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 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

More Colorado Wate Plan coverage here.

‘Where’s the beef’ in Colorado’s water plan? — The Colorado Independent

June 1, 2015

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

From The Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

“What could we do to make that final plan have teeth?”

The first draft of Colorado’s new water plan offered plenty of background information about the state’s water, but didn’t say exactly what can be done to avoid a looming water-supply gap. By 2050, the state could be short billions of gallons per year — twice as much as Denver now uses annually.

A shortfall that big could crimp Colorado’s economy and put even more pressure on rivers and streams that have been nearly tapped out by thirsty cities and farms, Gov. John Hickenlooper said two years ago, when he ordered state agencies to build the first-ever statewide water plan.
Now, just half a year away from the deadline, conservation-minded state planners are polishing up a visionary final draft of the plan, due July 15, for one final public review before going back to Hickenlooper and the State Legislature, to be buffeted by Colorado’s political winds.
Aiming to answer what can be done to prevent a water crisis, Colorado Water Conservation Board experts previewed a new action-plan at a late-May water summit in Sterling — a pep-talk to rally CWCB directors and dozens of other water chiefs from around the state for the final round of planning.

For starters, all the info compiled for the plan shows clearly that conservation alone could fill most of the much-feared water gap, state planners said, referring to an aspirational goal of saving 400,000 acre feet of water each year — about three times the capacity of Cherry Creek Reservoir or the amount of water that would fit in 200,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

But it will require more than just fixing leaky faucets and pipes, using modern low-flow toilets and showers and upgrading irrigation systems on farms.

The only way to get there is by instilling “a water efficiency ethic throughout Colorado,” the new action list states.

That may sound vague, but it’s probably the philosophical fountain from which all other actions will flow. If there’s no will, there’s no way. And it’s not clear whether the ballyhooed Colorado water planning effort will break years of political inertia, said Lawrence MacDonnell, a natural resources law scholar at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

MacDonnell led an academic review team that issued a report on the draft plan in April, finding that it offers little in the way of specifics. “As written, the Draft is not really a plan; it is a summary of a process that has identified problems … ” the reviewers wrote.

At this point, the new action list is still full of words like “improve, research, explore, strengthen, consider, monitor, encourage and support.” Nothing seems concrete.

The plan’s bureaucratic tone peaks with this golden nugget: The plan will “establish a process to identify processes” to address the water gap.

“Where’s the beef?” said MacDonnell, acknowledging the difficult political challenges ahead. Even a simple step like requiring retailers to sell only certified water-efficient outdoor sprinklers would be controversial, since many people believe government has no business telling stores what to sell.

“You know how it is in Colorado,” MacDonnell said, referring to a general antipathy toward government control.

In fact, the new action-item list says the state should consider such sprinkler standards as a way to achieve measurable water savings.

But mandating water-efficient appliances would require state lawmakers to act, and the failure of this year’s rain-barrel bill is a clear sign that the Legislature is not exactly racing toward that enlightened water-efficiency ethic mentioned by the plan, MacDonnell said.

“I appreciate the fact that the state is constrained, but a lot more could be done than the draft plan suggests,” said MacDonnell, who served on an academic review panel that combed the first draft.

Similarly, it will take a lot more than just feel-good language to spur a shift in the way farmers and ranchers use water. Upgrading the massive pump, pipe and sprinkler networks used in modern irrigation is not trivial, MacDonnell said.

“It’s an enormous investment, and it’s hard to believe we’re going to come up with that kind of money,” he said.

From what he’s seen so far, the draft plan hasn’t found a way to grapple with the state’s most fundamental water issues, including how to connect land-use planning with water planning.

“What seems to be missing is what’s going to drive action among the thousands of players … What could we do to make that final plan have teeth?” he said.

Even though the big players are at the water-planning table, the effort hasn’t encompassed everyone.

“There are hundreds of these little water-supply organizations. Their immediate problem is trying to get water for their new developments, and they don’t have the resources to take on these issues, like thinking about wildlife or watershed health,” he said. “They’re often profit-driven entitities, or small cities just feeling the pressure of getting water supplies, and they can’t afford to take the big view,” he said.

