population and development in the energy sector while sustaining agriculture as a viable industry.

The monkey wrench, or rather, wrenches, are the unknown variables yet to be determined. First and foremost, how much water is left to develop from the Colorado River Basin, which includes all the West Slope watersheds? As the only remaining source of unappropriated water in the state, the basin's rivers are a coveted resource.

The roundtable is not alone as it waits intently on the Colorado Water Conservation Board's study of Colorado River Water Availability to provide better numbers on what the basin has left to divvy up. ‘We know we're getting close,’ says Jim Pokrandt, the roundtable's chair and communications and education director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. ‘How we use this last increment is critical.’

Because Front Range utilities are looking in their direction for more water, local interests want to do a good job of estimating future in-basin water demand so they don't forfeit more than they can afford. ‘The Colorado Basin, more than any other basin, is being asked to say how much we need for forever,’ explains engineering consultant Dave Merritt, the roundtable's former chair. Merritt believes an intrastate Colorado River compact must be developed that will take some future water development out of the prior appropriation realm. ‘We need to be able to leave some amount for future in-basin development if we're going to say the rest can be used by someone else,’ says Merritt.

In the absence of such a compact, the roundtable is developing a meticulous consumptive needs assessment, the most crucial piece being its $300,000 energy study. The study was commissioned jointly with the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, which is also concerned about projected water use for energy production. The ominous shadow hovering above both basins is the huge level of water demand for oil shale if the lurking resource is developed.

According to the study's first phase, aggregate demand associated with extraction of uranium, coal, natural gas and oil shale could be anywhere between 70,000 and 400,000 acre feet in 2050. Oil shale would be, by far, the dominant end user.

‘If you put oil shale to the side and look just at natural gas, coal and uranium, the numbers are very modest and manageable,’ says Greg Trainor, co-chair of the joint Colorado/Yampa roundtables' energy subcommittee. The challenge, he says, is that it's impossible to predict if oil companies will move forward with oil shale development. ‘The oil shale industry has said it's going to take 12 to 15 years to figure out if they're going to go to production or not,’ says Trainor, who is also Grand Junction's utility and street systems director.

Shell Oil is apparently keeping its options open. In December 2008, it filed for a new water right and a storage right for a new reservoir on the Yampa River. Speculative as oil shale may be, the roundtable feels it can't ignore the possibility. Oil companies already own significant conditional water rights with priority dates dotting the last century. If they make those rights absolute by putting the water to its intended use, they will have legitimate claims to rights that are senior to municipal and agricultural users currently operating in the river system, says Pokrandt. Those users could get bumped to more junior positions.

The Grand Valley is the basin's agricultural hub. Home to the basin's largest city, Grand Junction, the valley also nurtures between 50,000 and 60,000 acres of orchards, vineyards, hay farms and row crops. Not only do the farms make the valley beautiful and provide Coloradans with local food, but as Carlyle Currier, who represents the Collbran Water Conservancy District on the roundtable, points out, agricultural land provides other benefits like wildlife habitat or open space. Oil shale aside, he's concerned people statewide are too apt to think of agricultural water as the only water out there to service a growing municipal and industrial demand.

‘There is quite a bit of buy-in from the roundtable that preserving water for ag is an important goal, though it may be a different level of priority for people,’ says Currier.

For people in the upper basin the focus is more on recreational or environmental demands. ‘We think the tradeoff is how much we can protect the ag interests at the expense of recreation and the environment,’ says Caroline Bradford, who represents Eagle County on the roundtable. Water to sustain growth has to come from somewhere, and it's Bradford's suspicion that the rivers in the headwaters don't have much more to give. They're already heavily diverted across the divide. As much as 600,000 acre feet is transported to the Front Range annually. Once that water leaves the basin, it doesn't return to the source river like it would from other uses.

‘With agriculture, you could expect 50 percent of the water back in return flows,’ says Pokrandt. ‘From a municipality, roughly 90 percent goes back in the river. One person's return flow is another person's water supply.’

The basin wants to ensure future transbasin diversions don't compromise its ability to provide for its own growth and for ‘water in the stream for water in the stream's sake,’ says Pokrandt. ‘We want to understand how the Front Range needs can be satisfied without the values that we know and love on the Colorado River being destroyed.’

Bradford is keen on seeing the non-consumptive needs assessment completed so members will have the science to inform their decisions. ‘If we do a good job on this study, we'll have a better basis to understand how we can protect the rivers and service a growing population. Or whether we can't. Where's the balance?’ Bradford wonders. ‘We have to consider the source of the water in the tap is not just a pipe. The other end is actually a living ecosystem that needs to be better understood so we know how much we can take without killing it.’

Bradford worked on the 10,825 study funded by Water Supply Reserve Account funds. Properly called the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Alternatives Analysis, it assessed options for water providers to fulfill an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The stretch of Colorado River between Palisade and the confluence with the Gunnison River, known as the 15-mile reach, is historic habitat for four endangered fish species. Water providers must get 10,825 acre feet to the Grand Junction area for the fish in late summer in order to preserve their ongoing use of the river. The South Platte and Metro roundtables also participated in the study in order to protect their use of Colorado River water.

In a region that boasts many of the state's major ski resorts and abundant other recreational opportunities, water for non-consumptive uses is also crucial to a large part of the economy. And it's one reason people move to Colorado in the first place.’ The West Slope is really the playground for the Front Range, especially the headwaters areas,’ says Pokrandt. ‘Many people on the Front Range have come to understand that and understand what's at stake.’

However, if growth on the Front Range continues as expected, water utilities will undoubtedly pursue transbasin diversions. Some of those folks sit on the roundtable as non-voting members. According to the IBCC's enabling legislation, each roundtable should have three out-of-basin, non-voting members, but the Colorado Basin Roundtable is unique in having more than any other.

‘Six entities requested membership and all had a stake in the Colorado basin,’ explains Merritt. ‘We'd rather have them sit at the table than be relegated to the back of the room.’

‘We want to recognize the valid needs of the transbasin diverters. The Colorado Constitution says the water is available for all the people,’ he continues, laughing, ‘even those in 303 area codes.’

And, he says people have to realize the economic health of western Colorado is dependent on that of the Front Range.

 

 

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