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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

Taking the Initiative: Taking the Initiative

By Kevin Darst

The numbers generated by the Statewide Water Supply Initiative are plentiful, splashed across 500 pages in the state’s most comprehensive water supply assessment to date. In and beyond those numbers lies Colorado’s map to its water future.

The report shows that water providers have plans to meet about 80 percent of projected 2030 water demand. They say they need new pipelines and water storage to get there. If they can’t develop new water, they’ll buy farms and agricultural water to meet future demand. All the while, they’ll be competing with recreational and environmental interests who claim that same water can best help the state by remaining in the river.

The Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, seeks to identify Colorado’s future water demands, as well as what programs—including water storage, conservation and the drying of agricultural land—the state’s water providers are proposing to meet those needs.

“It’s probably more information on Colorado water than you’ve probably ever had at one time,” says Matt Heimerich, a Crowley County commissioner and member of the Arkansas River Basin study group.

Led by the Colorado Water  Conservation Board, beginning in September 2003 SWSI project managers held four meetings in each of the state’s eight major water basins. The meetings brought together representatives from cities, development, agriculture, the environment and recreation, participants who had been chosen by the CWCB through nominations in the months before the study started.

In December 2004 the CWCB delivered the study to the State Legislature. What SWSI found on a broad scale was that, in a best-case scenario, Colorado water providers have plans to meet most of the state’s municipal water demand by 2030, assuming the projects and processes identified by SWSI pan out.

But the shortfall is daunting, projecting a shortage of at least 118,000 acre-feet of water, enough for 700,000-900,000 people, by 2030. And the numbers are contested, with experts from some fields calling them high and others claiming them to be low.

“The numbers matters less than the themes,” says David Nickum, who represented Trout Unlimited in the South Platte River Basin during the Statewide Water Supply Initiative.

Those themes, identified during the 18-month, $2.7 million study, are simple. New and expanded reservoirs will play a part, as will conservation. One of the study’s major findings, however, is that taking water from irrigated agricultural land and converting it to municipal use will be a primary source of water for cities, one that will be increasingly more attractive if other projects fail. As many as 400,000 acres of Colorado’s irrigated agricultural land could be dried up by 2030, according to SWSI.

“They really highlighted what was going to happen to ag,” says John Stencel, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, a Colorado-based group with members in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. “It gives more urgency to start looking at a state water plan. Nobody wants to talk about that, but it could help us protect some of our ag water.”
The study did not address the impacts of irrigated land losses or suggest solutions, except to say that new water projects would take some pressure off of agriculture.

“They did not try to quantify solutions,” says Reeves Brown, president of the Western Slope lobbying group Club 20. “But the identification of unmet demand begs that question.”

Finding solutions wasn’t SWSI’s mandate, says Rick Brown, the study’s project manager. The initiative was intended to produce a “reconnaissance-level” look at water supply and demand across the state, as well as to facilitate dialogue between what had essentially become competing interests.

“We didn’t answer every question, but I didn’t expect to,” Rick Brown says. “We tried not to impose solutions, not give answers, but frame the issues…Many people thought it would be a scoring method that would spit out an answer. It’s an initiative, not a plan.”

What it did spit out were projections, basin-by-basin, of gaps in water supply needed for homes, agriculture, industry, and other uses. According to SWSI, overall, state water providers lack plans for 118,000 acre-feet of projected 2030 demand, a 20 percent shortfall. Much of the unaccounted-for demand was found in the urban South Platte basin, where the state demographer estimates another 2.4 million people will live by 2030.

Conservation will ease but not eliminate the state’s looming water shortage, the study suggested. Passive conservation, the effect of current federal regulations that require water-efficient residential and commercial plumbing fixtures, is expected to cut 5 percent out of demand by 2030, according to SWSI. More-advanced conservation efforts such as education, rate hikes, leak detection systems and rebates for efficient toilets and washers could lop 12 percent off future water usage. More stringent measures like steeper rate hikes, turf restrictions or the elimination of ultra-thirsty landscaping could strip more than one-third off the 2030 estimated demand.

“Reliance on water conservation to meet all additional water demands is not possible,” says the executive summary of the report. “While citizens will respond by temporarily reducing water use during drought conditions and many are willing to make technological improvements in water use efficiency, there are technical and social limits to long-term water conservation. Conservation levels that would need to be imposed to meet all future demands would result in a significant change in the quality of life for most Coloradans.”