New water ethic?

That’s why the overarching goal of creating a new water ethic in Colorado is so important, and that’s something that will only happen over time.

A water plan can help guide such transformation, but sometimes, shock treatment is the only thing that works, said University of California, Irvine, social scientist David Feldman, who recently completed a study of how Melbourne, Australia changed its cultural attitude about water during a drought so bad it got its own name — the Millennium Drought.

The greater-Melbourne region is home to about 4.3 million people – not so different from Colorado’s population – and they managed to cut their water consumption in half during a blistering 10-year dry streak, but not without some strict guidance from a regional water czar who had the power to force different water companies to work together, Feldman said. Since the drought, water savings have continued in Melbourne.

“In the American West, it’s hard to instill a conservation ethic without a drought to impel people to do so … and our water rights systems encourage using our water rights, or risking losing them,” he said. Under that structure, there’s little incentive to conserve water, he added.

“To avoid the worst case scenario, its probably best to realize that, here in the West, climate variability and change dictates that we … probably are entering a period where what we have today is the new normal.”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Can more plumbing save Colorado’s water? — The Colorado Independent #COWaterPlan

May 29, 2015


From The Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

When Colorado’s tourism marketing gurus wanted to show the world what the state is all about, they used television spots evoking the powerful call of wild rivers — hikers gazing at waterfalls, anglers wading in still, dawn-lit waters and kayakers and rafters paddling through whitewater. But are those images more myth or reality?

Most of the state’s water is private property, under lock and key.

Thousands of diversions – canals and pipelines — move water to where it’s needed for crops, factories and drinking water. This intricately engineered plumbing system has fundamentally reshaped Colorado’s landscape. Water diversions allow millions of people to live in the semi-desert rain-shadow east of the Rockies, and enable vast emerald alfalfa fields to thrive in the otherwise dry sagebrush steppe of the Western Slope.
Colorado’s new water plan is in large part about deciding whether and when there will be new diversions, who will benefit and who will pay for them.


Colorado, by law and policy, has actively promoted water development for more than 100 years. Thousands of miles of streams and rivers have been dammed, diverted and polluted to provide water for factories, farms, cities, mines and oil and gas operations. As a result, Colorado’s environment has suffered.


The evolving Colorado water plan talks about the importance of leaving waters in rivers, but finding the flexibility and “extra” water to account for environmental needs like native-Colorado-river fish won’t be easy.


Colorado, of course, is not alone. More than 30 percent of rivers in the United States are impaired or polluted. So much water is drawn from rivers that many no longer flow to the sea year-round. As a result, the extinction rate for freshwater animals like fish and mollusks is five time higher than for land animals.


The first draft of the new Colorado water plan recognizes that leaving water in rivers and streams is important, but it’s not clear whether the final version of the plan, due by the end of this year, will include any specific goals for for maintaining healthy streams.


All over the mountains and Western Slope, residents worry more water will be taken from rivers and streams to the Front Range. Many communities have allied themselves with conservation groups to ensure that streams aren’t dried up.


The evolving water plan acknowledges the environment, but when it comes to specific actions, water planners generally defer to Colorado water law, which puts few limits on using water for farms and towns, but says that rivers and streams can only get protection to “a reasonable degree,” a standard that is a moving target often subject to interpretation by courts.


Water development has enabled millions of Coloradans to water their lawns and golf courses, but at what cost? Conservation advocates decry calls for shipping more water from what’s left of mountain streams to irrigate grass in the dry plains of eastern Colorado, while Front Range cities, with more than 80 percent of the state’s population, seek to ensure sustainable water supplies for the future.


How will Coloradans decide to use our state’s water? Read The Colorado Independent’s first few stories on the water plan here, and visit the Colorado Water Plan website to learn how you can get involved.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Colorado Water Plan update #COWaterPlan #ColoradoRiver

May 28, 2015
Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs

From the Craig Daily Press (Tom Ross):

“Overall, 10 million acre-feet of water rises in the mountains of Colorado, annually,” speaker Jay Gallagher told his audience. “The state’s population will grow to 8.5 or perhaps 9 million people over the next 50 years, but we’re facing a flat-lining water supply. And 40 million people are sustained by Colorado River water. It’s a big deal. It’s our lifeblood It’s a hard-working river.”

