— Bob Berwyn (@bberwyn) May 5, 2015
More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.
From The Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):
Water fights run deep in this state, and officials long avoided drafting a plan for what to do about it.
But Gov. John Hickenlooper knows avoidance is no longer an option; water is running out.
As Colorado’s population rises, the gap between supply and demand is expected to grow to millions of gallons of water per day by 2050. Already, nearly every drop of groundwater, river-water and rainwater has been claimed in our state.
Just like energy and the Internet, water needs to be regulated.
But farmers and ranchers have one set of interests, city dwellers have another and environmentalists have staked a claim in the fight, too. The current laws, based in frontier feuds, favor farmers and ranchers – particularly the ones whose families have owned their land decades before others.
Some fear states like California, that are already dealing with drought, will grab water from Colorado, either with money or force. After all, water wars are the future, stated a 2012 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the FBI and the CIA.
In 2012, Colorado was ravaged by wildfires and drought. In response, in 2013, Hickenloooper ordered various state departments to craft a long-term water plan. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is heading the effort.
“Throughout our state’s history, other water plans have been created by federal agencies or for the purpose of obtaining federal dollars,” the order says. “We embark on Colorado’s first water plan written by Coloradans, for Coloradans.”
But what Coloradans? City folks? Farmers? Ranchers? Outdoor enthusiasts?
To figure this out, the state needs to hear from people. But do Coloradans even know this planning process is taking place? And, with water wars looming, how can a plan solve the thousands of conflicting water needs Colorado must balance as the planet heats up, our rivers dry up and our population swells.
Don’t touch the water
Theresa Ellsworth didn’t know about the state’s efforts, but she knows in her gut that something is wrong with how water laws work here.
Ellsworth lives halfway between Frisco and Breckenridge, at the foot of the Tenmile Range. In the spring, water rages around her subdivision. Runoff from the mountains surges down the Blue River, feeding millions of gallons of water into Dillon Reservoir each day.
But Ellsworth can’t use any of it, not even a few drops for a petunia patch. She gets her household water from a well, and if she uses well water to wash her car or water her lawn, she’s breaking the law – unless she were to buy into an expensive state-run water trading program that she can’t afford.
“How can I tell somebody this isn’t fair?” she says, with no idea that Hickenlooper’s water-planning process is going on.
Ellsworth isn’t the only one who hasn’t heard of the state water plan or efforts by officials to seek public input before the comment period on the first draft ends [May 1].
John Minor, Summit County’s elected sheriff, didn’t know about the planning effort, either. And he’s a public official who, like it or not, deals with water in his job.
His deputies get called in a few times a year by water inspectors who enforce the state’s peculiar groundwater laws. See, these inspectors risk their necks threatening people with water shut-offs and fines. Colorado water law – a tangled mess – isn’t exactly user friendly. Few have the time or energy to untangle it. And many Coloradans don’t like that the government is on their land and trying to take what they see as their water.
So, they make threats, and Sheriff Minor and his deputies have to help keep the inspectors safe.
Minor, a British-born libertarian, rubs his chin incredulously as he ponders the irony of his job as a water cop. Shouldn’t he know about the state plan?
From the start, Hickenlooper and his water planners have sought widespread public input into Colorado’s first-ever statewide water blueprint, even launching a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter. There’s a one-stop website for commenting, and it’s easy to sign up for email alerts and snail-mail updates.
But like Minor and Ellsworth, many people who should know and care about the water plan just haven’t been reached — or maybe they have, and just haven’t tuned in.
State officials are trying, “but they’re not very good at it,” Eagle County resident Ken Neubecker said. General skepticism about unwieldy government planning efforts probably cause some people to shy away, added Neubecker, a longtime river runner, fly fisherman and head of the Colorado River Basin Project for American Rivers.
“You can never get too much grassroots involvement,” he said. “This plan is really important for the future of the state. It won’t trump water law, but provides a road map for the future instead of looking back at the past. People need to get their comments in, talk about it and tell their friends,” Neubecker said. “This is a chance for people to actually speak.”
