By 2050, projections place Northern Colorado’s population at double its current level — a forecast that threatens to not only challenge but possibly tap out the region’s water resources. In the South Platte Water Basin, a 22,000-square mile district including Weld County, this population boom could equate to major water shortages in the not-so-distant future.
Concerns regarding population and water resource management fueled public questions at the Fort Collins Senior Center on Wednesday at the eighth of nine statewide meetings to gather public input on the Colorado Water Plan. The public discussion is the result of ongoing state legislative efforts, jump started by an executive order from Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013 calling for input on a plan to tackle the looming water crisis.
As the district with the largest population and greatest need for irrigation water, the South Platte Water Basin has captured particular concern from policymakers looking to balance urban water needs with agriculture. Current consumption in the district has already neared maximum supply capacity, according to data provided by the South Platte Basin Roundtable.
While the district’s water supply capacity maxes out at 736,000 acre-feet per year, water needs for 2050 are estimated to reach over 1.1 million acre feet.
The opinions voiced at the meetings will contribute to a draft submission of a statewide water management plan to Hickenlooper in December. The final Colorado Water Plan is slated for final submission to the governor in December 2015.
Municipal vs. agricultural priorities
The South Platte meeting drew 100 people, the most of all public meetings to date. Attendees reflected the sharp disconnect between concerns of urban populations and those of agricultural communities.
While farmers at the meeting advocated for greater water storage capacity to ease pressure on agricultural allotments, Fort Collins residents expressed concern that tentative reservoir plans such as the Northern Integrated Supply Project would diminish the beauty and value of the Poudre River.
Rather than turn to major reservoir projects, community members like Gina Janette, a former member of the Fort Collins Water Board, proposed a greater focus on demand management. In Fort Collins, she said such efforts have been effective in reducing per capita water consumption.
Fort Morgan dairy farmer Chris Kraft appealed to city residents by reminding them that farmers keep food on our tables and rely on water resources to do so.
“This has no intention of hurting the Poudre River. If we could understand the priority system, this project would help rather than hurt the river. Our community of Fort Morgan would be one of the beneficiaries of the water storage project,” he said, encouraging policymakers in attendance to streamline water storage efforts.
The divide arises from community members who value greater green spaces versus farmers who prioritize the economic value brought from rivers and reservoirs, said Reagan M. Waskom III, director of CSU’s Colorado Water Institute.
“Here in Fort Collins, the community likes the river how it is and they don’t want to see any further depletions, so there is a great deal of opposition here to new reservoir projects,” Waskom said.
“What ag understands is that those projects are not going to create ag water but will take pressure off of them. Their thinking is that if Greeley, Eaton, Ault and Fort Morgan get water from NISP, it’s water that they don’t have to source from ag.”
Another part of the Colorado Water Plan proposal involves alternative transfer mechanisms, a system that would place greater control of water resources in the hands of agriculture to enable better management in drought years.
“Frankly, this is not going to solve very many of our big problems, but it might in some cases — especially in communities like Greeley. Places like Greeley are excellent for this kind of system, if the city wants to do it,” Woskom said.
Sustainability concerns for agriculture
Current projections place irrigated farming acreage on a downward slope in the South Platte River Basin, particularly west of Interstate 25.
While a reduction in farmland equates to better land prices for those who maintain their properties, it casts into doubt the long-term viability of crops like grain and alfalfa in the region.
There are currently 830,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the district, representing 24 percent of the state total, according to data provided at Wednesday’s meeting. By 2050, acreage could drop to as low as 596,000.