Gallagher is general manager of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District in Steamboat Springs, but also sits on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is charged with assembling an overall state water plan from reports submitted by river basins all over the state. He was joined by Jackie Brown, district manager of the Routt County Conservation District.

Brown serves on the Yampa/White/Green river basin roundtable, which will contribute its own goals for water management to the CWCB for consideration in the statewide plan.

The rain that fell Tuesday night in the midst of what has turned out to be the wettest month of May on record in Steamboat Springs (6.33 inches of rain compared to the normal 2.24 inches for the month) amounts to an asterisk in a 35-year water plan, and there is a sense of urgency in the process, according to the speakers…

The big water buffalo in the room, however, was the possibility that powerful Front Range water interests will succeed in influencing the water plan to include a new trans-mountain diversion (TMD) of water from Colorado’s Western Slope to the rapidly growing Eastern Slope.

It was State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush who put the possible implications of a new TMD for Western Colorado on the table. She serves on the Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee that will review the new water plan at the legislature.

“The South Platte and Metro Roundtable has a TMD right up front (in its water plan). Their first solution (to closing the water supply gap) is a TMD. How do you see that playing out in an agreement?” she asked Gallagher.

He responded that the new water plan won’t represent policy, but instead, will set guiding principles for establishing new policies in the future.

A new TMD, “would still have to go through questions about ‘who does it benefit?’” Gallagher said. “And one of the tenets of water policy is ‘Do no harm.’”

Mary Brown, another member of the Yampa/White/Green Roundtable, added that intense negotiation is taking place among representatives of each basin in the state over seven criteria — playfully called the “Seven Points of Light” — that would frame decision making about any new TMD. One of the points being debated would require the developers of a new multi-billion TMD to assume ultimate hydrological risk. That implies the TMD would be junior to all other water rights on the river system. And that, in return, would raise significant questions about whether the diversion could be depended upon to support growth on the Front Range.

Brown and Gallagher agreed after the meeting that most Front Range water districts would prefer any other means of expanding water supply to a TMD. However, failure to put a TMD on the table would be politically unpalatable among their constituents.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

California drought holds lessons for Colorado — the Colorado Independent #COWaterPlan

May 26, 2015
The plains around DIA were parched by the scorching 2012 drought, although groundwater pumping along the South Platte River enabled some farms to continue irrigating -- photo by Bob Berwyn

The plains around DIA were parched by the scorching 2012 drought, although groundwater pumping along the South Platte River enabled some farms to continue irrigating — photo by Bob Berwyn

From the Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

Coloradans are watching California dreams turn to dust during an unrelenting four-year drought. There, the only way some people can get water is off the backs of delivery trucks. Homeowners are digging up backyard swimming pools, tearing up lawns and shaming water-wasting neighbors with calls to TV stations: The family next door has a leaky garden hose. The nightly news actually covers these types of stories.

The Golden State has seen plenty of dry spells over the past few centuries, but this drought is different. It has has spread farther and lasted longer than any other drought on record. And it has spurred the most draconian water-rationing measures in the state’s history.

Governor Jerry Brown ordered a 25 percent cut in urban water use, and proposed fines of up to $10,000 per violation for the biggest water wasters. And this week, California’s water czars said they may order farmers with 100-year-old water rights to give up some of their water. It’s a nearly unthinkable move that would shake the foundation of the state’s water laws and almost certainly trigger fierce courtroom water wars.

The California drought has intensified strife between cities and farms, the northern and southern parts of the state, and social and economic classes — all of which are being watched carefully by nervous leaders in Colorado.

Even with “normal” snow and rain, the state is facing a water crisis, according to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. By 2050, the state will be billions of gallons short of what it needs to sustain its cities, factories, farms and rivers, Hickenlooper said in 2013 when he ordered state agencies to swiftly tackle one of Colorado’s most urgent issues. The final plan, due by the end of this year, is aimed at averting those shortages, and the California drought experience is helping to shape that plan.

