“Let’s face it. If there were a real #COWaterPlan, people would be loading their guns about now” — Pat Mulroy

July 3, 2015
Photo credit: Andy R, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo credit: Andy R, Creative Commons, Flickr

From The Colorado Independent (Susan Greene):

It has taken 12 years, 344 pages and input from tens of thousands of people to put together what officials are touting as Colorado’s first statewide water plan.

Yet, as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Natural Resources Department finishes its long-awaited second draft in the coming week, both critics and supporters doubt it’ll put forth many durable solutions to Colorado’s snowballing water shortages.

The plan’s first draft has a gaping hole. The heart of it, Chapter 10 – entitled “Legislative Recommendations” – is where the proposed fixes are supposed to be. So far, it has been left blank.

The administration promises to write the second draft “as an action plan that will include legislative recommendations as well as a variety of administration actions” the agency can take on its own.

But “action” can be a subjective term.

The plan is expected to list conceptual goals rather than requirements. It’s likely, for example, to recommend cutting water usage by 400,000 acre-feet a year – roughly enough for about 800,000 families – through conservation. But there would be no teeth if, as expected, it doesn’t specify how and among which water users such ambitious conservation would be gleaned

John Stulp, the Governor’s water policy advisor, says the non-prescriptive approach is consistent with Hickenlooper’s style of governing.

“Colorado’s very big on local control. Mandates just don’t do very well in this state,” he said this week from his wheat field near Lamar. “The Governor isn’t going to say ‘Do this. Do that.’ He likes to develop consensus about concepts amongst folks who haven’t gotten along so well in the past.”
In the meantime, several water experts say the plan is shaping up to be less of a plan than hoped.

Committing only to theoretical frameworks and so-called “no and low regret actions” in the short-term, some say, won’t solve shortages that will increase with long-term population growth and climate change. The state’s shortfall is expected to spike to 500,000 acre-feet – the amount of water it would take to supply more than 2 million people – by 2050. If there’s no pain now, some warn, there won’t be much gain moving forward, and Colorado runs the risk of a water crisis like California’s, or bigger.

“I’d say the word ‘plan‘ is misused here,” said Pat Mulroy, a Nevada-based water expert with the Brookings Institution, after reading the first draft.

“It’s a nice compendium of issues and subject matters of all things water in Colorado, but it’s not an action plan,” added Jim Lochhead, head of Denver Water, the big water-rights holder on the Front Range.

“It doesn’t set an agenda for what Colorado needs to do in order to meet the challenges facing the state.”

Russ George, former speaker of Colorado’s House and Gov. Bill Owens’ natural resources chief, defends the grassroots statewide planning process he has helped lead for more than a decade. But, he says, if you’re looking for specifics on how to make up for water shortfalls, you won’t find them in the state water plan.

“Would we have liked all of this work and information to have produced really fantastic solutions? Yes. But nothing like that is going to occur,” he told The Independent..

“You’ve got to realize that sometimes the plan is the process. I don’t feel the need for any of us to get hung up on the plan piece of this thing.”

* * *

George, 69, grew up on his family’s farm near Rifle. A water lawyer by trade, he says he has been in the business since age 10 when his dad taught him how to irrigate their 160 acres of barley.

A longtime critic of the havoc Colorado’s “first-in-time, first-in-right” water laws can play on water policy, George has championed a collaborative approach that brings together senior and junior water-rights holders to discuss how to live within the state’s dwindling groundwater and river supplies.
After the drought of 2002 and 2003, he set up a series of roundtable discussions in each of Colorado’s nine river basins. The urgency water interests felt about those years’ dustbowl conditions convinced them to try a new form of conversation.

“There’s a recognition in the water community that when things are done in desperation you come up with very bad solutions that could be much worse than if you had planned to begin with,” said Denver water lawyer Alan Curtis. “You can’t kick the can down the road because suddenly there’s a wall waiting and they’re going to start taking water away from people who are going to sue.”

From the start of the roundtable talks, George asked all participants to come up with two lists: what they need, and what they’re willing to give up so somebody else can have what they need.

“We tried to move the decision-making away from the old places of ‘I have the money and the right and the power, so I can do what I want,’ to, ‘We all need to be at the table together’,” he said.

A decade and hundreds of roundtable meetings later, the approach has succeeded in garnering grassroots involvement in one of the state’s most pressing public policy issues. It also has managed to bring together adversaries within river basins who used to communicate with each other only in water court.
In the Colorado River basin, for example, cattle people, irrigators, municipal planners, anglers and conservationists have for years now been meeting once a month on Mondays, mid-day, at the recreation center in Glenwood Springs. Players in the Yampa/White basin meet quarterly on Wednesdays in a community center in Craig.

