Twenty of the West’s Leading Water Managers Raft Colorado’s Yampa River — Smithsonian

July 7, 2015
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

From (Heather Hansman):

We had come to the canyon that the Yampa carved through ancient Weber sandstone on a raft trip, to talk about the future of wild rivers, and rivers in general. Advocacy groups Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers decided that the best way to talk about water issues was on the water. So they pulled together 20 people who have been making decisions about water in Colorado, and in the West, for the past 30 years—the head of Denver Water, former Deputy Secretaries of the Interior, ranchers, power plant managers and environmentalists—and a few journalists like myself. They tempted them with the idea of running an untapped river, and then stuck everyone in boats for five days so they had to talk to each other.

The Yampa flows from the high country near Routt National Forest, past power plants and ranchlands, into Dinosaur National Monument where it joins the Green River at Echo Park. It hits the main stem of the Colorado just over the border in Utah. Even though it’s not dammed anywhere, it’s used by almost all the major groups who depend on river flows: farms, fish, cities, industry, recreation and power. The coal-fired Craig Power Plant is its major consumptive user. Endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow depend on its flow. Along the way it irrigates pasture lands and provides flows for kayakers. And, if it continues to run free—hence the flow-dependent bathtub ring—it can be a model for fish habitat and smart agricultural use…

On the river, as we floated through the folded geology of the canyon and stopped to scout rapids, we talked about those questions. At night, people pulled up chairs around the fire, cracked beers and tried to explain their priorities. We talked about risk management and sharing the burden of drought. The most heated topic was transmountain diversions of water across the Continental Divide, and how to avoid them.

The Yampa, and with it the state of Colorado, is a microcosm of river management. Colorado has to send almost half of the water that falls in the state downstream. To complicate things, the state’s water law is legally layered and hard to change. This spring, a bill that would allow Colorado residents to collect rainwater failed to pass, because it was argued that it could injure downstream water rights.

“It’s just like balancing a checkbook,” says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Based on the last 16 years, nature has provided a flow of about 13 million acre feet of water at Lee’s Ferry [just below Glen Canyon Dam], and our estimate is that we’re using about 15 million. Since then, we’ve overused the system by 30 to 32 million acre feet, which we know because we’ve drawn down storage by that amount. We started with 50 million in the bank, now we have about 18. The system is heading for zero.”[…]

Water rights are also based on a use-it-or-lose-it principle of beneficial use. In theory, or maybe in the 1920s, that sounds good, because it implies that if you’re using a lot you must need a lot. But now it means that senior rights holders—corporations, irrigation districts, water departments and others with earlier and higher priority rights that get their share of water first—are unlikely to use less water than they’re allotted, for fear they’ll never get it back. It makes conservation unappealing, because by using less, you could be selling your security blanket down the river.

“Everybody is trying to pressure dreams from the past,” says Jay Gallagher, from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, after the boats were pulled up on the beach one day. “They want security for today and something left over for tomorrow. That’s the root of the emotion around water, the fear of losing it.”

That’s particularly true on the Yampa, which feels like the last of a dying breed. The Colorado itself has been so allocated that it no longer flows to the Pacific, and other western rivers, like the Dolores, in southern Colorado, are considered dead, because only a trickle flows past the dam. The Yampa is the only one that has remained untouched despite proposals to siphon off or dam up its flow.

Conservation across all facets of the water system, from farming to lawn watering, could stanch the bleeding, but it’s tricky to ask people who have a legal right to a certain amount of water to give it up. To change both perspective and use patterns, you have to make the greater good also good for the individual. Kuhn says that basically comes down to money—you have to make it financially smart for water users to conserve…

Kuhn is trying to outline the clearest ways to make conservation financially appealing. There is talk of setting up a water market, where willing sellers and buyers can trade water rights. “Those plans are moving at a snail’s pace, but the conversations are happening,” he says. People on the trip are also working together on smaller, creative projects. Blakeslee is fallowing parts of the ranch he manages to try to conserve, while American Rivers is working with ranchers to create manmade riffles—small rapids where fish can find food—on streams to build trout habitats without diverting any water.

On the Yampa, despite the disparate intentions, there was more teamwork than infighting. “Overall the average amount of water we recieve each year is still below our needs,” Kuhn says. “What we need to figure out how to do is live within our means.”

One evening on the banks of the river, Matt Rice, the director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Program, brought out a bottle of beer he’d been saving. “It’s called ‘Collaboration Not Litigation,’” he said. “And I think we should all have some.”

More Yampa River Basin coverage here.

Fight for Water Heats Up as Statewide Plan Comes Together — #COWaterPlan

July 6, 2015
CWCB director James Eklund with manager in Water Supply Planning, Jacob Bornstein bring  a box containing the draft water plan to the Capitol.

CWCB director James Eklund with manager in Water Supply Planning, Jacob Bornstein bring a box containing the draft water plan to the Capitol.

From (Taylor Kanost):

By 2050, Colorado’s population is expected to jump from 4.5 million to approximately six to eight million people. Meanwhile, Colorado’s water supply isn’t growing.

“Everybody woke up to the fact that if we’re going to grow our state, we have to take a serious look at water supply,” said Jim Pokrandt, Chair of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable.

Through a series of roundtable meetings in each of Colorado’s nine water basins, officials are attempting to formulate a plan that meets the needs of several entities – Municipal, environmental, recreational, and agricultural.

Historically, when Colorado’s water supply has fallen short, the state will buy the water rights from local farmers to fill the void. The problem is this “Buy and Dry” strategy has devastated Eastern Plains communities in the past. On top of that, global warming is requiring farmers to use more water than they have ever had to use before.

“Under hotter temperatures, all plants take more water,” said Holm.