A new lawn

This isn’t anything like I saw in Colorado,” says Jenn Ohlsson, who recently moved from Summit County to Riverside, east of Los Angeles, in the scruffy foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, where things are dry even in the best of years.

TV, radio and the newspapers are all sending out a steady barrage of drought info, which is a little annoying at times but ensures that people are thinking about saving water every day, Ohlsson says.

“They even have helicopters flying around to see who’s wasting water,” she says, adding that she’s cut back a bit on water use. She doesn’t know exactly if she’s met the state’s 25 percent target, but she makes sure her dishwasher and washing machine are full before she runs them. She and her husband haven’t given up their backyard pool yet, but they did get a cover to cut evaporation, and they skip showers once in a while, she says.

But some suburban dreams never die, no matter how hot and dry it gets. Ohlsson says her husband’s grandmother planted a new lawn in the backyard of her Riverside house this past spring, just as California’s rainy season ended with a whimper and the lowest snowpack ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

After nearly running out of water during the 2002 drought, the town of Dillon, Colorado worked with state and federal agencies to enlarge an old reservoir to help ensure reliable water supplies during future dry spells. Photo courtesy of Don Sather.

After nearly running out of water during the 2002 drought, the town of Dillon, Colorado worked with state and federal agencies to enlarge an old reservoir to help ensure reliable water supplies during future dry spells. Photo courtesy of Don Sather.

Colorado drought?

So is there really a chance that Colorado could see a drought of similar proportions?

It depends who you ask.

“We all know that multiyear drought has happened before and will happen again,” says state climatologist Nolan Doesken. Even in the best of times, some part of Colorado is either going into drought, in drought, in bad drought, or recovering from drought, but the state always has a couple of weather wildcards, Doesken explains. Just like California, Colorado relies heavily on winter rains to refill rivers, lakes and reservoirs. But, here, rainfall in other seasons can help ease water woes.

“Where we are perched, drought will always look different. We can dodge the bullet more easily than California because we have three wet seasons,” Doesken says. “So our droughts are less likely to persist and are more likely to be interrupted and softened,”

Colorado has, in fact, experienced multiple 3- or 4-year droughts over the last century, including one during the [1930s] Dust Bowl era. The most recent extended drought, from 1953 to 1956, is a modern water-planning benchmark for Colorado against which cities design last-ditch defenses against running out of water, says Jeff Lukas, a Colorado-based scientist with the Western Water Assessment, a university-based research program tracking climate trends in the West.

Colorado’s longer droughts just haven’t been as intense as in California, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future, Lukas says.

“The hitch is that the planning has assumed that a 1950s-type drought is literally the worst-case scenario,” Lukas says. Now, scientists realize that human-caused global warming and natural climate variation could plausibly lead to even-worse-case scenarios.

How does your garden grow?

Lisa Paul, a 30-year California resident, has been through several drought cycles and says she can’t imagine it getting any worse. During a drought back in the 1990s, when she lived in San Francisco, she used a bucket while showering to capture some water for the garden around her downtown Victorian.

This time around, there was little political leadership in the early stages of the drought, when decisive action could have helped ease some of the pain Californians are feeling now, she says.

Two years ago, Paul moved to San Jose, at the south end of San Francisco Bay, and promptly tore out the lawn from around her house in the historic Rose Garden neighborhood and replaced the grass with native plants.

“I scandalized my neighbors,” she said. “They told me I was the most disruptive person ever to move into the neighborhood, just for tearing out the lawn. I had people practically screaming at me, saying, ‘You’re not going to take my lawn away. It’ll make my property value go down.’”

Paul and her husband also own property north of San Francisco, in Sonoma County, where they planted a two-acre “retirement” vineyard just a year before the current drought started. The timing couldn’t have been worse, but they kept at it, partly by capturing rainwater in a 2,000 gallon cistern.

The attitudes in that rural area are different than those she encountered in urban San Jose, she says.

“In Sonoma, all the farmers have been talking about the drought and climate change for years. You will not find a farmer who doesn’t believe in global warming,” Paul says. The farmers know water is everything, and they know where it comes from.