It’s a measure of the roundtables’ success that, despite participants’ competing views on water use, they sometimes share donuts, coffee and pictures of their grandkids before or after meetings.
But the approach has a key flaw: Participants have been far more amenable to answering the first part of George’s question – what water they need – than the second part – what they’re willing to give up. It’s no surprise. Water wars and an ethos of “not one more drop” date back to before statehood when the “Colorado doctrine” of prior appropriation was set in the 1860s. The doctrine holds that the first person to use or divert water for a “beneficial” use gets first rights to it.

State planners are scrambling to pull together input from ten years of roundtable discussions, plus scores of emails and letters from the general public, before releasing the second draft of the water plan next week. It’s a lofty task, given that most input has been heavy on problems and light on solutions.

“So far, the plan is more of a description of what is rather than what will be,” said Colorado Water Congress chief Doug Kemper.

The issue of what Chapter 10 will and won’t include is a touchy one.
Kemper paused when asked if he expects it to list any meaty solutions.

“I don’t have an expectation about that. I just don’t have an expectation about that,” he said.
Later, he elaborated.

“Look, I don’t think it’s a realistic expectation to come up with a grandiose water plan that’s a blueprint that everybody’s going to follow,” he said. “As a member of the public, what I would want to know is that the document reflects public input and values, and that the state took that into account.”
Putting forth solutions amounts to political fire juggling in a state whose Western Slope has 70 percent of the surface water and 11 percent of the population, while the Front Range makes up 75 percent of the state’s economy. Colorado is split geographically, demographically and politically when it comes to water. Any way you cut it, a plan dictating major reforms is likely, in legal and political terms, to be a losing proposition.

“Which politician is going to feel like they have sufficient public cover to adopt it?” Brookings’ Mulroy said. “Let’s face it. If there were a real plan, people would be loading their guns about now.

This (plan) is probably as good as you’re going to get unless you’re in a crisis mode like California.”

* * *

Hickenlooper made a shrewd choice of who would lead the water planning process.

James Eklund had worked as one of his legal counsels and as a natural resources lawyer for the Attorney General’s office before the Governor picked him to direct the Colorado Water Conservation Board. It helps that Eklund is what Hickenlooper isn’t – a fifth generation Coloradan who grew up not only on the Western Slope, but also in a farming family.

It also helps that Eklund knows a bit about politics, having studied the subject at Stanford and later worked as a driver to Ken Salazar, the AG turned U.S. senator turned U.S. interior secretary. He shares with Salazar the unique ability to navigate as well on cattle ranches he does in the conference rooms of 17th Street white-shoe law firms.

As Eklund tells it, the water plan already is a huge accomplishment, at least from the perspective of how many people have become involved. Through May, it had generated more than 24,000 public comments touching on every aspect of water use in the state. His staff has responded to every one.

“The process is a success in itself,” Eklund says.

But how will the state measure the success of the content rather than just the process? That’s a little tougher to define.

Eklund told The Independent last week that progress is being made on the more detailed elements of the plan, which will look at regional suggestions submitted by the basin roundtables and put forth reasonable outcomes – at least in concept. He says the plan and process need to be able to adapt and morph as circumstances such as growth, drought and climate change shape the future. There’s also a need for “agility” in state water law and federal regulatory processes in order for the plan to be successful, he added.

All in all, he downplays expectations for Chapter 10.

“No one solution is a silver bullet,” Eklund noted. “We have to have a package solution that includes storage and conservation. We can’t conserve our way out of this.”
The issue of water storage – dams, reservoirs and other systems linked with massive delivery systems known as “trans-mountain diversions” – is the third rail of Colorado water policy.

The Front Range wants more storage facilities, or at least the option to build them, so it can shore up supplies to keep up with population growth. The Western Slope agricultural community, intent on keeping its water west of the continental divide, says no way. Environmentalists and sports-folks want cities and farmers to conserve more to ensure enough river flow to protect outdoor recreation, plants and critters.

Two polls that came out last year showed 90 percent of Colorado voters want to keep our rivers healthy and flowing.

“We want this plan to include funding to protect rivers across the state. It should be a river plan, not just a water plan,” says Bart Miller, Western Resource Advocates’ water program director.

WRA and other environmental groups are pushing for aggressive urban conservation goals like ones passed in other states seeking to cut usage 20 percent over 20 years.

On the issues of conservation targets and more storage projects, water interests have dug in their feet.
George, who serves as vice chair of the Water Conservation Board, said he always expected by this point in the roundtable process to be able to answer the puzzle of how to ease the blow of projected shortfalls.

“That question just gets more intense the farther we move along. So the question here at the 11th hour is whether there’s water anywhere in Colorado that can be moved from where it is to greater use to more people, the Front Range,” he said. “Underlying all of this is great fear: Are we just going to take the water from agriculture to the cities for domestic use? Because that’s what happens if we do nothing.”

It’s in this context of political pressure and fear that Eklund and his staff have struggled to come up with actionable solutions. Scrambling to fill in the glaring blankness of the much-anticipated Chapter 10, they last week put before a state-formed water committee 160 questions about possible fixes.
Some sources say those talks fell apart because of a hesitancy to propose legislation, regulation or change.

