I have noticed a lot of chatter lately about the situation at Lake Mead. Dramatic overuse, prolonged drought, and the effects of increased temperatures have led to a historically low volume of water stored in the largest reservoir on the Colorado River. One of the most critical components of water in the west is less than 40% full. Yet while some people scramble for a quick fix or point fingers, others see the long game and note the optimism that working together for smart, sustainable solutions can bring. There is hope, there is a roadmap, and together we have the knowledge, skill, and foresight to make it happen.
The Discovery Channel recently produced a new documentary, Killing the Colorado, a made-for-TV version of the lengthy ProPublica series of the same name. The show is excellent, comprehensive, and features a number of voices that you may not expect to be featured in a film about the environment. Imperial valley agricultural producers, water managers, a red-state Senator and a blue-state Governor – all identifying problems facing the basin, and most putting forth an optimistic view that a human-caused predicament can be solved with human-inspired ingenuity.
One quote in particular is poignant – there is a scene with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in his office flipping through a binder full of historic water compacts. Upon his observance of the generations of water agreements, he remarks “The thing you realize when you go through these [water] compacts, is that everyone is in this together.” Given the situation facing Lake Mead, a growing chorus of voices around Lake Powell, the birth of the Colorado Water Plan, and a recognition that heathy rivers support healthy agriculture and sustainable economies, we truly are all rowing the same boat together in the Colorado Basin.
But, how can Lake Mead affect Colorado from a thousand miles downstream? Well, due to the Colorado River Compact of 1922, headwaters states like Colorado must send a certain amount of water to the Southwestern states of Arizona, Nevada, and California – it’s the law of the river, and the law of the land. And since when the Compact was developed, California was a fast growing destination, it has priority and can “call” for water if needed. For years, California has had the luxury to get much of the surplus of water that Colorado and Wyoming have sent downstream to be stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But now with prolonged drought, a fast-growing population across the entire Southwest, and a substantial agricultural economy (especially in the Imperial Valley), the era of surplus water is over. As such, Lake Mead is directly connected to Colorado, whether we like it or not, and that connection is the Colorado River.
Killing the Colorado does a fantastic job over nearly an hour-and-a-half of highlighting a variety of colorful characters who have recognized that shortage and a lack of water will change everything in the future – that future is now. But while both the show and the written article are excellent at highlighting the situation, they don’t delve deeply into what I think is most important – that real solutions do exist, and we know how to implement them, it simply takes our collective will to get them moving. Solutions like urban and agricultural conservation and efficiency, like reuse and recycling, like innovative water banking and flexible management practices, like continuing the shift towards renewable energy (solar and wind don’t devour cooling water like natural gas and coal plants require). But while these efforts all seem daunting and out of an individual’s control, there are actions that each of us can take every day that together, make a huge difference. Like buying and installing your own rain barrel for your outside plants and flowers, like supporting your local farmer at the farmer’s market – small things that have a great impact, especially when we all do them together.
Solutions do exist, and as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said “The drought over the past couple of years has awakened all of us to the future we have if we don’t do better planning. There are many things that are out of our control…Planning is so important. Conserving. Recharging. Water banking. Water markets. These are all important things that have to take place.”
If Colorado hopes to reach its goal of conserving at least 130 billion gallons of water a year by 2050, some of the state’s water utilities will have to step up their evaluation and repairs on aging or corroded water lines.
Colorado water experts anticipate that by 2050, the state will need at least one million acre-feet of water more than it will have, an estimate that many believe is conservative. (An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons, or the amount of water it would take to cover Mile High Stadium from end zone to end zone with one foot of water.)
That means every sector of water use — recreational, agricultural, industrial, municipal and environmental — can anticipate shortages. Much of the shortfall is tied to Colorado’s population boom. The state’s population is projected to nearly double from about 5.3 million to at least 8.7 million people, perhaps reaching as high as 10.3 million, by 2050.
On Tuesday, a state legislative interim committee met to discuss, among other things, how to save more water by stopping “water loss.”