So, what’s the plan?
The first draft Coloradans are being asked to read and comment on is 300 pages long. It’s clouded with fuzzy statements about conservation and cooperation among water users. It’s vague. [ed. emphasis mine]
Hidden behind the fuzziness is a blueprint that does not solve historic tensions between water-producing areas west of the Continental Divide and water-hungry areas to the east, commenters suggest. Front Range cities and farms need the water to continue to thrive, but Western Slope farmers, environmentalists and outdoors enthusiasts are close to saying, “Not one more drop.”
Federal agencies have sent in comments, wrangling for control. This is one more chapter in the century-long drama over water rights between Colorado and the feds.
State agencies insist they share goals with the feds: more water conservation, reuse and recycling – all nebulous concepts.
The plan calls for more options to avoid permanently drying up farmland, but it doesn’t say what farmland or where. It needs to be specific to make it more than just a memo or feel-good document, water watchdogs say.
Today is the last chance to comment about what people like and don’t like about the first draft. Once the second draft gets released, the public will have another chance to comment between July 15 and Sept. 17.
Whether or not everybody who wants a say knows he or she can have one has yet to be seen.
With our series “Colorado water: What’s the plan?” The Colorado Independent will in the coming months cover the formation of the water blueprint and detail the political, economic social and environmental tugs-of-war that will be stretching it as it takes shape.
Please follow our multimedia coverage and weigh in with your comments and questions as we try to make sense out of one of the driest yet most pressing issues we face.
More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
Around the state, water planners are trying to save agriculture and the environment while accommodating existing urban growth rates.
At the same time, there is no new water and there may be less to work with in the future.
It’s a puzzle that the Arkansas Basin Roundtable has struggled with for 10 years, since its formation in 2005 with the charge to work out water problems within the basin and with other basins.
This week, the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum heard from four other roundtables and learned their conundrums sound a lot like ours.
Without some sort of alternative plan, the South Platte River basin could dry up half of its irrigated acres in agriculture as the population increases to 6 million from 3.5 million by 2050, said Joe Frank, chairman of the South Platte Basin Roundtable.
“We definitely have a target on our back, just as you have for several years in the Arkansas basin,” Frank said. “We have existing ag shortages, and most of what we’ve done is to try to find a way so upstream projects don’t affect downstream users.”
John McClow, who represents the Gunnison River basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the basin wants to protect its current water uses — both from changes in weather that could lead to a declining supply and from export to other basins.
The water is the basis for both agriculture and recreation, the main industries of the basin.
“We don’t say ‘not one more drop’ anymore. Well, some still do. But we’ve come a long way. We urge responsible development,” McClow said.
While the Rio Grande basin no longer is a target for water export, it is struggling to deal with declining groundwater levels and predictions that its surface water supply will decrease by 30 percent in the future, said Mike Gibson, chairman of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.
“We need to live within our means and recognize that agriculture is critical to our economy,” Gibson said.
The Colorado River basin also is concerned about climate change, and for years has tried to draw a line against more exports.
Transmountain diversions total 450,000-600,000 acre-feet (146-195 billion gallons) of water every year — decreasing both the initial supply and return flows for Western Slope rivers, said Jim Pokrandt, chairman of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable.
“We think conservation should be a high priority,” Pokrandt said, adding that Western Slope municipal users need to cut back, too. “We want to create solutions in-basin to achieve the maximum degree possible.”
More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
A state water plan may not prevent a crisis, but it would give the state a way to better deal with it.
“We like our chances better with a strategy,” said James Eklund, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “We’ve got a path forward.”
Eklund addressed about 150 people who attended the opening day of the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum at Pueblo Community College.
The state will spend most of this year putting the finishing touches on a water plan to be presented to Gov. John Hickenlooper on Dec. 10. Eklund has spent the last 20 months talking to water groups throughout the state about what the plan does and how it will be used. Most recently, the state’s basin roundtables wrapped up basin implementation plans that feed into the final document.