As George tells it, the suggestions are “still lingering.”

“You have to understand that the staff doesn’t want to make policy decisions. Those are political judgment calls. So it’s hard slogging.”

* * *

Herein lies the downside of the grassroots approach.

Water users within each of the river basins have made progress discussing their regional needs. But now there’s distrust among the water basins – especially Western Slope versus Front Range – whose participants perceive the process has pitted their basins against others.

No matter how many basin roundtable meetings the state holds, no matter how many public comments it solicits, and no matter how many public-comment emails planners respond to, devising the fix-it part of the plan calls for exactly what the administration hoped to avoid. It requires top-down decisions that either manage to bring all the basins together or, more practically, show a willingness, if needed, to uphold certain political interests above others.

Factors such as cost come into play: Without help from the feds, like Colorado used to receive for new water projects, can the state afford such massive expenditures?

And there are economic repercussions to weigh: Will new businesses and families keep moving to Colorado if, like lately in drought-savaged California, the plan would require them to cut back on watering their lawns or filling their hot tubs?

And there are political calculations to make: Do lawmakers – already bitterly divided with a split legislature, tensions between urban and rural concerns, and pressures of an election year – have the fortitude to pass any meaningful water use bills? And what would Hickenlooper’s legacy be if, uncharacteristically, he tried to dictate aggressive water use reform?

“You have tens of thousands of comments here. Somebody needs to decide which input is valid or invalid. Someone needs to make sense out of the chaos. That’s a subjective process,” Mulroy said.
And it’s a process that by definition is far from grassroots. It takes expertise about the legal and political complexities of water policy.

“You have people who aren’t in the water business who are expressing their views. Can tens of thousand of individual comments produce some vision?” said Denver Water’s Lochhead. “At the end of the day, there needs to be some leadership to produce action.

“Someone needs to step up and move forward.”

It’s not enough, Lochhead says, for the plan to assert broad value statements such as the needs to protect Colorado’s farms and ranches, preserve future options for undeveloped water and conserve. As he puts it, those are just platitudes.

Lochhead has lists of specific, measurable solutions that include enforcing conservation through the state’s permitting processes, offering incentives for more green architecture, allowing Coloradans to capture rainwater, encouraging use of more recycled or “gray water” and increasing efficiency in irrigation systems.

He also has asked the administration to set ground-rules for water negotiations, “defining what needs to be done and who are the parties that are going to get together by date-certain to develop a solution.”
In other words, he wants a Chapter 10 with details and deadlines, and a commitment to pushing all parties beyond their own interests. Even his water district’s own.

“There’s still a very real opportunity both in Chapter 10 and throughout the plan to articulate a path forward and a plan for meeting our needs, saving our rivers and setting goals that citizens around the state can rise up and achieve,” Miller said.

The administration had calculated that if Chapter 10 is too robust, Hickenlooper could face the stigma of messing with water users’ property rights á la California Gov. Jerry Brown. But if Chapter 10 turns out to be just conceptual, proposing no meaningful action items, Hickenlooper could face the perception of weakness and the dubious distinction of having championed a water plan without a plan.

For the water plan to succeed, it requires a delicate balance between political pragmatism and leadership. If it swings too far either way, it likely will be mothballed in some library’s Western history section, as was Colorado’s first statewide plan – from 1974.

“Yes, that’s right. It’ll come as news to a lot of people that this isn’t in fact our first state water plan,” Kemper said. “The reason nobody’s heard of the first plan is because it had no impact.”

Marianne Goodland contributed to this story.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Coloradans urge water fixes: Take Mississippi River water, ban fracking, close borders — The Colorado Independent #COWaterPlan

July 3, 2015

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons, Flickr

From The Colorado Independent (Marianne Goodland):

I’m a Coloradan and I drink water.”

That’s how several letters to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in response to the state water plan begin. The statement may be valid, but it’s not going to solve a predicted water shortage over the next 35 years or contribute much to a state water plan, ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper, intended to address the looming crisis.
According to a 2010 study, Colorado may be short as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2050, due largely to an expected doubling of the state’s population. That’s about 1.6 trillion gallons of water.
The water conservation board has been seeking public input both into the development of the plan and on its first draft, which was released last December.

A second draft is expected in the next few weeks. A third draft will likely be released in September, with more public comment solicited. The plan is to be finalized and sent to the governor in December.

Coloradans flooded the CWCB with more than 24,000 emails and letters in the past 18 months, beginning when Hickenlooper mandated the plan’s development.

The CWCB staff is responding to every comment – no small feat for less than 50 people.

Many thousands of comments were easy-to-dismiss form letters and form emails. But thousands of Coloradans wrote to the CWCB to express concerns about the status of Colorado’s water and what should be done to improve it.
The vast majority of the comments were thoughtful, well-informed and came from Coloradans from every walk of life, including school teachers, college students, farmers, ranchers, elected officials at every level and retirees.