Water providers lose 25 billion gallons of water a year through leaking water lines and hundreds of water main breaks, according to estimates in the Colorado Water Plan.
For water providers and utilities, that loss comes at the cost of extracting water and treating it, only to lose some of it before it reaches the user. In Colorado, water experts put the cost of that loss at about $50 million a year. In addition to actual water loss, there are also costs associated with incorrectly-operating water meters or other discrepancies.
Bottom line: Those financial losses mean utilities have less to spend on maintaining their systems. And the bottom, bottom line? Guess who helps make up the difference?
Utilities pass on the costs of water loss to consumers, says Teresa Conley of Conservation Colorado. Utilities have fixed costs and revenue that fluctuates based on how much water is used throughout the year. Water loss impacts water providers’ bottom line, she said, and that means consumers end up paying for water that gets lost in the system.
Fix these problems and that could save about 77,000 acre-feet of water a year — or about 20 percent of the state’s conservation goal. The focus on repairing leaking pipes comes at a time when national and local attention is being paid to lead in water supplies, largely due to corroded water lines in Flint, Michigan but found in Colorado, as well.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources,and author of the state’s water plan, would like to see a uniform way of measuring water loss. It has developed a tool for utilities that would track water loss statewide. But the utilities aren’t all that enthusiastic about using it, pointing out that their own efforts are producing the desired results.
John Thornhill, chief engineer at Greeley Water and Sewer, told the committee this week that pipes installed in the 1950s were the biggest problem for Greeley because the linings in them were susceptible to corrosion. The utility recently finished replacing those corroded pipes, which were part of a network of 640 miles of water lines.
Offering a well-worn pun in the industry, he said: “We’re getting the lead out.”
Early warning of floods coming off wildfire scars to more accurately estimating runoff from snowpack could be improved with drones, the Arkansas Basin Roundtable learned this week.
“It’s another tool to validate Snotel data to focus on the timing and volume of water,” said John Fulton, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Drones, along with new technology that uses groundbased portable radar equipment to measure water levels and velocity, can detect in advance when debris flows come off burn scars such as Waldo Canyon, a 2012 fire near Colorado Springs, or this year’s Hayden Pass Fire still smoldering in Fremont County. The drones are able to map steep terrain that otherwise would be inaccessible, Fulton said.
“We use the drones along with ground-based imagery to gauge the probability of debris flows,” he said.
Fulton explained the practical applications of drones in the Arkansas Valley along with Jeff Sloan, who heads the national Unmanned Aircraft Systems project for the USGS. They brought a couple of samples to the roundtable meeting at Pueblo Community College Wednesday, a fixed-wing model and a four-rotor hovercraft.
“I’m disappointed you didn’t fly one around the room,” laughed Sandy White, the roundtable chairman.
The technology has improved tremendously since the USGS started its drone program in 2008, Sloan said. The USGS started using the Honeywell T-Hawk, an Army surplus model. Now, equipment runs more silently and some of it is easy to learn to fly.
“It sounded like a flying lawn mower, so it wasn’t very good for observing wildlife,” Sloan laughed.
The Department of Interior began looking into the program to improve mapping vast tracts of federal land with better accuracy. Smaller drones are able to fill a gap with sharper images — down to 4 square centimeters — than higher flying drones, aircraft or satellites provide.
Showing side-by-side images, Sloan pointed out that a $400 digital camera mounted on a small drone at low altitude produced a clearer image than a $1 million imaging system on a satellite.
Besides cameras, drones can provide images using thermal, multispectral, hyperspectral, Lidar (light radar) and magnetometry equipment.
Using GPS, it is possible to create multilayer maps of areas relatively cheaply.
Drones also allow better real-time monitoring, such as the landslide-prone DeBeque Canyon in Western Colorado, Sloan said.
The Arkansas Basin Roundtable Public Education, Participation and Outreach workgroup will present the inaugural Salida Water Festival from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Riverside Park in downtown Salida.
The free, family-focused festival will feature fun activities, educational exhibits, food vendors and funky live music by Mo’Champipple and the Miso Horns.
Geography, climate and history converge in Colorado to produce unique water resource challenges that underscore the importance of water education.
