While supportive of a statewide water plan, state water leaders are concerned whether it can be completed in the next two years and meet the sometimes conflicting needs they have been struggling with since 2005.
The Interbasin Compact Committee Tuesday heard details about how the plan will be created from James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The plan will build on the activities of the IBCC and basin roundtables over the past eight years.
Last month, Front Range roundtables met jointly to develop a position paper, while similar efforts are underway among Colorado River groups.
“The next step is to walk across the divide,” Eklund told the IBCC. “If basins can get together and list their priorities, they can work together to find what they can agree on.” Easier said than done.
Some members of the IBCC felt the timeline — a draft by 2014 leading to a plan by the end of 2015 — is too short to provide anything but a framework for more discussion.
Legislative support also is needed. “After all the time and effort to develop this thing, is it going to be effective if we don’t have buy-in from the state Legislature?” asked Jeris Danielson, a former state engineer who represents the Arkansas River basin on the IBCC.
State Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Snowmass Village Democrat who chairs the Senate ag committee, said lawmakers are searching for permanent sources of funding for projects of all sizes. That drew questions about whether the state plan would lock in funding choices. “What will and won’t be funded creates heartburn for the roundtables,” said Travis Smith, an irrigation district manager from the Rio Grande basin and a CWCB member.
Other committee members raised questions about environmental protection and enhancement, rather than mitigation of damage, and water quality. “We have to start from a common base of understanding,” Eklund said.
It was a milestone of sorts Tuesday when 25 water experts from all corners of Colorado came together to collectively push forward proposed solutions they feel are needed to avoid looming supply shortages. Members of the Interbasin Compact Committee expressed support for “low risk” and “no risk” water solutions regarding agriculture, conservation, water reuse, storage and other issues, and that plan will be passed on to the Colorado Water Conservation Board as part of its efforts in creating the comprehensive state water plan recently requested by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
However, IBCC members couldn’t push forward solutions at Tuesday’s meeting for one key area: new supply, which could have the biggest implications for northeast Colorado and its massive agriculture industry, according to some in attendance. If new reservoirs and other water projects aren’t constructed in the near future, the Front Range’s rapidly growing cities will be left to continue buying water rights from farmers and taking that land out of production, according to Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “Agriculture will be the sacrificial lamb,” said Wilkinson, whose district oversees the Colorado-Big Thompson Project — the largest water-supply project in northern Colorado — among other projects. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
The IBCC is made up of members from each of the state’s eight river basin roundtables and one roundtable from the Denver metro area, along with state water officials. The roundtables, consisting of various water experts from those respective regions, have been meeting for eight years, discussing solutions for their own basin’s water issues and statewide future shortages as well.
According to IBCC members, Tuesday marked the first time the IBCC came together to agree on and pass forward a comprehensive plan that addresses water issues for the entire state. The report will be used in drafting the state water plan that Hickenlooper requested through an executive order in May. The governor wants a draft report by the end of next year, and the state’s Colorado Water Conservation Board is depending on input from the IBCC to get it done.
There’s still a long way to go, IBCC members acknowledged Tuesday, with higher-risk solutions still needing to be discussed and agreed upon down the road. New supply still needs to be addressed as well. And compromising on some aspects is difficult, because each of the basin’s issues vary from one another and require different solutions.
Tuesday’s talks focused on developing incentives for water reuse, conservation, alternative water-transfer methods and education efforts, among many other topics. Even those discussions on “low risk” and “no risk” solutions became contentious at times, with disagreements over the language of those proposals.
The planned five-hour meeting went for six hours.
When IBCC members were asked to express their degree of support for their comprehensive package of solutions, only 25 percent “strongly supported” it, while the other 75 percent voted that it was simply a plan “they could live with.”
When the discussions came to new supply, the group agreed to approach the CWCB with more questions, rather than taking forward any proposed solutions. New supply has long been “the hardest nut to crack,” as one IBCC member described it during the meeting.
About 80 percent of the people in Colorado reside on the Eastern Slope’s Front Range, while about 80 percent of the state’s water originates on the Western Slope. Because of that, Front Range water users have grown dependent on diverting some of their water from the Western Slope’s river basins, tunneling it across the Continental Divide. And many on the Eastern Slope say more of those projects will be needed to meet the needs of the growing Front Range. Without new water-supply projects, farmland will continue drying up as cities look for more of the resource.
The 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative forecasted that Colorado could see 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmland dry up by 2050.
While Eastern Slope water users want more new-supply projects, those on the Western Slope have been reluctant. The Colorado River basin, for example, is already stretched thin, due its complex water agreements with downstream states.
Earlier this year, the Colorado River was declared ‘America’s Most Endangered River’ by American Rivers, an advocacy organization, due to its limited water supply and growing populations. Western Slope water officials expressed those concerns Tuesday.
Despite a lack of progress on the critical new-supply talks, Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District and a representative on the IBCC for the South Platte basin roundtable, said he was pleased with Tuesday’s meeting. “It was probably the most productive meeting we’ve had,” he said. “It was frustrating not to get more done on new supply, but overall it was a huge step in the right direction.”
John Stulp, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s special adviser on water, agreed. “We certainly made some progress today.”