While many are long-time Colorado residents, with some whose families go back four generations, one person who commented said that she’d just moved to Colorado a year ago.

All of the input showed what CWCB Director James Eklund called “strong public engagement” with the issue.
The comments touched on every aspect of the water plan, although water conservation was the dominant theme.

“As far as I can tell, there is little emphasis on education about water conservation. In our household, our water usage is about half that of other households because we make an effort to conserve,” wrote one Coloradan.
But another person, who also called for more education about water conservation, complained that he witnesses a guy at the local YMCA who takes showers that are way too long.

And then there were those with some seemingly off-beat ideas about how to save Colorado water. Gary Hausler suggested importing water from east of Colorado, including from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

It’s not the first time somebody has proposed pumping in water from the Midwest. Two lawmakers during the 2015 session proposed studying the feasibility of extending a Kansas pipeline that brings in Missouri River water to the Eastern Plains. That bill, House Bill 15-1167, won approval from the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee but later died in the House Appropriations Committee.

Hausler is a proponent of piping in water from the Mississippi, south of Cairo, Illinois, to add one million acre-feet of water to Colorado.

“The Mississippi represents an immense source of unused water that meets Colorado’s future needs and eliminates the need for ag dry-up and additional trans-mountain diversions,” he wrote. (In Colorado, 80 percent of the water for the Eastern Plains comes through a system of 24 tunnels that travel through the Continental Divide from the Western Slope and its major rivers, including the Roaring Fork and Colorado.)

But Hausler said the proposal has been ignored and derided for years for political reasons, and he was careful to add that he has no financial interest in the proposal.

The CWCB staff replied that importing water from the Midwest has been studied and is not believed to be feasible for many reasons. However, the idea has been discussed by the various basin roundtable groups, the staff replied.
Colorado has eight major river basins. Each river basin has a roundtable group, plus a ninth, representing the Denver Metro area. The groups are made up of local governments, water districts and other representatives. Each basin roundtable developed its own recommendations for the state water plan.

Hausler’s suggestion was similar to one made months earlier by Brenda Miller, who called transferring water from the Western Slope to the Eastern Slope “futile” and a reflection of Denver’s “urban sociopathology.”
Look to a place with surplus, Miller suggested, such as the Missouri River, an “easy 400 to 500 miles from Denver.”

Another commenter wanted to offer his high-tech ag services to solve the predicted water shortage: “I have invented a growing system that uses less than half the water and produces more end product than conventional methods. It will save more water than I can claim,” said Larry Smith, who did not elaborate on his system.

Many letters dealt with a particular water use that writers believed ought to be curtailed: hydraulic fracking.
Sally Hempy wrote: “The biggest impact we can make in our Colorado waters is to outlaw the fossil fuel industry. You can’t protect one county that is free of fracking while the neighboring county mines, fracks and pollutes our acrifers (Note: aquifers).”

She also complained about runoff from agriculture and animal feedlots. “Let’s protect what we have!”

The CWCB staff said fracking doesn’t need a lot of water compared to other uses, such as power plants, and that the plan does not make a “value judgment” on any specific water use.

At least two letters suggested another ban: the livestock industry.

Jerry Daidian suggested eliminating “production of livestock feed as a beneficial use…The disproportionate use of Colorado’s [river] water by the livestock industry lies at the core of the problem.”

Other writers suggested Colorado close its borders and stop shipping water to other states.

Mary Ratz wrote that the state’s precipitation “is ours to use. We should not have to let ANY of it flow to other states and should not have to prove we own that water and that we need all of it. This is a state RIGHT, not for the federal government’s to decide.”

She also noted the Colorado River “is all ours” and shouldn’t be watering lawns in Las Vegas or any of the lower Colorado River basin states (Nevada, Arizona, California and New Mexico).

CWCB staff responded, trying to explain interstate compacts, Congressionally-approved agreements between states that govern just how much water goes from a headwater state, like Colorado, to its downriver states.

But by this spring, the CWCB staff had a different suggestion: The writer should read the “Citizen’s Guide to Interstate Compacts,” produced by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.

Then there was the comment from Jeremy Davis: “Please lay-off. We are not merely cannon fodder. We are people with lives, dreams, and families. Leave our water alone. Allow us the opportunity to be.”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage <a href="

Figuring Colorado’s water future no easy task — The Fort Morgan Times #COWaterPlan

July 2, 2015
Flooded corn crop September 2013

Flooded corn crop September 2013

From The Fort Morgan Times (Marianne Goodland):

It’s hard to imagine, in the midst of flooded fields and basements, the possibility that Colorado could face a major water shortage sometime in the next several decades.

But Colorado this year is just now coming out of its latest drought, and another is never far away. And Colorado officials expect the state’s population to grow by almost double in the next few decades. That means more water will be needed than Mother Nature can provide.

That’s one of the reasons the state is putting together its first comprehensive water plan, to manage future droughts and future population increases.