Geographically, Colorado is a headwaters state. Essentially, all water in Colorado flows downstream to other states. As a result, Colorado water management is framed by interstate compacts that dictate how much water Colorado must leave in its rivers for downstream states.
Colorado’s arid to semi-arid climate also affects water use and management. Climate conditions also deliver 80 percent of Colorado’s water to the Western Slope while 80 percent of the state population lives east of the Continental Divide.
Historically, the first European immigrants to Colorado arrived from Spain; then, Colorado became U.S. territory before achieving statehood. So Colorado water law includes vestiges of Spanish water traditions and U.S. territorial law as well as Colorado state law.
These factors combine to produce a system of water management that has been characterized as complex, byzantine and archaic.
Nevertheless, Colorado’s system of water management, based on the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, has worked for more than a century in spite of significant changes in water usage patterns and population density.
The Salida Water Festival will help clarify the complexity of water resource management in Colorado with exhibits that provide demonstrations, information and some fun along the way.
Water activities and games like the squirt-gun rain-gauge race, the sponge race, the dunk tank and Salida Fire Department’s water brigade will keep kids entertained and make learning about water a lot less daunting.
Water storage is key to successful water management, and Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District representatives will discuss underground aquifer storage, a key component in the district’s multiuse projects.
Water quality also affects water resource management, and San Isabel Land Protection Trust staff will provide a hands-on demonstration of the importance of irrigated agriculture and crop cover to watershed health.
The Public Education, Participation and Outreach workgroup will welcome festival attendees and provide information on Colorado’s Water Plan, the Basin Implementation Plan and other Arkansas Basin Roundtable activities.
The PEPO booth will also have information about the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the Interbasin Compact Committee, water conservancy districts and more.
Greater Arkansas River Nature Association representatives will facilitate demonstrations of water usage by invasive plant species such as Russian olive trees. GARNA demonstrations will also show how native plants improve stream-water quality by removing nitrates and phosphates.
Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area staff will provide a three-dimensional, interactive model of the Arkansas River Valley including the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.
At the 4-H booth, festival attendees can learn about watersheds by creating a watershed, identifying their watershed on a topographical map and discovering ways to keep watersheds healthy.
Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, the town of Buena Vista and the city of Cañon City will be on hand to provide information about source water protection plans and other programs that protect water resources.
Land Trust of the Upper Arkansas staff will focus on river restoration, explaining the types of environmental restoration required to achieve Gold Medal standards in the Arkansas River.
Chaffee County Public Health officials will discuss levels of fluoride in wells across Chaffee County and provide free well testing kits.
Local firefighters will discuss the importance of water for firefighting and bring a fire truck to the festival to demonstrate how firefighting equipment works.
Local engineer Lindsay George will talk about the use of small-scale hydroelectric power generation and demonstrate hydropower with a model turbine.
Festival attendees will also have the opportunity to join the Colorado Community Rain, Hail and Snow Network that helps track water resource data across the nation.
Attendees will receive free promotional products after visiting all festival exhibits, demonstrations and displays. For more information visit http://pepoarkbasin.com.
Conservation easements have figured prominently in the Arkansas River Basin as a way to offer landowners incentives to retain water rights rather than selling them off the land.
They also underpin Colorado’s Water Plan, mainly through statements in several of the basin implementation plans which fed into the final product.
Conservation, as a term in the water plan, is often described as reducing water demand, either for urban or agricultural use, in order to protect stream flows.
But the continued use of water on farms is an important element of the water plan in maintaining the environmental and recreational landscape that makes the state so attractive. Preserving agricultural water requires incentives to prevent it from being sold for uses that, on the surface, appear more lucrative. That’s how conservation easements fit in.
The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, formed in 2002 to protect water in the Arkansas River basin, considers conservation easements one of its most valuable tools in preventing water from permanently leaving the land.
But it’s taken a while for groups that promote conservation easements to come to the roundtables.