Actually, it won’t be “final.”
Eklund called it “opensource policymaking,” meaning anyone with a smartphone or computer can logon (http://coloradowaterplan.com) and comment at any time.
California and Texas voters approved bond issues for $7.5 billion and $2 billion by 2-1 margins, largely because they had water plans in place, Eklund said.
“We’ve got to determine water priorities more aggressively than in the past,” he said. “The state will not pick winners or losers, but will be able to prioritize regional projects, like we do now for transportation.”
The plan also will connect state policies on water, ending current trends that put water quality in one “silo” (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) and quantity in another (Division of Water Resources).
“The Arkansas basin is a poster child for how you do this work,” Eklund said. “We need you to comment and help on the plan. We need to make sure our house is in order and that we’re unified as a state.”
The plan has to be flexible enough to meet the needs of a state that is expected to see its population double in 50 years. During his presentations, Eklund likes to show a picture of his own dour-faced great-greatgrandparents, whom he jokes would want no part of a water plan.
But times change.
“We’re living with the water policies our grandparents gave us, but we’re designing policies for our grandchildren,” Eklund said. “When people go home to be with their kids, they have to realize it’s not something you can take for granted. You have to plan for it.”
More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.
Garfield County proposes to host a summit among Western Slope water interests in an effort to present a “united voice” on the prospect of new transmountain diversions, and how that would be stated in the forthcoming Colorado Water Plan.
County Commission Chairman John Martin suggested the summit during a presentation Tuesday by Louis Meyer, author of the draft Colorado River Basin Implementation Plan that emerged from a series of basin roundtable meetings last year and has been presented as part of the larger statewide plan.
Meyer said the seven-point conceptual framework put forward by the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) for inclusion in the water plan has taken the focus away from the work done by the nine basin roundtables.
He expressed grave concerns that the proposed framework for negotiating future projects to divert more water from the West Slope basins, primarily the Colorado, to the Front Range, is even ready for inclusion in the plan.
The proposed framework “lacks specificity, and is very ambiguous,” Meyer said. “And I don’t think the public has been adequately engaged in drafting these seven points.”
It was an opinion shared around the room for the most part Tuesday, during a county commissioners work session that was attended by numerous ranchers and those with recreational and conservation interests who have been part of the roundtable process.
“It’s time to get everyone together and put all of this on the table … and present a united voice from the Western Slope to the draft” water plan, Martin said, offering for Garfield County to host a summit meeting sometime in the coming weeks.
“It’s important that we all work together and to have some unified agreement, so that the governor will take heed,” Martin said…
Meyer said there are problems with each of the seven points in the IBCC proposal, namely that it assumes the Colorado River Basin has more water to give for the purpose of accommodating growth in the Front Range metro areas.
“In my travels, there is not any more water to develop in the Colorado Basin,” Meyer said, noting that existing diversions already result in low river flow issues and shortages for agriculture water users on the Western Slope.
The proposed use of “triggers” in wetter years to determine when water can be diverted, as well as measures to protect agriculture, the environment and recreation interests “sound good on paper,” Meyer said. But those points still need a lot of work, he said.
Some of those who attended the Tuesday meeting said the continued effort to keep new water diversions among the possibilities seems to throw out one of the key elements of the water plan, conservation.
“This whole thing grew out of our need to plan for the future,” said Barb Andre of Basalt.
“But I have a question about the word ‘need,’ and I don’t think we’re looking at the differences between wants and needs as much as we could,” she said. “It begins to look like the word ‘need’ is being misused here.”
Dave Merritt, who sits as Garfield County’s representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District board, said the framework being proposed is just a concept that can still be negotiated.
He warned against making strong statements about whether the Front Range areas, and the state as a whole, should be allowed to grow or not by limiting water usage…
County Commissioner Mike Samson said the Front Range already gets enough West Slope water and needs to find other sources for its future water needs.
“I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before, we not only have no more water to give, they’ve taken too much already from the Western Slope and downstream states,” Samson said, also referring to it as a “needs versus wants” issue.