In the next several weeks, the Colorado Water Conservation Board will release the next draft of the statewide water plan. It’s been in the works officially for two years, although basin roundtable and other groups have been looking at the state’s water situation since just after the 2002 drought…

James Eklund, director of the CWCB, said it’s easier to plan for the state’s water future when Colorado isn’t in a drought, as opposed to California, which is imposing emergency restrictions. California is in the fourth year of its drought, and that state’s emergency restrictions recently began extending to agriculture…

The heart of the plan is proposals submitted by the state’s nine basin roundtables. The state has eight major basins, so there’s a roundtable for each, made up of representatives from agriculture, recreation, local and domestic water providers, industrial and environmental interests. Five additional members must hold water rights or have a contract for federal water. A ninth roundtable represents the Denver Metro area.

Each basin roundtable submitted what’s called a Basin Implementation Plan (BIP). Denver and the South Platte River Basin Roundtable submitted a joint plan. Suggestions on how to manage Colorado’s water future come from those BIPs.

The draft state plan explains that one of the most controversial issues around water is the diversion of water from the Western Slope to the Eastern part of the state. The South Platte/Denver roundtable BIP said the groups believe in preservation of the state’s ability to use water from the Colorado River. That water is governed by a series of compacts with four “lower basin” states: California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. One of the concerns is that a “compact call” could require the state send more water to those lower basin states, which would put agriculture more at risk in Colorado. Eklund says a compact call is not likely anytime in the next ten years.

The South Platte/Denver BIP notes that the basin is a key economic driver that includes seven of the top ten agricultural-producing counties in Colorado. The BIP estimates the water gap in the South Platte/Denver basin by 20950 at 428,000 acre-feet for municipal and industrial use, and 422,000 acre-feet for irrigated agriculture. Morgan County’s projected gap is the largest in northeastern Colorado, at more than 12,000 acre-feet.

The South Platte/Denver basin faces significant challenges in the lifespan of the plan. That includes competition for water, continued transfers of agricultural water rights to municipalities and industrial water users, and a significant need for more storage. Lack of storage is forcing the area to rely on groundwater, which is water that resides below ground, often in aquifers.

The South Platte/Denver BIP presents a number of solutions for the area and for cooperation with the state’s other basins.

Currently, the area’s growing water demands are met largely by agricultural transfers: selling water rights to other users, mostly municipal and industrial, such as oil and gas. It’s a touchy subject, according to state water czar John Stulp: how to preserve agricultural water rights and at the same time recognize that those rights are private property. The BIP notes this, calling for a system where farmers can “decide for themselves how to manage those water rights while maintaining their right to use or sell” them. That system, at the same time, must include new ways to conduct those transfers to minimize the impact on the rest of the area. Those impacts are frequently economic: once water rights are permanently transferred, the community can suffer through loss of economic activity.

People often point to Crowley County, in southeastern Colorado, as what that looks like. Most of the water rights in Crowley County were sold off in the 1970s to municipal water providers; farming is nearly non-existent and the land has reverted to prairie grassland. The county now relies on a private prison as its major economic engine; fully 45 percent of the county’s population are prison inmates.

While the state has already taken steps to minimize the impact of “buy and dry” for agricultural water rights, the BIP suggests much more can be done. The BIP calls for additional water from the Colorado River, a suggestion that makes Western Slope residents nervous; and additional storage, either in reservoirs or in below ground aquifers.

The BIP also calls for new multi-purpose water storage in the basin area and to look for ways to more effectively use groundwater.

But storage costs money. A lot of money. The statewide water plan estimates a cost of $18 to $20 billion to fully implement the plan. That’s not all going to be paid for by the state: the plan lists more than a dozen financing options, including bonding and public/private partnerships.

The next draft of the statewide plan, due in July, will include legislative recommendations, although Stulp recently said they hope to avoid asking for a lot of new laws to implement parts of the plan. Another draft is likely in September; the final plan is due to the governor in December.

In the meantime, watch for another round of public hearings on the statewide water plan. The legislature’s interim water resources review committee will be part of a statewide tour that will visit each basin area. For the South Platte, that meeting is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Island Grove Event Center in Greeley. The Denver Metro hearing will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 15 in the Aurora City Council Chambers.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Water Lines: Colorado water leaders set ambitious conservation goals #COWaterPlan

June 26, 2015

Basin roundtable boundaries

Basin roundtable boundaries

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

Discussions and disputes over how to meet the water needs of Colorado’s growing population typically revolve around the proper balance between taking additional water from agriculture, taking additional water from the West Slope to the Front Range, and conservation.

Conservation would seem to be the low-hanging fruit, but the nuts and bolts of how to conserve enough to avoid more transfers from agriculture or the West Slope is not as easy as it may at first appear. That scale of conservation is more than can easily be achieved simply through newer, more efficient appliances and tactics like Denver Water’s highly effective “use only what you need” campaign.