The Pueblo Chieftain asked Ben Lenth, executive director of the San Isabel Land Trust, and Matt Heimerich, conservation director for the Palmer Land Trust’s Lower Arkansas Valley programs, to reflect on how their organizations will connect with Colorado’s Water Plan.
How do we fill the gap in the Arkansas River Basin within the Colorado Water Plan and Basin Implementation Plan?
1. Financially incentivize temporary and intermittent water sharing and leasing agreements for landowners with water rights.
2. Incentivize efficiency improvements for irrigation without penalizing the water rights holder.
3. Prioritize water projects that have multiuse functions to benefit as many water users as possible.
4. Continue to incentivize and/or regulate water conservation measures by municipalities and industry.
It is important to consider that the Colorado Water Plan recognizes the importance of balancing the water needs of municipalities, agricultural and non-consumptive uses, such as recreation, and watershed health.
As a regional organization, Palmer Land Trust is committed to preserving open spaces, outdoor recreation, and working farms and ranches. Our goals as a land trust are well-aligned with the working tenets of the Colorado Water Plan.
Past solutions to solving water supply problems at the expense of working farms and ranches and the environment are no longer acceptable. As the state’s largest basin, it is imperative that the identified water supply gap in the Arkansas not create winners and losers over the equitable distribution of this precious resource.
What projects do you plan to fill the gap?
1. Planning and implementing land and water conservation projects to have maximum flexibility for leasing/ sharing water over time.
2. Water reallocation projects which benefit agriculture, municipalities, recreation and wildlife habitat.
After an in-depth study, Palmer Land Trust made the decision to open an office in Rocky Ford with the purpose of exploring economic-based alternatives to large-scale water transfers from irrigated agricultural to municipalities. Palmer’s conservation easements use language that, in addition to tying the water rights to the land in perpetuity, allow for short-term leasing opportunities when an extended drought threatens the viability of municipal water providers.
Palmer Land Trust is also an active participant in a coalition of farmers, water providers, locally elected officials and research institutions examining strategies on how to ensure the long-term sustainability of farming under the Bessemer Ditch as farmers face increasing competition for land and water in eastern Pueblo County.
How do we keep the gaps for agriculture and municipalities from becoming bigger?
Integrate landuse planning and water planning. Do not allow subdivisions to be permitted without proven sources of water.
Palmer believes that one of the ways to avert conflicts between municipalities and agriculture is to engage the urban/suburban citizen in a dialogue regarding the importance of irrigated farming to the region’s economy and cultural identity. The demand for locally-grown foods is increasing at a rapid pace.
Drying up farms along the Arkansas River is counterproductive on many levels. Our visibility in the greater Pikes Peak Region affords Palmer a unique opportunity to help close this gap between agriculture and municipalities.
Eric Kuhn paints a big picture of changing realities in the Southwest
rom his office in Glenwood Springs overlooking the Colorado River, Eric Kuhn has become one of the West’s most prominent thinkers about the intersection of water, climate change, and allocations for farms, factories and cities, including ski towns.
He joined the Colorado River Water Conservation District as an engineer after working in the private sector as a nuclear engineer. He has been manager of the water district since 1996. The district encompasses all of the Colorado River drainage in Colorado upstream from Fruita. As such, the district is a primary source of water not just for the bulk of Colorado ski towns and Front Range cities but also downstream farms and cities, including Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Mountain Town News collaborated with Kuhn on a reader-friendly Q&A to probe the growing evidence that warming temperatures have started upsetting the apple cart of Colorado River operations.
Was it a good snow year in the upper Colorado River Basin? It varied, of course, but generally it was average to a little above average in the Gunnison, Yampa, Green and other basins of the upper Colorado River.
Does that mean the reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin are filling? We’ve been hearing a lot about declining levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River. Water runoff is a more complicated story than snowpack. This year, for example, the runoff reached about 94 percent of average. So, average or above-average snowpack but below-average runoff.
The best way to understand snowmelt is to study the inflow into Lake Powell. You can call this reservoir the savings account for the Upper Colorado River Basin. It is this savings account that allows the upper division states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to consistently meet water supply obligations to the Lower Basin at Lake Mead as spelled out by the Colorado River Compact of 1922. The lower division states are California, Nevada, and Arizona.