Ultimately, water leaders want to avoid this strategy.

“It doesn’t paint a pretty picture for Colorado, whether it’s fruit security or other things agriculture provides like wildlife habitat and environmental benefits,” said Carlyle Currier, Colorado River Basin Representative on the Inter-Basin Compact Committee.

Another option being considered is adding even more water to the 500,000 acre feet sent from our side of the state to the Front Range.

Even though most of Colorado’s river water is on the Western Slope, additional diversions would put a lot of stress on the Colorado River Basin, an area that is already obligated to divert water to other western states.

“Our obligation is to let at least 75 million acre feet flow downstream from Lake Powell over each ten year period,” said Holm.

If the Eastern Slope ends up taking more water, it will be tougher for the Colorado River Basin to meet these obligations.

“That water will have to come from somewhere, and if we take more from the river we will have to add more back to the river primarily by drying agriculture,” said Pokrandt.

Even in this hotly-debated topic, the one constant among the majority of Western Slope leaders is the focus on conservation.

“They would like to see the Front Range cities do as much as possible on the conservation and reuse front as they can before they come looking to the West Slope for water,” said Holm.

Other solutions being tossed around range from cloud seeding to proper forest management to reducing city water use.

The public comment period on the first draft of the plan ended at the beginning of May, but the public will have the opportunity to place further comments once the second draft is released on July 15th.

The final Colorado Water Plan will be submitted to the Governor on December 10th.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

“There are no ‘thou shalts’ in it” — John Stulp #COWaterPlan

July 6, 2015

Photo via Bob Berwyn

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A final draft of Colorado’s Water Plan will be released next week, triggering a few more months of activity before reaching its completed form in December.

The plan is moving toward its final version after Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered it in 2013. The first draft was completed last year by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The state’s nine roundtables also have completed basin implementation plans that will become a part of the completed plan.

The draft of the final plan is scheduled to be released on July 15, with public comments accepted through Sept. 17.

The plan seeks to ease the strain increased urban population will put on the state’s water resources, with particular emphasis on preserving agricultural and the environment. It has been driven by public comments through numerous meetings over the past two years.

“We don’t want to get in the same situation where California is in,” said John Stulp, Hickenlooper’s top water adviser. “We want a plan in place before there is another drought.”

The plan will have more concrete solutions to state water needs than the draft submitted to the governor last year, Stulp said.

There is, for instance, a target for municipal conservation savings — 400,000 acre-feet as a “stretch goal” — along with some steps that could be taken to get there.

“There are no ‘thou shalts’ in it. For one thing, we don’t as a state have that authority. It’s more about education and timing,” Stulp said.

“The municipalities have done a great job since 2002-03, with about 20 percent less use. That’s been done through incentives and education.”

The plan also talks about how future water projects could be financed, again without committing state funds to any project.

“It talks about general concepts, and publicprivate partnerships,” Stulp said. “It gives wider latitude to the CWCB for drinking water projects and to the Colorado Water Power and Development Authority for other types of projects.”

The two agencies are the major public lenders for water projects, but their roles have become stratified.

“We want to work more cohesively so folks won’t have to be shopping for loans,” Stulp said.

The plan also will talk about removing state and federal bureaucratic hurdles that have slowed down the construction of water projects.

“There will be more emphasis on multipurpose projects, and groups working with each other rather than trying to gain leverage,” Stulp said.

“We’re hoping we can get state agencies involved early on and address concerns earlier in the process.”

There are also suggestions for policy changes and future legislation, based on the activities of the past 10 years among roundtables and the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee. Among those are demonstration projects, such as the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, which seek to create ways to share agricultural and municipal water. The legislative interim water resources review committee, co-chaired by Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is planning a series of hearings in each basin to hear comments on the plan. The Arkansas basin hearing will be 6-8 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Salida Community Center, while the Rio Grande basin meeting will be 6-8 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Inn of the Rio Grande in Alamosa.

Specific projects are well represented in the basin implementation plans.

The Arkansas River basin plan alone has about 500 projects listed, with roughly 50 of those in Pueblo County. Not all of the projects will be funded or built, but are included for future consideration as the state meets future water challenges.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable hands out $1 million to 4 projects

July 4, 2015

Horizontal water wells via

Horizontal water wells via

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable Wednesday approved four area water projects totalling about $1 million.

The roundtable’s decisions clear the way for the Colorado Water Conservation Board to consider funding the projects through its Water Supply Reserve Account. The account is funded through mineral severance taxes.

The Fort Lyon Canal is seeking $500,000 to replace the Horse Creek flume, a 392-foot-long, 10-foot diameter steel pipe constructed in 1938 that is at risk of failing after years of repairs.

The pipe is designed to carry the full volume of the Fort Lyon Canal, up to 1,800 cubic feet per second, over Horse Creek.

If it failed, hundreds of people’s homes could be flooded.

The full project would cost $2.2 million and is expected to be complete by next April.

The Box Springs Canal Co. in Crowley County, mostly members of the Markus family, is seeking $200,000 to restore a system of wells built in the early 1900s to support research by the D.V. Burrell Seed Co. and later companies looking at plant genetics.

There are five reservoirs in the system that now irrigates 240 acres, compared with 6,000 acres originally.

Garrett Markus, a water engineer, explained three horizontal wells are needed to replace 15 vertical wells that failed or are not producing.

Lamar is seeking $160,000 to redevelop two wells that were taken out of use. The new purpose of the wells would be for nonpotable water that could be used to irrigate Lamar’s cemetery and golf course. The total cost is about $400,000.

A $250,000 study would look at a study of collaborative storage in the Cucharas River basin. While there are numerous reservoirs in the basin, many are under state restrictions, Sandy White of the Huerfano Conservancy District explained.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.

“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.


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