From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Greg Welcher):
Ever since the writings of Solomon more than 900 years BC, it has been said that “there is nothing new under the sun.” He was not referring to Colorado’s continual water planning, but he could not have described it better.
Gov. John Hickenlooper just announced what he called Colorado’s “first-ever” comprehensive water plan. It is the final product of a decade of meetings, committees, and proposals. As finally adopted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the 500-page plan calls for $20 billion worth of conservation measures, though no specific strategy for funding it.
Interestingly, the press reports mention the 10-year process, but also claim this governor ordered CWCB to begin statewide water planning in 2013. In fact it has been underway a long time — not one decade, but several. But when things go well, there is plenty of credit to go around, and much of this new water plan is praiseworthy.
It calls for a new statewide conservation goal of 400,000 acre-feet of water by 2050. It also mentions a projected shortfall in municipal and industrial water demand of 560,000 acre-feet by 2050, and proposes to reduce that shortfall to zero by 2030. Again, the math is a bit unclear, but whether we plan to conserve 400,000 or 560,000 acre feet, it would be a good thing either way.
Interestingly, the plan also calls for construction of 400,000 acre-feet of additional water storage — which many of us have advocated for years. Our state is growing, not shrinking, and our need for water will continue to grow. Colorado is entitled under interstate agreements to substantially more water than it uses, so it is simply irresponsible not to store the water we get during wet periods, so we can use it during dry periods. When I served on the CWCB 15 years ago, we advocated creative new ways to store water, by expanding existing reservoirs, and using underground storage in closed aquifers. Both techniques have been used successfully elsewhere, and both are now part of Colorado’s official state plan. Bravo.
Unfortunately, the plan also mentions the prospect of new trans-mountain diversions — which should not and will not happen. Half of the Colorado River is already diverted to the Front Range, more than enough. There are, as the plan points out, plenty of ways for Denver to conserve water, and to store more of its own supply. In fact, as Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead points out, their residents have already reduced usage 20 percent over the last 10 years without any major problems. Lochhead was quoted saying, “We can go a lot lower without sacrificing quality of life.” He is right.
We have been down this road many times before, and the same giant unresolved issue is always present — funding. Much of the anticipated $20 billion cost of these water measures would be borne by utilities and their customers (who have not yet been asked if they want higher water bills), but the state also needs another $100 million a year for its share. The report suggests new federal funding (unlikely from today’s budget-sensitive Congress), tax increases (perhaps a statewide mill levy, higher severance taxes, or a sales tax increase) — or a new bond program. Only the latter approach would really be new, and believe me, it is a can of worms.
You see, new water projects are always viewed with suspicion in Colorado. A 2003 initiative [Referendum A] to create bonding authority for water projects became so thoroughly unpopular that it was defeated in every county, and became a campaign issue against candidates (including me) in three consecutive elections. That measure authorized no water projects; it was merely a future funding mechanism. Still, a century of history gave Coloradans good reason to suspect the worst: that someone might eventually use it to build trans-mountain diversions to “steal” water from one basin to another. So the proposal went down in flames at the ballot box and the result was, for another generation, no new water storage at all.
The comprehensive plan completed this week provides some hope that Coloradans might eventually emerge from those years of distrust and work together on a long-term solution. That could involve both conservation and creative new storage in every river basin of the state (instead of diverting water between them), public-private partnerships, bonding and other new funding sources, and a genuinely more prosperous future for all of Colorado. That would be something new under the sun, and would be worth all the effort that has gone into it.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.