There is no such thing as an average snow year—nowhere, no place. Snowpack varies wildly from year to year. That said, in an average water year, about 10.7 million acre-feet flows into Powell. Three-fourths of that occurs during April through July.
Average snowpack but below-average runoff? That poses an obvious question. But first, would you explain this savings account more? The 1922 compact requires the upper division states to not deplete the flows downstream to Lake Mead below a certain volume. Powell most often releases 8.23 to 9 million acre-feet, as required by the 2007 interim agreement among the seven basin states and the federal government, a side agreement to the compact. But ordinarily, because of evaporation, that means the effective demand on Powell is 8.6 to 9.4 million acre-feet.
What this means is that in any year with an 85 percent of average runoff, Lake Powell just about breaks even. In other words, water levels are not gaining but neither are they declining.
For local supply reservoirs in most of Colorado, we can get by with an 85 percent or better inflow year without too many concerns.
So nothing to worry about in the upper basin?We’re meeting our obligations, end of story? We are OK for now and probably for the immediate future, but if the current conditions transition into a drought over the next several years, as happened after the 1998 El Niño event, we could be in serious trouble because unlike in 1998-99 when system reservoirs were plumb full, today they’re only about half full.
How much of the water in Lake Powell and Lake Mead comes from upstream of Grand Junction (or Moab)? And how much of that originates as snow in places like Steamboat Springs, the Eagle Valley, and the San Juan Mountains? Most of the run-off in the upper basin originates from about 20 percent of the land: those watersheds above about 9,000 feet in elevation, where snowpack accumulates and sticks through the snow season.
The Green River drainage contributes 36 percent of the flow into Lake Powell, the Colorado mainstream 36 percent, the San Juan 24 percent, and the others 4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. This is the long-term average.
We’ve heard a lot about drought in the 21st century. Are we still in drought? Colorado as a whole is definitely not in a drought. From the entire Colorado River Basin perspective, it depends on the period one looks at. From 1906 through 2015, the mean annual flow at Lee’s Ferry (between Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon was 14.8 million acre-feet (maf). From 1930 forward, it’s been less, 13.9 maf, according to the National Flow Data Base kept by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (available on its website)
For the period of 2000 though 2015, the mean natural flow was 12.4 maf. That’s well below average. During the first part of the century, from 2000 through 2004, it was even less, just 9.4 maf.
Bottom line here: Nearly all the water in the Colorado River comes from upstream of the Grand Canyon, and the average in the 21st century has lagged below the longer-term averages of the 20th century.
Why are Lake Powell and Lake Mead continuing to decline? The recent declines in Mead have been caused by annual demand levels that exceed supply. By the end of 2016, I expect that total storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead will be close to what it was at the end of 2005. Keep in mind that the major decline in runoff and hence storage was from 2000 through 2004.
That’s scary. Some decent snow years in the Rocky Mountains, where most of the Colorado River water comes from, but yet the storage in Mead is declining. Why the decline in Lake Powell?Lake Powell has actually gained a little bit of storage since 2013 and is well above the low point it reached in the winter of 2005. But because of obligations to deliver a little extra water to Lake Mead and because of OK-but-not-great inflows of 90 to 95 percent, the storage is not going up as rapidly as the snowfall in the Rocky Mountains suggests it should.
People talk about a “structural deficit.” What do they mean by that? The structural deficit is the difference between inflow to Lake Mead and demands at Lake Mead when Lake Powell is delivering a “normal” 8.23 maf/year. The math works this way: 8.23 maf from Powell plus native inflow between Powell and Mead of about 700,000 acre feet gives a total inflow of about 9 maf. Demands are 7.5 maf for the three Lower Basin states plus 1.5 maf for Mexico plus about 1.2 maf of evaporation and system losses for a total of 10.2 maf. Thus, the structural deficit is about 1.2 maf. Evaporation varies based on Lake Mead levels. When Lake Mead is fuller, evaporation plus system losses can be as high as 1.5-1.6 maf.
