State water plan to be presented to Gov. Hickenlooper not favored by Colorado …

November 16, 2015 - Uncategorized

photo - A plan, commissioned by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013, is the state's first attempt to compile a comprehensive road map for Colorado's water future, in which the population will grow and water resources will dwindle. (AP file)Caption +

A plan, commissioned by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013, is the state’s first attempt to compile a comprehensive road map for Colorado’s water future, in which the population will grow and water resources will dwindle. (AP file)

Nearly 40 years in the future, Colorado will be running low on water.

Experts predict that Colorado will be short on exactly 400,000 acre feet of water – four times the amount Colorado Springs uses in a year.

For years, state officials and water managers have been trying to close this gap, looking for extra water. It can come from agricultural land, which can be sold and fallowed for its water rights. It can also come from parks in Front Range cities. And it can come from the Western Slope, where water can be shuttled through the mountains to the Front Range.

Determining where that water will come from has been the work of the proposed Colorado Water Plan, set to reach the end of an exhaustive two-year drafting process on Thursday. The plan, commissioned by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013, is the state’s first attempt to compile a comprehensive road map for Colorado’s water future, in which the population will grow and water resources will dwindle.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the plan’s organizer, has spent years responding to 30,000 comments – some mildly questioning, others scathing – about the plan, and the result is something that board director James Eklund hopes will transfigure the handling of Colorado’s water.

“The moment the ink is dry on this plan, the world is going to change,” he said, a week before the final plan’s unveiling in Denver.

But despite the painstaking work of people in nine water basins, multiple drafts, dozens of public meetings, and pushback from utility companies, the water plan is not a panacea. To the question of where Colorado’s extra water will come from, there is no simple answer.

“We know there is not a silver bullet, at least not one that we have found,” Eklund said.

Colorado is one of the last Western states to develop a water plan, although water planning on a smaller scale has been going on for decades. Colorado’s Rocky Mountain spine is the headwaters for several major rivers that flow into 18 states, and water here has always been carefully watched.

The state has been credited as the birthplace of water law, after battles between miners and farmers over water rights broke out in the 19th century.

In the modern era, water uses are heavily regulated and litigated – but the state has never had a comprehensive plan for future water use, one that balances its opposing interests.

Since the plan began to compile information in 2013, it has had to juggle the disparate interests of nine water basins, which are home to big cities, rivers, farmland and rural communities. Residents in the Western Slope basins closely watch the Colorado River – which provides much-needed water to California – and push against channeling their water over to the Front Range. The South Platte basin, the state’s largest that covers the entirety of northern Colorado, is desperate for more water for it’s growing cities, and is looking to the Western Slope and to agriculture to provide some of it. Meanwhile, the Arkansas basin, home to Colorado Springs, has a little bit of everything – a dependence on Western Slope water, the state’s second largest city and agriculture that gives $1.5 billion every year to the local economy.

The solution to filling the water gap will come from a mixture of all of these – water from the Western Slope, from farmlands and from cities.

Some of the most scathing commentary of the plan has come from Colorado Springs Utilities, a water manager for the state’s second largest watershed, the Arkansas River basin. Despite the years of work, Utilities feels that the plan has done little more than create a rushed document that delivers a list of “don’ts” instead of a path forward for the future of water.

While Eklund defends the plan as something that is meant to be acted on, the plan’s suggestions are not binding without executive orders or legislation, he said. Because of this, Utilities believes that plan falls short of giving the state a clear direction when it comes to water.

“Without a firm and clear policy statement … the rest of the document is a directionless recitation of guardrails without a road,” wrote Utilities officials in a public commentary submitted in September, when the last draft of the plan was released.

The commentary also criticized the plan as being biased against municipal water use, and not having enough detail on building more water storage, one of Utilities’ preferred methods for girding the state’s growing population against water loss.

Utilities did praise the plan for putting together an impressive collection of water information. However, it also has said that the plan also slowed it’s regular water planning processes.

Despite Utilities’ tone, many of its suggestions resonated with concerns from others around the state. One major consensus to come out of the water plan is that the permitting system for building projects like the Southern Delivery System is broken, Eklund said. Projects like that can take decades and millions of dollars to get approved, both things that need to be cut.

For Eklund, the plan is more than just a collection of problems – it does offer solutions and ways forward for Colorado’s diverse water community. Eklund also thinks of the plan as a living document; once water board members vote on the plan on Thursday, it will continue to be updated and changed. To Eklund’s knowledge, the plan is also the largest civic engagement process the state has undertaken, a process that involved responding to every single one of the 30,000 comments received.

He is confident that Utilities will be happy with the final plan.

“We will just have to wait and see,” said Steve Berry, a spokesman for Utilities, on Sunday night.

“You know how these things go – they never reflect all of your feedback. The good thing is that we have a record of our thoughts on it, and that’s permanent, and that always been looked back on.”

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