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HW 2009 Basin

Roundtables: A Silver Lining for Water Users

By Eryn Gable

Colorado's unprecedented growth and the increased emphasis on multiple uses of water have complicated decision making while creating an opportunity for collaborative solutions.

One outgrowth is the creation of nine groups—or Basin Roundtables—for each of the state's river basins plus the Denver metro area. The roundtables came out of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative and legislation passed in 2006. The Interbasin Compact Committee, made up of representatives from each basin, is meant to provide a statewide perspective; negotiate interbasin agreements; and address issues between roundtables.

The monthly meetings bring together a broad range of stakeholders to talk about competing water issues and give local residents greater input in water decisions. The South Platte Basin Roundtable, with 51 voting members, meets the second Tuesday of each month in Longmont. Metro, with 27, meets the second Wednesday. Metro members represent 29 cities and towns.

‘It is a mechanism that creates a dialogue among water users that otherwise might not be there,’ said Mike Shimmin, one of the South Platte roundtable's Interbasin Compact Committee representatives.

Jim Yahn, the vice-chairman of the South Platte roundtable, said the meetings enabled him to talk with people he never would have before, including city water providers, recreation representatives and environmentalists.

‘I've just had the opportunity to really understand what other people think about water and also had the opportunity to let people know my opinion on water—how we use it and why we use it the way we do,’ he said.
At both the Metro and South Platte roundtables, the issue of water usage and how to find more water is high on everyone's minds.

‘There's not a lot of native water to be developed in the South Platte, especially further upstream,’ said Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District and a member of the South Platte roundtable.

‘If we don't produce more water and we continue to grow the way we're growing, the inevitable fact is there will be dry up of irrigated agriculture,’ he added.

While water users obviously want to avoid a dryup, the dialogue allowed even former foes to gain a greater appreciation of each other's struggles. A member of the Metro roundtable, Robert Sakata farms 2,700 acres along the South Platte River. He noted that being on the roundtable has opened his eyes to the challenges cities are facing to meet their water demands. Sakata noted the cities have already made great strides as far as conservation, giving them less of a buffer during dry years.

‘We shouldn't dry up farms to take water to move it to the cities, but in reality, there [aren't] a lot of other choices,’ Sakata said.

Although there is interest in preventing a dry up to preserve Colorado's agricultural economies, there are limits to what can be done to protect these interests. After all, making it harder for farmers to sell their water would infringe on their private property rights.

That's one reason for the popularity of the idea of leasing water rights, which would allow farms to continue operating and hopefully prevent some of the devastating economic impacts that have resulted from agricultural buyouts in the past. But leasing water rights from agriculture may not make sense from an economic point of view because of the high cost of the infrastructure required to bring that water to the cities.

Chips Barry of Denver Water said one way to allow cities to get more for their money is simply to add more capacity to planned projects. For example, additional capacity could be added to Aurora's $754 million Prairie Waters project, a 34-mile pipeline to transport water from the South Platte River near Brighton to the city.

And while federal regulations such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act make siting, permitting and constructing new water storage projects challenging, Barry, who sits on the Metro roundtable, said more storage is critical. ‘I think you'll see additional storage projects, not on the direct flow of water from the South Platte River, but you will see additional storage,’ he said.

Frank Eckhardt, a board member of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District who farms 3,000 acres south of La Salle, said storage is going to be critical to meeting the cities' water needs, but there are also ways to stretch the water that's available. For example, he said thinning out the trees along the South Platte could recover an additional 159,000 acre feet of water per year.

‘I think the river needs to be cleaned up and thinned out a little bit,’ said Eckhardt, who sits on the South Platte roundtable.

He noted that farmers in the South Platte basin already made changes because of the supply crunch, planting fewer crops that are water intensive, like wheat and barley, and idling sections—or in some cases, all—of their cropland. ‘I think the farmers in the South Platte use less water irrigating than any place in the state per acre. They're that efficient,’ he said.

Another solution Sakata sees is more transfers of water between basins, but he said the organization of the roundtables has made cooperation between basins difficult. ‘In a sense, it's almost built walls between the basins instead of built bridges,’ he said.

Nevertheless, the roundtables have made an effort to bring people from different basins together to talk about the issues they face. For example, the South Platte roundtable met with members of the Yampa, White and Green basin roundtable last year to discuss a transbasin water project to benefit both basins. Similarly, a joint meeting of roundtables from the Arkansas, South Platte and Metro basins last year examined common water issues.

‘It's causing regions around the state to come together in ways that they wouldn't have done before,’ Shimmin said.

Yahn emphasized that getting water from other basins is critical to preventing the dryup of agricultural lands in the South Platte Basin. ‘If we can't have some kind of additional water from the Western Slope, really the only place that the cities' thirst can be satisfied is through agricultural water,’ he said.

Gene Manuello, a South Platte roundtable member who grows corn and hay and raises cattle northeast of Sterling, noted that such transmountain diversions do not tend to be popular on the Western Slope. ‘The Eastern Slope thinks that's the answer, but the Western Slope doesn't think there's any water there to transfer. It's a pretty touchy subject,’ he said.

One key to finding that answer will be a study by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on the amount of unappropriated water left in the Colorado River.

Clearly, there are no easy solutions to the South Platte's water crisis. Many people—farmers and residents alike—don't want more agricultural land dried up. The cities want secure water supplies for their booming populations, and environmentalists and recreationists want to keep more water in the rivers for wildlife and recreation.

David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited and a member of the Metro roundtable, said the South Platte Protection Plan, a collaborative effort to protect more than 70 miles of the river, will be key to ensuring the well being of fish and wildlife as cities' thirst increases. ‘It will be a challenge, but this plan sets the stage for the health of the river to be maintained while delivering the water that will ultimately be needed by the metro area,’ he said.

Nickum also noted that environmentalists are concerned about water quality in the South Platte, especially as debris and sediment from the 2002 Hayman Fire continue to fill reservoirs, reducing capacity and damaging fish habitat. ‘That watershed has a lot of healing yet to do and dealing with the water quality impacts will be a major challenge.’
Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the South Platte roundtable is doing the best it can to tackle these difficult issues. ‘I think within the resources it has available, it has been pretty active in the issues it's trying to address,’ said Wilkinson, who serves as the other Interbasin Compact Committee representative on the South Platte roundtable. ‘It recognizes the threat…posed by significant agricultural dryup is a real tough challenge.’

While the South Platte and Metro roundtables have not been able to resolve anything yet, they have put lots of ideas on the table, including increased storage, controlling invasive species and leasing agricultural water.
‘We'll just keep banging away and hope we come up with some answers,’ Manuello said.

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