Recent dry years and accompanying water restrictions have raised public awareness of conservation, a trend that should continue even if the state faces wet years ahead, says Bart Miller, the water programs director for Western Resource Advocates. In that sense, Miller says SWSI somewhat undermined the effect of conservation on Colorado’s potential water supply shortfall.

“I think it’s likely cities across Colorado will do more (conservation),” says Miller, who agrees that conservation will be just one of several tools used to cover future demands.

Rod Kuharich, CWCB executive director and the study’s director, says the SWSI team assumed a “fairly aggressive conservation plan” in its estimates. Still, he contends that conservation won’t be the proverbial silver bullet for future water shortages, and that means water providers will likely have to develop new water sources.

“New water entails development of new water rights and, in almost all cases, some sort of storage scenario,” Kuharich says. “New water also carries the (possibility) of out-of-basin diversions. You just can’t ignore that situation.”

The contentious issue of transferring water from one basin to another was not addressed by the study, a point of criticism for some participants on the Western Slope. Trans-basin diversions are a significant concern for Western

Slope areas where most of the state’s water originates, and which stand to lose more water to growing Front Range urban areas. One of the most notable transfer recipients is the South Platte River Basin, where most Coloradans live, which receives 345,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River Basin each year. Much of that is pumped across the Continental Divide by Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, who still have undeveloped water rights on the Western Slope that could ship yet more water from the Colorado to the South Platte Basin.

The study sprouted enough inter-basin concerns that a second phase of SWSI, scheduled to begin this month, will bring representatives from both sides of the mountains into one room for a series of meetings. “(Transbasin diversions are) the big elephant in the room we all wanted to ignore,” said Dave Merritt of the Colorado River Water Conservation District at the November CWCB board meeting.

Project manager Rick Brown says having those inter-basin meetings during SWSI’s tight schedule could have swamped the study.

“We needed to understand how individual basins are meeting their needs,” Brown explains. “The only way to be successful…is to look at our own basins first. You can’t understand your own needs if you’re looking at others’ needs. Water becomes emotional so quick. People turn to advocacy to protect those interests. It’s important to move away from advocacy. I don’t think we can look at solutions until we do that.”

At the CWCB’s November meeting, where SWSI was presented to the board, several participants said the study’s biggest benefit might have been convening a collage of interests and people that don’t normally find themselves face-to-face.

“It helped a little bit to start developing some trust,” says Jeff Crane, who represented the North Fork River Improvement Association, a Paonia-based non-profit, in the Gunnison basin meetings.

T. Wright Dickinson, a Maybell rancher and Yampa basin participant, says he hopes the study can help foster a state water “vision.” “What I really hope comes out of this is a vision of how we in Colorado can keep our cake and eat it, too,” he said at the November CWCB meeting.

Yet the study’s participants remain divided on its value. While Tom Cech, executive director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, called SWSI a “smart move, very forward thinking, very wise on a tough issue,” participants in at least two basins sent letters to SWSI managers complaining about the study’s process and results. Some environmental and recreation representatives feel the study had little to say about those needs.

Durango fly-fishing shop owner Tom Knopick called SWSI “business as usual” and an attempt to create support for traditional water development projects.

“I heard a lot of talk about water projects…but there was little talk about environment and recreation,” says Knopick, who co-owns Duranglers Flies and Supplies in Durango and represented recreational interests on the study’s roundtable for the southwestern basins. “It almost sounded like a plan to endorse those traditional projects people have been working on.”  Adds Knopick, “What we shouldn’t forget is that “a lot of this increase in population comes for (recreation).”

One of SWSI’s 10 major findings was that population growth would spur environmental and recreational uses of water. At the same time, recreation and environmental interests will likely push project developers to include more benefits for recreation and the environment, in exchange for support of those projects. And that could fuel conflict.

According to the study’s executive summary, “The development of reliable water supplies for agricultural, municipal, and industrial uses will compete with the desire to preserve the natural environment and to maintain and enhance water-based recreation opportunities.”

SWSI’s executive summary also included eight recommendations developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. One suggested tracking the projects and processes to meet future water demands identified during SWSI; another proposed developing and supporting implementation plans for those processes. And a third urged standardized water-use reporting by cities and industry.

Club 20’s Reeves Brown had his own recommendation.

“We are recommending that policy makers don’t take this summary as a mandate to create new policy or laws,” Brown said. “We need to allow the current entities in place to develop those solutions.”

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