In a recent paper, you cited evidence that warming regional temperatures have turned above-average or abundant precipitation into just average runoff, kind of a reverse alchemy. How can this happen, turning more into less? Temperature is a major variable in the hydrologic cycle. As temperatures go up, evaporation goes up, crops and native vegetation consume more water (transpiration), and the runoff occurs earlier, which exposes native vegetation earlier. The net result is lower stream flows for the same precipitation levels. Brad Udall suggests that about one-half of the reduction in flows we’ve seen since 2000 in the Colorado may be due to temperature alone.
Good snow years means so-so water years in the Colorado River? Wow, that seems to have a lot of so-what! What do you think are the most important so-whats? For water supply purposes, it’s more than a so-what. If temperatures continue their upward trajectory (with year to year variability, of course), we may be in for a new normal. That normal may not have a ground floor.
I like statistics. Does one statistic leap to mind that illustrates what’s going on in the Colorado River Basin? Yes, the number is 1.2 million acre-feet, the amount that the Lower Basin (and Mexico) must reduce their demands if they are to stabilize levels in Lake Mead—at least for the moment. If temperatures continue to warm, they may have to reduce their demands even more.
Why do California, Arizona and Nevada have to cut back—and we in the headwaters area don’t. The 1922 Colorado River Compact gave the upper basin states 7.5 million acre-feet, and the lower-basin states 8.5 maf. It was always assumed that California, in particular, but also Arizona would develop more rapidly, and they did, while the upper-basin states would be slower to put their allocated water to use. But, by the 1970s California was using far more than its 4.4 million acre-foot allocation. Since then, they have been reducing their diversions, but they remain above their allocation.
What are the implications for the headwaters in Colorado and Wyoming? We could continue to see good snow years and decent regional water supply conditions, but due to increasing regional temperatures and system-wide demands that exceed supplies, the Colorado as a whole may continue to be in crisis. There is an old saying that water flows uphill toward money. My biggest concern is that the continuing supply deficit may trigger efforts that will impact our quality of life, especially upper basin agriculture, which may be seen as the “low-hanging fruit.”
In your recent paper, you issue a warning. What is that warning—and is more than just one exclamation mark justified? My warning is that often, but not always, after we’ve had big El Niño years, in the next year, or two (or even three), we end up with drought in Colorado. 1997-98 and 1957-58 are good examples.
In Colorado, we need to quit talking about continuing drought and acknowledge that conditions in much of the state since the fall of 2013 have been wet (the Southwest and Rio Grande have not been as lucky). This means we need to be prepared for the NEXT drought. As (Colorado Water Conservation Board director) James Eklund says “wishing for the drought to end is not a successful strategy.”
For the basin as a whole, we need to be prepared to survive another 2000-2004 period. The difference is that in 1999 reservoirs were full to the brim. Now, they’re at levels of 40 to 50 percent of capacity.
It sounds like we will really need to rethink our use of water from Colorado and Wyoming to Arizona and California. Who’s in charge of this Plan B? The good news is that many entities are actively engaged in seeking solutions. The State of Colorado has just issued a water plan, for the first time ever. The lower division states appear to be on track to implement significant additional water savings if Mead levels continue to decline. Nobody is really in charge. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior has a significant role because of her authority over the operation of the major projects, but the states, affected water users, environmental groups, and the Native American tribes are all at the table.
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration vastly miscalculated the cost of Colorado’s first statewide water plan.
Earlier this month, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources provided The Colorado Independent with the total cost of the state water plan: nearly $6 million. But that number turned out to be more $2 million too high. State officials confirmed this week that the true cost of the water plan is actually $3,885,951, not including staff costs.
So what caused such an egregious error? The Department of Natural Resources says that almost $1 million of the discrepancy came from a simple miscalculation. A staff member accidentally double-counted the cost of the joint implementation plan submitted by metro Denver and South Platte River water stakeholders, one of eight regional implementation plans throughout the state.