City dwellers, not so much.

“The farther water is from your livelihood, the more disconnected you are,” she says.

She also finds a political disconnect on some of the charity boards she serves on, where she says some Republicans discount the current California drought.

“The same people that deny climate change are denying the drought,” she says. “They’re attacking environmentalists for fighting to keep water in the rivers for fish, saying that has caused artificial drought,” she says.

During the 2002 drought, Dillon Reservoir, one of Denver’s main sources of drinking water, dropped to a record-low level, forcing mandatory watering restrictions in the city and hampering recreation in Summit County.  Photo by Bob Berwyn

During the 2002 drought, Dillon Reservoir, one of Denver’s main sources of drinking water, dropped to a record-low level, forcing mandatory watering restrictions in the city and hampering recreation in Summit County.
Photo by Bob Berwyn

Denver Water

Whatever the politics or the climate, Denver Water CEO and general manager Jim Lochhead says he has to be prepared to ensure steady water supplies for 1.3 million customers. He and other water bosses are watching California carefully to see what works — and what doesn’t.

“We can’t be complacent. Once a drought cycle starts, we can’t predict when it will end. Drought responses need to begin at the first signs of drought,” Lochhead says. “We can’t rely on the past to predict the future. The California drought, like the continuing drought in the Colorado River Basin, is unlike any we’ve seen before. We can never assume a drought will be normal.”

The emerging Colorado water plan could help prepare the state by fostering partnerships between cities, farms and environmental groups, Lochhead says.

“The response to the California drought has been delayed because of disagreements between sectors. We need to understand beforehand how we’re going to respond to severe drought,” he says. “Colorado should have a plan for how cities and agricultural producers can share water supplies during severe drought conditions.”

And Colorado can’t address regional drought issues on its own. So much of the state’s water supplies are affected by what happens in other states downstream, especially by dwindling water supplies in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. If those reservoirs drop below a certain level, Colorado could be forced to send water that is needed by the Front Range.

If the long-term regional drought continues, all the Colorado River’s states need to be much more aggressive in developing an emergency response plan, Lochhead says.

“This will mean moving water from reservoirs higher in the basin down to Lake Powell,” he says, adding that some type of interstate program to cut demand will be critical to maintain Colorado River flows required by the law of the river.

Other strategies

Finding more ways to move water around the state during a drought could also help, says California state climatologist Michael Anderson, a Colorado native who knows both states well.

California’s massive network of canals and reservoirs enables the state to move water to where it’s needed most. Other western states don’t have that same ability, which means they get hit by droughts harder and faster, Anderson says.

Previous droughts have also spurred California to make water law changes that let farmers sell their water to cities quickly and on a large scale. Anderson says California does that much more than any other state. Adding that ability in Colorado would be a big step toward better drought preparedness.

But statewide conservation should be first and foremost in any drought and water-planning conversation, says Bart Miller, a conservation attorney with Western Resource Advocates.

The evolving water plan is a chance for Colorado to set a course that minimizes the threat of drastic water rationing and other severe restrictions, Miller says. To do that, the state water plan has to focus on “making the most of the water we’ve already developed.” That means more conservation, more water recycling, and faster, better ways to share water between irrigators, cities, and rivers when supplies get tight.

“The entire Colorado River basin needs to deal with less water going forward and plan accordingly,” he says. “And, we can design new communities to have a smaller water footprint, so that we don’t feel the need to pull more water from the Colorado River Basin on the West Slope. While no one can be truly drought-proof, making smarter choices with the water we already have puts us in a better position to deal with any future drought,” Miller concludes.

The big dry

Even with all the preparations and measures mentioned by Anderson, Californians have been hit hard by the extended dry spell. It all brings back old memories, says Bob Gahl, a 30-year California resident who says he adjusted his lifestyle to match the state’s semi-arid setting many years ago.

“During the last drought, I was filling the tub with a few inches of water for one child, then adding some more for the next, then adding some more for the third,” Gahl says. After bath-time, he would run a hose into the house to siphon the water to his outside gardens.