Cutting deeper into household water demands would likely require some kind of mandate, on either personal behavior or land development patterns (smaller lots equal less outdoor watering), and that flies in the face of deeply held values on private property rights and local control. From a planning perspective, it’s also harder to calculate how much water you can save from possible future changes in people’s behavior than how much water you can get from a new pipeline or water rights purchase.

These reasons played into the modest approach to conservation in the part of the first draft of Colorado’s water plan that set out “no and low regrets actions,” which are those actions that should be helpful no matter what the future brings in terms of population growth, climate change and public attitudes. This portion of the plan calls for establishing a “medium” level of conservation that would achieve 340,000 acre feet per year of water savings. An acre foot is enough water to cover an acre of land one foot deep, and it is enough to serve two to three households for a year at current use rates. Following a number of public comments and statements calling for higher conservation goals from the West Slope “basin roundtables” of stakeholders and water managers tasked with planning for their own river basins, state leaders are moving towards setting the bar higher.

On June 22, Taylor Hawes of the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC), which includes representatives from basin roundtables across the state, told the Colorado Basin Roundtable that the IBCC’s subcommittee on conservation was developing a “stretch goal” to achieve an additional 60,000 acre feet per year of savings for a total of 400,000 acre feet per year. Hawes reported that the committee is proposing that this goal be pursued in a way that respects local control and involves additional monitoring to determine what really works and whether the goal needs to be adjusted up or down.

Depending on how this work is received by the full IBCC and the basin roundtables, this is one of the changes that may make its way into the next draft of the Colorado Water Plan, which is due to be released in the middle of July, with a public comment period lasting until Sept. 17.

To learn more about the Colorado Water Plan and find out how to submit your own comments, go to http://coloradowaterplan.com. You can also plan to attend one of the public hearings the legislatures Water Resource Review Committee is holding on the plan. West Slope hearings will be held July 20 in Durango, July 21 in Montrose, July 22 in Craig, and Aug. 12 in Grandby.

For details, visit http://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cga-legislativecouncil/2015-water-resources-review-committee.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center at http://www.Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or http://www.Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

More conservation coverage here.

CWCB: The June 2015 #Drought Update is hot off the presses

June 25, 2015

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of US Drought Monitor maps for late-June for the past 5 years.

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Taryn Finnessey/Tracy Kosloff):

A cool and wet May has eliminated drought conditions across much of Colorado. With 31 weather stations recording the wettest month ever, statewide May 2015 was the wettest May since record keeping began in 1895. In total much of the state experienced 300% of normal May precipitation. June temperatures to-date have been slightly warmer than average and the short term forecast shows decreased likelihood of precipitation. Water providers are reporting full systems and below average demand compared to this time last year.

  • Water year-to-date precipitation at mountain SNOTEL sites, as of June 16, is at 97% of normal, an 11% improvement compared to the last drought update, due to record breaking May precipitation.
  • In the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins June precipitation to-date is 350% of normal, and has already exceeded average total June precipitation. Coupled with abundant May accumulation this region has received roughly 10 inches of precipitation since the beginning of May, leading to drought elimination in this area of the state.
  • Below tree-line, most basins have very little snow remaining at this time of year, although the cool and wet conditions over the last month have helped to slow melt off.
  • Cooler than average temperatures in May also contributed to greatly improved drought conditions, with most sites reporting below average evapotranspiration and some reporting record low evapotranspiration.
  • Reservoir Storage statewide is at 107% of average as of May 1st. Storage in the northern half of the state is above average with multiple basins near 110% of average. The Colorado River basin is experiencing its highest storage levels since the turn of the century. The Upper Rio Grande and the basins of Southwestern Colorado currently have the lowest storage at 66% and 89% of average, respectively. Both have seen below average storage levels for multiple years.
  • The Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) is abundant in all of the South Platte, and near normal is the Colorado River, Gunnison, and Arkansas, but showing spots of moderate to severe drought in the Upper Yampa, Conejos and the Piedra. The vast majority of the state has seen improvements in the SWSI since last month.
  • El Niño has continued to gain strength over the last few months and is poised to become a strong event, if not a “Super El Niño.” The last “Super El Niño” was in 1997 when Colorado experienced above average precipitation.
  • All long term forecasting tools indicate normal to above normal precipitation in the coming months, with some indication that the monsoon season may come early.

  • Farms and cities vie for South Platte River water — The Colorado Independent #COWaterPlan

    June 7, 2015


    From The Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

    The South Platte River is running big this year, and the mud in the fields around Sterling is boot-deep. Water is everywhere, overflowing levees near the pastures, corn and hayfields north of town. The swales along roadsides and railroad tracks are swamped, and backyards are squishy, so the ranchers are in the coffee shops, waiting it out.

    “Too wet to get in the fields,” a ranchhand says over a Baja burger at the drive-in. “But we’ve had plenty of dry years lately … 2012, it got really bad,” he says, referring to the over-heated summer three years ago that baked all of Colorado. Demand for water soared, sapping supplies so fast that the gauges couldn’t keep up.