These implementation plans are developed by nine regional stakeholder groups, known as basin roundtables, which are made up of representatives of water providers, plus environmental, recreational, industrial and agricultural water users. Each of the nine basin roundtables oversees a major river basin in the state, including the North Platte, the South Platte, the Arkansas, the Colorado, the Gunnison, the Yampa and the Rio Grande. Except for the Denver and South Platte roundtables, which worked jointly, each developed its own plan.
The implementation plans developed by these nine roundtables form the heart of the Colorado Water Plan. But they also include water projects, which aren’t listed in the state water plan itself, that are aimed at finding at least another 1 million acre-feet of water by 2050. One acre-foot is equal to the amount of water it would take to cover the field at Mile High Stadium, from endzone to endzone, with one foot of water – about 326,000 gallons. It’s about enough to quench the needs of four families per year. Multiply that by a million and you get the state’s projected water shortage for 2050, which many water experts say is a lowball estimate.
The rest of the error came from counting grant money that was ultimately not used. DNR spokesman Todd Hartman told The Independent that the original, nearly-$6 million figure included about $1.2 million in grant money, approved by the basin roundtables, that was not actually used to develop the plans. That means the roundtables spent about $3.6 million developing their plans, not the $5.6 million originally reported.
The department also shelled out $287,263 to write up and print the plan and to roll it out in a public presentation at History Colorado last November. That brings the total to $3,885,951.
So what did the basin roundtables spend that $3.6 million on? Most of the money went to pay consultants and project personnel to put together the basin implementation plans.
For example: the Colorado River basin roundtable spent $350,000 in two phases to compile its document. The funding came from a severance tax on revenues that oil and gas and mining companies pay to extract minerals in the state.
There’s one other cost tied to the water plan: more than $30,000 spent by lawmakers and nonpartisan staff who traveled around the state last year to hear from stakeholders about the water plan’s draft versions.
Lawmakers on the interim Water Resources Review Committee were tasked with holding forums in the nine basin areas, which took place between July and October of 2015.
These forums were authorized by legislation passed in 2014, with a two-year appropriation of $28,872. Of that, $25,572 was allocated for lawmaker and staff travel; the last $3,300 was for advertising the forums.
But the travel costs, at $32,481.52, exceeded the appropriation by nearly $7,000.
With those travel costs added in, the water plan’s tab is at $3,918.432.52. That doesn’t include the cost of hours for CWCB staff during the project’s two-year development, including the cost of travel and time for presentations made by Colorado Water Conservation Board chief James Eklund; nor does it include the cost of hours for Legislative Council staff who traveled with lawmakers a year ago.
What did taxpayers get for their nearly $4 million investment?
Not much, critics of the water plan say. Last year, Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Durango Republican who chairs the interim water committee, told the Colorado Water Conservation Board that the public input the committee gathered showed Coloradans wanted more more specifics in the plan to explain how the state will implement solutions. In a September 30 letter to the CWCB, Roberts said the plan should address how the state will come up with the estimated $20 billion required to pay for the water needed to make up for the projected shortfall.
Russ George is a former Speaker of the House from Rifle and former executive director of the Department of Natural Resources under then-Gov. Bill Owens. He sits on the water conservation board, and said of the plan’s roll-out last November that while the plan lacked actionable solutions, it was more of a “scientific document” than a political one. The plan is a “foundation to begin having the political conversation,” he told The Independent.
There has been some preliminary action on the plan since then. During the 2016 session, lawmakers adopted an annual projects bill for the water conservation board that includes $5 million for water plan implementation. That annual appropriation, according to the bill’s fiscal analysis, is to continue indefinitely, and is to be used for “studies, programs and projects” that will help implement the plan.
The projects bill also includes $1 million to continue work on an ongoing initiative to identify and track the state’s water shortage; $200,000 to fund the planning and construction of the Windy Gap Firming Project, one of the identified projects in the South Platte/Denver implementation plan; and $1 million for a reservoir dredging project, to be developed and jointly paid for with a water provider.
While a specific project isn’t identified in the bill, there are several reservoirs around the state that need dredging to clean out silt. Those are mentioned in basin implementation plans, according to Eklund, but not in the state plan.