More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of mid-April US Drought Monitor maps (2011 thru 2015).
From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):
Between 2011 and 2013 was the driest three-year stretch of weather in recorded history for parts of southeast Colorado. Conditions have improved slightly since then. But a look at U.S. Drought Monitor maps over recent months shows drought persisting at varying levels.
The scarcity of water is connected to another problem in Colorado. The state’s population is expected to double by 2050, and there won’t be enough water to meet the demand. For farmers like Mauch, there’s hardly enough water to meet current needs with the drought, let alone future ones. This tension is one of several reasons why the state is creating its first-ever water plan with the help of regional water managers. Friday, they hand in their plans for how to be prepared for the future.
City vs. ag tug of war
A big question is where municipalities along the Front Range will find more water.
Over the years, the scarcity has led to municipalities buying up land and water rights near Rocky Ford, Colorado.
“If the Front Range is going to continue to grow, it will only be at the expense of agriculture,” said Mauch. “There’s just not enough water.”
Recently an affiliate of real estate development firm C&M Companies and Resource Land Holdings LLC announced a pending purchase of 14,600 acres of farm land in the area. With talk of more land exchanges between local farmers and C&M, Mauch said he’s worried.
“We seem to kind of have a target on our back right now with a lot of land acquisitions, and a lot of municipals interested in our water, large groups speculating on our water,” said Mauch.
Karl Nyquist with C&M Companies said the plan is to use the 14,600 acres of land for agriculture. The exact partners who will use the land have yet to be determined.
Water plan in progress
As Mauch worries about the plans of his new neighbor, water managers in the Arkansas River Basin have crafted a plan for the future. The group and eight others are submitting their plans today to the state.
“The Arkansas River is the entire economy of the Arkansas Basin,” said Gary Barber, who worked as project manager on the local Basin Implementation Plan…
The South Platte River Basin, which includes the agricultural powerhouse Weld County, provides another illustration of what can be lost. In 1976, the basin had more than 1 million acres of irrigated farmland. In 2010, the amount of irrigated land dropped to 850,000 acres…
“Basically 80 percent of the river goes to agriculture. So if you’re looking for water, and one group has 80 percent of it, where are you going to go look for it?”
From The Colorado Statesman (Ron Bain):
Even though a panel of 300 delegates from the state’s nine water basin roundtables almost unanimously approved the “seven points of light,” as Eklund likes to call them, the three representatives of Western Slope water roundtables who accompanied Eklund to Club 20 were not in full agreement with them.
“Our core belief is that a transmountain water diversion is not in the best interests of western Colorado,” said Jim Pokrandt of Glenwood Springs, chairman of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. “But we can’t say not one more drop. The Colorado Constitution says you can’t say that.”
“We’re going to keep the discussion alive,” said Mike Preston of Cortez, chairman of the Southwest Basin Roundtable. “We’re concerned about the environment — the best feature of western Colorado.”[…]
“It’s actually very didactic — western Colorado has gained some influence,” Preston said.
The final point states that, “Environmental resiliency and recreational needs must be addressed both before and conjunctively with a new TMD.”
From The Aspen Times (Nathan Fey):
First, the good news: A conceptual agreement among all seven Colorado river basins is looking good, and it will effectively make any potential construction of major new trans-mountain diversions more rooted in reality. That’s the only sane course of action, because we know the Western Slope and our downstream neighbors do not have another drop of water to spare for Front Range cities. Those cities can and should get more serious about conservation and water recycling. We’re hopeful that this conceptual agreement will hold for the final water plan, to be released in later this year.
Now for the challenges. We all know that Colorado depends on the recreation economy. For the Colorado River basin alone, it’s a $9 billion per year economic engine for our state. That means any water planning should include whatever it takes to keep our rivers at healthy flows. We have the knowledge and data about the amount of water that needs to stay in rivers. Those data aren’t currently integrated into the state plan, and they should be.
More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.