    “But right now, it’s hard to believe you could run out of water,” he says, shaking his head at the giant puddles around his muddy truck outside.


    Along the highway, the brawny, braided river has swamped giant cottonwoods, stripping the bark clean off and leaving 15-foot stumps. It may be too muddy for tractors, but the red-winged blackbirds are loving it, plucking fat worms out of the soggy ditches.
    And across town, on the high ground of the local golf course, other water watchers, armed with Powerpoints and iPads, also talked about the surging South Platte. Tapping some of those high flows could help prevent the mid-century water shortage projected by state planners.


    The population of the South Platte River Basin – Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Longmont and Greeley – may double in size in the next 35 years. A draft version of Colorado’s developing water plan says there just won’t be enough water for all those people, let alone farmers and ranchers out on the Plains, who are always worried the cities will siphon off the rivers before the water reaches the fields.

    Channeling some of the water into reservoirs away from the main stream could be a way to boost supplies for the entire South Platte Basin, said Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.

    “We need to see a few more buckets and infrastructure. We’re in the heart of it here in Sterling,” Frank said, referring to the constant tussle over water between ranchers and farmers and the big Front Range cities of the South Platte Basin.
    Working River

    The 22,000-square-mile South Platte Basin starts up high at the Continental Divide in South Park and encompasses beloved tributary streams that are household names in Colorado: the Big Thompson, Cache la Poudre, and St. Vrain rivers; and Boulder, Clear, and Cherry creeks.


    By the time the South Platte flows into Nebraska at Julesberg, it has earned its reputation as Colorado’s hardest working river, for supplying drinking water to millions and sustaining tens of thousands of acres of hay and corn fields and huge tracts of grazing. Most of what is grown is fed to cows at regional dairies and ranches.


    The water plan, ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013, is nearing completion, with a final draft due July 15. Filling the projected water shortage is a key goal.

    The plan relies heavily on regional versions from nine major river basins included in the plan: the Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, Metro, North Platte, Rio Grande, South Platte, Southwest and the Yampa/White.

    The new statewide plan will build on about 10 years worth of planning in those basins, each facing distinctive challenges. The Rio Grande Basin, for example, is concerned about erratic forecasts for stream flows that make allocating water more difficult, while the people in the Yampa Basin worry that water could be taken out of their beloved free-flowing river.

    The huge projected gap in the South Platte Basin may be the biggest nut to crack, but it can be done. New water pipelines and reservoirs could help, but the state’s numbers show that a focus on massive water savings and modernization in cities and on farms can go a long way to ensuring the sustainable water future sought by the plan.

    And if a proposal for a new project from one of the basins can do the nearly impossible, by helping cities, factories, farms and the environment, it could be targeted for state support, in the form of grants or legislation, as part of the final plan.


    Historically, the South Platte Basin has looked outside its own boundaries, bringing in massive quantities of water from west of the Continental Divide, but this is a new era, according to water experts who helped shape the South Platte Basin’s regional plan.

    That means finding water within the basin that hasn’t already been claimed by someone else, said consultant Matt Cook. Another option would be to enlarge existing reservoirs, like Empire, near Wiggins — but any of those projects would need some type of pumpback system to bring water where it’s needed, he said.

    As part of the regional talks leading up to the statewide plan, farmers and cities have already had some preliminary discussions, said Jim Yahn, a farmer from the Sterling area who serves on the board of the local irrigation district.

    Along with increasing supplies for cities, water from the South Platte River could also boost the fortunes of farmers around Sterling all the way to the Nebraska border, where there are tens of thousand of acres of fertile land that don’t have access to irrigation water, Yahn said.


    “It all sounds good, but basically, we’re just trying to hold our own for agriculture,” Yahn said. “The real money would come from municipalities,” he added, acknowledging the huge cost of building new reservoirs and pipelines.

    Yahn said there are also some technical challenges. When the river is high, there’s no way to use existing equipment to take more water, he said.

    “Us ag people look at this all the time. The farmers need to be as one,” he said.

    Featured image: Bob Berwyn. High flows in the South Platte River inundate farmlands near Sterling during the wet spring of 2015.

    More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

    Colorado Water: Dueling comments on #COWaterPlan — The Aspen Times

    June 2, 2015
    Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office

    Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

    From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Times:

    In letters sent this spring about the draft Colorado Water Plan, both the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Ruedi Water and Power Authority told state officials that growing Front Range cities should not be looking west for more water.

    “In short, there is no more water to develop in the Colorado Basin for a new transmountain diversion,” said Rick LaFaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, in an April 30 letter to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

    And Mark Fuller, executive director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, told the water board in an April 14 letter that “the undeveloped water-diversion rights in the upper Roaring Fork and the upper Fryingpan basins continue to be a significant local concern. Development and diversion of these waters would touch off significant controversy, and a state water plan that encourages or facilitates that development would be seen locally as a failure.”

    Meanwhile, two of the biggest Front Range water utilities, Northern Water and Aurora Water, have sent recent comment letters in support of new water-storage projects and potential transmountain diversions.

