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The Summer 2016 issue of Headwaters Magazine examines the economics of water. In addition to looking at water’s role in Colorado’s economy, this issue covers creative funding opportunities to pay for sustainable water infrastructure as well as watershed planning and river restoration. Dive into how water is priced through water markets, rates and valuation methods—including those that account for non-market values—and explore both advantages and considerations in pursuing regionalized, multi-partner projects. Flip through or download the issue here


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A Price for the Priceless

Water not only supports overall well-being, it lubricates the entire economy. It's a necessity for all life and an integral
component of businesses and industries ranging from agriculture and tourism to tech development and manufacturing.
Credit: Carmel Zucker

How do we value Colorado’s water?

By Nelson Harvey

You might call it the great economic riddle of our time: It sustains human life, lubricates the entire economy and has no known substitute, yet a month’s supply can be delivered to your home for less than the cost of cable TV or cell phone service. It belongs to the public but the right to use it is bought and sold, and changing that use requires a pricey court approval process. It supports kayakers and anglers, trout and sparrows, and all the ecosystems in between, yet those benefits are rarely reflected in its cost. It is cheap, and yet it is priceless. What is it?

If you’re reading this magazine, you already know that the answer is water, and you already know that water is invaluable. What you may not know is that water’s price, according to many economists, comes nowhere near to reflecting its true value, and that blunt economic fact has consequences for the long-term sustainability of both our water resources and our water systems.

Aligning water’s price with its value is much harder than it seems. That’s because water is traded and regulated in ways that reflect its unique and irreplaceable role in our economy. Depending on who you ask, water is a private commodity or a public good, an economic input or a human right.

Read more: A Price for the Priceless

Paying for What's Ahead


By Caitlin Coleman

If a new 2-cent tax was tacked onto that bottled tea, would you notice? What if there was a small tax on every liquid-filled container—water, tea, soda, all of it—sold in Colorado? Would you have the same reaction if your water bill increased?

There are other options—but somehow Coloradans will need to come up with about $20 billion by 2050 for water projects across the state. The question is: How will we do it…and what will it mean for our bank accounts?

That $20 billion figure is what the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) estimates is necessary to implement Colorado’s Water Plan. The numbers aren’t exact, says Tim Feehan, former CWCB deputy director, and the specific projects and precise allocations aren’t completely set, but $20 billion is a starting budget as the state evaluates how the actions outlined in the water plan could be funded.

Aimed at addressing the municipal and industrial water supply gap so the state’s growing population doesn’t come up water short, Colorado’s Water Plan, published in 2015, also sets goals around alternatives to agricultural transfers, water infrastructure, storage, education, conservation, environmental projects, and recreational needs—plus it aspires to fund its own sustainable implementation.

“[The water plan] identifies a lot of solutions for the state and comes with a very high price tag,” says Margaret Bowman, a consultant working with the Water Funder Initiative to develop impact investing in the West. “Now the state’s got to figure out how to finance it.”

Read more: Paying for What's Ahead

Linking Up

The case for regionalization…when thinking big and partnering across jurisdictions can make the difference between success and failure, and where opportunities hinge on geographic, economic, political and legal realities.

GrandRiverDitch LofCongress duoweb

By Jerd Smith

In the 1880s, Colorado’s South Platte River Basin had already seen the dark side of drought more than once or twice. In any given year, month followed month of little or no rain. The river disappeared from its channel in spots. And the Russian and German immigrants who had settled there to farm had no choice but to band together and go in search of a new, more reliable source of water for their sugar beets and corn.

They looked west to the snow-capped Never Summer Mountains in what would become Rocky Mountain National Park. They recruited bankers and politicians and farmers to help. Beet growers who couldn’t spare cash contributed their own horses, plows, harnesses, and weeks of backbreaking labor during months when the snow receded. On the crest of the Continental Divide they worked, camping with their families summer after summer until the project was done. After more than 30 years what became known as the Grand River Ditch, the oldest operating transbasin diversion in Colorado, began delivering water to the South Platte Basin, saving the region’s farm economy.

More than 100 years later, as they work to ensure the next generations of Coloradans have enough water, major players from Denver and Fort Collins to Durango and Bayfield are examining whether they, too, can join forces to establish regional water systems that are not only more economically feasible but also more environmentally sustainable than going it alone.

Read more: Linking Up

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