From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):
If it ain’t broke ” don’t let the government fix it.
That’s the gist of San Luis Valley residents’ message yesterday to representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and their consultant who are gathering input to revise the Rio Grande National Forest’s plan.
In fact, members of the Rio Grande Roundtable who represent varying water interests throughout the Valley went so far as to make a motion to write a letter to the Forest Service urging it not to change the Forest’s plan regarding federal reserve water rights. The vote was unanimous with one abstention from Charlie Spielman.
“There’s no need to change it,” said Travis Smith, who sits on state and local water boards and manages the SLV Irrigation District. “It is a huge success story not only for the federal agency but for the water users in the San Luis Valley. Don’t change it. I think we have demonstrated over the last 30 years it is a very workable situation.”
Rio Grande National Forest Deputy Supervisor Adam Mendonca said he was not aware of any other National Forest that had anything like this. He said in 1977 the process began to develop a federal reserve water right that would provide in-stream flow for such purposes as fish and other wildlife habitat. The water right decree was filed in 2000 and is specific solely to the National Forest. The decree requires minimum flows in many riparian areas. Mendonca said the flows are so minimal they do not impact other uses and in fact provide benefits to those uses.
“I have yet to have anyone tell me the decree we have today is bad,” he said. “We don’t have monitoring data that would indicate it is not working.”
He said many people were unaware the federal government had a water right in the forest, which is probably a good thing because they have not seen any detrimental effects resulting from it.
“If you hadn’t noticed a real impact, I would say it’s working,” he said. Unlike the process in other basins in the state, the water right in this basin was accomplished without litigation thanks to the forest supervisor at the time, Jim Webb and then-Division Engineer Steve Vandiver, Smith said. He added that the decree that is in place provides a certainty for water rights for the Forest Service in addition to providing certainty for the water users.
“I would strongly support that it needs no change,” Smith said.
Rio Grande Roundtable Chairman Mike Gibson agreed.
“My understanding is it was a monumental accomplishment for the Forest Service and local water users ,” Gibson said, “something that was not accomplished in any other basin.”
He added, “It worked. We have demonstrated it works.”
Mendonca explained that the Forest Service is currently working under a plan approved in 1996, and the parts of that plan that no one wants to change will just roll over into the new plan. The Forest is not starting over with a new plan but is revising the 1996 plan, he added.
“We will use the 1996 plan until we have a new one filed ,” he said.
He said the revision plan is a four-year process, with this being the first year of that process. This year, which ends this summer, is a time of assessment when the Forest Service and its consultant Peak Facilitation Group are gathering input from residents throughout the area on what they believe should be kept and what should be revised in the current plan. The Forest Service has held numerous public meetings already, many of which focus on specific parts of the plan such as timber use, water and livestock grazing.
The Forest Service also wants input on what people believe should be changed under the standards and guidelines specified in the plan, particularly since the Forest’s budget has decreased drastically in recent years so it is more difficult to meet the “have to” requirements as opposed to “it would be good to” guidelines.
Mendonca said the budget for the Rio Grande National Forest has decreased from $14 million to $8.5 million over the last eight years. When the budget declines that significantly , he added, “something doesn’t get done.”
That is why it is important for the forest plan’s standards and guidelines to be “sustainable and attainable,” Mendonca said. The Forest Service will prioritize what it focuses its resources on according to those mandates and guidelines.
The next two public meetings regarding the Forest Service plan revision are scheduled Monday and Tuesday , April 27 and 28, with the first on April 27 from 5-7 :30 p.m. at the Alamosa County Commissioners Building, 8900-A Independence Way, Alamosa, specifically related to vegetation, timber and fire issues, and the second on April 28 from 5-7 :30 p.m. at the Saguache County Road and Bridge, 305 3rd Street, Saguache, with a focus on current issues and foreseeable trends concerning water and soil management.
For more information, visit the RGNF plan revision website at http:// riograndeplanning .mindmixer.com/ or contact Mike Blakeman at the Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor’s Office at 852-5941.
More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.