    “There is little to no mention of transmountain diversions” in the “water-supply projects and methods” chapter of the draft water plan, said Joseph Stibrich, the deputy director of water resources for Aurora Water, who wrote to the water board April 29.

    “The concept is alluded to in the summary of the basin implementation plans, but the option should be recognized upfront in this section,” Stribrich wrote. “A short discussion would be appropriate that at least some of the basins believe transmountain diversions will still be a viable option.”

    Aurora Water diverts water under the Continental Divide from both the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan river headwaters, with about 2,600 acre-feet per year coming off the Fryingpan and 2,900 acre-feet coming off the top of the Roaring Fork.

    On April 28, Northern Water, which serves eight counties in northeastern Colorado with water, including water from the Colorado River basin, sent a letter to the Colorado Water Conservation Board from Eric Wilkinson, the general manager of Northern, and Jim Hall, a Northern project manager.

    Under the heading “Value of Additional Storage,” Wilkinson and Hall wrote in their letter that “the Water Plan should clearly articulate and advocate the value of storage in meeting the water supply gap for a multitude of consumptive and non-consumptive uses.”

    The comment letters are just four of the approximately 1,000 unique letters the water board has received as it has developed a draft — and now a final — version of the Colorado Water Plan. The final plan is due on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk by Dec. 10.

    Agency officials say they have read every comment they’ve gotten, including the 23,000 comments they’ve received as letters or emails, mainly as a result of calls to action by environmental groups.

    “We know what the messages are, and we know what you’re interested in, and we also know how you want us to change the plan and we’re working on it,” Kate McIntire, the outreach, education and public engagement coordinator for the water board, said during a May 20 presentation to the board on comments about the water plan.

    But as the letters from just four organizations show, there is still an agreement gap in Colorado when it comes to new potential water projects, especially transmountain diversions, and that gap may be difficult to resolve in the water plan. [ed. emphasis mine]

    For example, Lofaro told the state in his letter that the Conservancy “does not promote the use of transmountain diversions to meet future water demands without first considering reuse, conservation, and first developing in-basin water supply projects.”

    And Fuller said in his letter that even if new dams and reservoirs are built on the Western Slope, downstream demands will prevent more water from being sent east.

    “If at some point more water is available in the Colorado Basin, for instance, than is required for immediate domestic, industrial and agricultural uses, the excess water should be seen as a long-term insurance policy for the entire upper Colorado Basin and not as a convenient target for water-needy areas elsewhere in the state.

    “The ongoing drought in downriver states such as California and the low-water situations in Lake Mead and Lake Powell indicate that the Colorado River and other waterways on the western side of the Continental Divide will be subject to more pressure from lower in the basin in the future,” Fuller wrote. “New water developments on the Western Slope will act to keep existing transmountain diversions in priority but will not necessarily support additional transmountain diversions.”

    In addition to having different viewpoints on how the potential for transmountain diversions should be featured in the Colorado Water Plan, the two entities in the Roaring Fork watershed also disagree about the process the state is using to discuss potential new diversions.

    Seven-point draft conceptual agreement framework for negotiations on a future transmountain diversion screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

    Seven-point draft conceptual agreement framework for negotiations on a future transmountain diversion screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

    Aurora Water points to a draft conceptual framework developed by the Interbasin Compact Committee, which serves as an executive committee for the nine river-basin roundtables in the state, as the best way to proceed regarding a potential new transmountain diversion.

    “The IBCC Conceptual Framework … provides the framework whereby new Colorado River Basin supply options could be investigated and potentially developed,” Stibrich wrote in a passage of language that he suggested should be included in the water plan.

    But both the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Ruedi Water and Power Authority see the committee’s conceptual framework differently.

    Lofaro told the Colorado Water Conservation Board “a more open process fostering public engagement and comporting with the overall framework of the Colorado Water Plan is necessary to deal with a topic as important as any new transmountain diversion. Instead, the draft conceptual framework lacks public input and is a ‘top down’ product of a small coterie rather than the much wider group of stakeholders envisioned in the governor’s executive order and Colorado law.”

    And Fuller told the state that “the IBCC Conceptual Framework must not be characterized as a pathway to future transmountain diversions. Instead, it is a menu of considerations that can form the basis for evaluation of transbasin diversions in comparison with all other alternative methods of meeting future water needs.”

    The first version of the final Colorado Water Plan is expected to be made public as part of the packet for the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s next board meeting, which is July 15 in Ignacio. The packet is typically made public at least a week before the meetings.

    At that time, the public will be able to see how the board’s staff has incorporated the conflicting comments the agency has received, read and posted at the Colorado Water Plan website at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com under the “Get Involved” tab.

    And even after the first version of the final water plan is released in July, the Colorado Water Conservation Board will continue to take comments on it until Sept. 17.

    Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on the coverage of water and rivers. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

    More Colorado Wate Plan coverage here.


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