Gahl says he practices all these conservation measures against a statewide political backdrop that lends itself to cynicism. Urban users take big hit, while California farmers — who use 80 percent of California’s water — continue to get massive subsidies, he says, describing what he sees as inequities in the way the state allocates water.

“California subsidizes farmers growing rice in the desert up around Sacramento,” Gahl says. “And, apparently, in this latest drought, the state has some sweetheart deal with those using fracking to get oil out of the ground, but screws the farmers. One need only drive down Highway 5 to see how they feel about it,” Gahl adds, mirroring concerns that have surfaced in Colorado about water use by the oil and gas industry.
Many of his concerns are exactly the kinds of things Colorado is trying to address upfront in its new water plan, before there’s an epic crisis. Gahl says it’s not really that complicated. California needs to stop subsidizing water use in areas where it doesn’t make sense, and make sure that political cronyism isn’t driving water policy, he says.

“I think that probably cuts across all states,” he says. “This is my third drought rodeo in California, and the same idiocy continues to rear its head each and every drought.”

Water bosses fish for good ideas in 24,000-plus #COWaterPlan comments — the Colorado Independent

May 22, 2015

Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting, by Bob Berwyn


From the Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

Thousands who commented on Colorado’s draft water plan will be surprised to learn that their letters, postcards and emails may be discounted by at least one of the 15 water bosses working on the issue.
The water plan has been hailed by Gov. John Hickenlooper as an unprecedented grassroots effort to end the state’s long-running water feuds and to avoid a looming water crisis. The plan will determine if Front Range cities with booming populations will suck up more water for growth, threatening farms on the eastern plains and mountain streams.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board asked for everybody’s input – from farmers and ranchers, to city-dwellers, CEOs, water companies, kayakers and anglers. But everybody’s voice won’t hold equal weight. The question the board is discussing is whose voices should count and how much should each perspective matter?
“I am not moved by the form letters. I’m much more interested in the thoughtful comments from individuals,” said Travis Smith, representing the Rio Grande River Basin at the CWCB’s May 20 board meeting in Sterling.
Smith was referring to over 22,000 comments generated by groups like Conservation Colorado that sent out action alerts to members, asking them to weigh in on the plan’s first draft.


Many of those form letters featured John Fielder photos of mountain streams and short, often passionate personal notes about how the plan should conserve Colorado water for fishing, farming and play.
Smith, speaking for farmers and ranchers, said quantity of comments shouldn’t outweigh quality. It’s not a majority-wins process.

“I don’t sign form letters. The ag community in general will show up at the first few meetings and say their piece. Then they go back to work, confident that the entity will carry the weight of those comments,” Smith said.

In all, the draft-plan garnered about 24,000 comments. Approximately 22,906 of those were classified as form letters.

Board members questioned how to judge the relative weight of the different comments, but nobody other than Smith suggested that the form letters shouldn’t count.

A majority of the public wants Colorado to conserve water for the recreation industry and agriculture. But not everybody agrees how water should be used, and the diversity of opinions challenge planners balancing competing and growing demands for water from cities, farms and wilderness.

The comments will be used to shape the second draft of the water plan, due July 15. That draft will recommend ways to divvy up water over the next few decades. It will likely recommend that new laws and regulations get passed – some of which might have a hefty price-tag.

The comments have already spurred “real changes” to the second draft. CWCB will rewrite the section on finding money to help pay for water projects, study which streams may need more environmental protection and add more information on climate change.

“The data show the environment is an important part of Colorado’s water plan, but we need more input from the ag community,” he said. “The environmental groups participated in this process in a big way,” said CWCB director Jim Eklund. “But just because we didn’t hear from the ag community doesn’t mean that’s not an equally important value,” he said.

The most important thing is to mine the comments for really good ideas, nuggets that will help the state move the needle on water issues, Eklund said.

It appears Colorado could cut water use by 30 percent in the next 35 years with simple conservation measures taken by industry, agriculture and individuals, said CWCB staffer Becky Mitchell.

The challenge is finding ways to make that happen – which includes convincing lawmakers to make funds available for water-saving measures, said CWCB director Russ George.

Once planning is done, he said, the hard political work will begin.


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