Colorado needs a mother lode of water by 2050 – as much, in fact, as it takes to serve about 2 million people.
As our climate changes and population keeps soaring, the future looks scary dry.
That’s why Gov. John Hickenlooper wants the state’s first-ever statewide water plan in place by December.
In question is where to glean more water, who would pay for it, and how to avoid an all-out water war in a state where the Continental Divide isn’t just a hydrological contour, but also a battle line.
When The Colorado Independent last reported on the making of the plan in July, the first draft offered no specific answers. Now there’s a second draft that puts forth a litany of concepts state officials are touting as “win-win solutions.”
“Assembling such a plan, one that outlines numerous feasible steps the state, water providers and water users can take, is unprecedented in Colorado and represents a major step forward for our state,” Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman Kathy Green wrote in an email this week.
Several key water experts are unimpressed, lobbing the same criticisms about the second draft as they did about the first.
They say the revised, 416-page document still is less of a plan than a water study — a detailed account of the struggles faced by water users throughout the state, painstakingly compiled by an administration more interested in making everyone feel heard than in making tough decisions.
With 13 days [September 17] left for the public to comment, critics say the plan still lacks priorities and actionable specifics and that it fails to address the most practical question – how to pay for solutions. They’re also disappointed that it sets no clear expectations for how much, statewide, all of Colorado’s water users should be conserving.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s still not much there in there,” said water lawyer Peter Nichols, one of Hickenlooper’s appointees to Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee, a statewide water working group.
“There are a lot of platitudes and clichés and nice words like ‘foster,’ ‘develop,’ ‘encourage,’ and ‘coordinate’ in this draft. But those aren’t action words. Those words won’t carry us. They’re not going to meet our water needs for 2050.”
A “back-of-the-napkin analysis”?
If, as the old adage goes, water runs uphill to money, the slope is especially steep in Colorado. Maintaining current water storage and delivery systems and keeping up with climate change and continued growth will, according to the state, cost $20 billion over the next 35 years.
The problem with that amount isn’t just that it’s ginormous. It’s unclear what the $20 billion would buy.
Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund mentions the figure often in meetings and public appearances. Yet, when pressed for specifics, he says it’s just “a back-of-the-napkin analysis.”
According to the water plan, the $20 billion would pay for projects that have been deemed necessary in each of the state’s eight river basins. Yet, the costs for nearly half those projects are still listed on the plan as “forthcoming.”
“It’s all very much a work in progress,” Eklund said.
Colorado’s water chief is a tall, carefully coiffed and nattily dressed Stanford graduate who comes from a family of Western Slope cattle operators. He’s well versed in the practicalities and legalities of western water use, and seemingly at ease with the plodding pace of policy reform. He served as Hickenlooper’s senior deputy legal counsel before being appointed to lead the state on water.
Eklund lauds his boss for “spending the political capitol” to order Colorado’s first statewide water plan rather than, like other governors, taking a pass on one of the state’s most touchy issues.
“There are people in the water community that said you say the word(s) ‘state water plan’ and that’s toxic, that’s a third rail, you can’t touch that,” he said.
“(Hickenlooper) said I need the white paper on water. We all looked at each other and said we don’t have one of those. He said you’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve got a business with an input as critical as water is to the bottom line of that business — you know as water is to the bottom line the state of Colorado. You would say that was unacceptable to the CEO and the board of directors. So go do it.”
Since Hickenlooper’s executive order in December, Eklund’s staff has written and rewritten two drafts of the water plan. They’ve attended months of hearings and meetings asking what Coloradans want in their water future. And they’ve reviewed public comments from throughout the state – including, Eklund likes to note, the input of 26 high schoolers from Dolores.
“That kind of response is something we could have only dreamed of,” he said.
Eklund is especially proud that his staff has responded to all 25,869 public comments.
“We’re looking really hard at each one as it comes in,” he said.
As he tells it, the water planning process is an acme of civic engagement.
Having amassed 25,869 public comments isn’t, in itself, a vision for how to solve the state’s water woes, seasoned water-policy makers say.
“(They) need to sort through it, pull out what the priorities are. It’s not going to define itself,” said Denver Water chief Jim Lochhead. “A process is not a plan.”
The need for specificity
More details are key for Front Range business owners, Western Slope farmers and ranchers, environmentalists, water agency bosses and politicians who, like Eklund says of the Governor, also have their eyes on the bottom line. Although most agree on the need for a water plan, they differ – sometimes bitterly — about which water uses should take priority and who should bear responsibility for the projected shortfall. Without price tags, they say, there can be no meaningful discussion about funding strategies. And without funding strategies, there can be no hard look at what’s even possible.
Several close followers of the process tell The Independent that, as much as they want to show support, they’re finding it tough to buy into a plan that serves up little more than broad concepts.
“The plan, in fairness, offers lots of interesting information about what’s happening with water in Colorado. But it’s a water study, not a water policy and not a water plan. And that’s an important difference,” said Harris Sherman, who ran the Colorado Department of Natural Resources under Govs. Dick Lamm and Bill Ritter and recently stepped down as a top Obama appointee to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Eklund aims to have tackled a good portion of the state’s water solutions by the time Hickenlooper is term-limited in three years. Still, he balks when asked about upcoming agendas for water. Should Coloradans expect water bills in the legislative 2016 session? It’s too early to tell, he told The Independent. Should voters expect executive action while Hickenlooper is in office? “It’s premature for me to know,” he said.
“You have to crawl before you can walk.”
Hickenlooper’s office also defends the water plan, saying it’s not the point to chart a specific list of water projects or their costs.
“…To set up that straw man is misleading,” Green wrote.
In fact, she asserted, specifics could mess up the grassroots water planning approach Hickenlooper is committed to.
“The state does not have the authority to determine which projects go where and, should it attempt to do so, the collaboration and cooperation upon which the water plan was so respectfully built would collapse under the weight of such top-down action,” she said. “All parties would return to their traditional corners to fight it out, as they have for decades, with the same kind of infighting that prevents the very kind of holistic approach the water plan seeks to achieve.”
Critics counter that, in a time of climate change and rampant growth, a 416-page articulation of water goals without key financial details and actionable solutions isn’t holistic. It’s naive.
“There’s money involved in most of the ideas set forth in there…, but you wouldn’t know it. Without clear metrics, priorities, deadlines and a sense of who’s going to do what – without all the things I’d characterize as a real plan — there’s no path forward,” Lochhead said. “There are a lot of things on that list – including the funding – that, in my view, are unrealistic.”
“What can we actually do in three years?” state Water Conservation Board member John McClow asked at the July meeting. “The list needs to be more realistic.”
Who should pay? And how?
Eklund’s team has topped its list of “Potential Future Funding Opportunities” with the following: “A federal/state partnership similar to the Central Arizona Project” and “A federal/state partnership similar to the California State Water Project.”
Both are vast water delivery systems launched during the late- and mid- Cold War era, respectively, when the federal government used to pay for dams, pipelines and other projects that made Western deserts bloom.
Emulating those partnerships is unlikely now that the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers no longer have the budgets or mandates for projects that would be as legally risky and expensive as they are politically divisive. The feds aren’t in the business of building massive water projects any more.
“Maybe Colorado didn’t get the memo,” said Pat Mulroy, a Nevada-based water expert with the Brookings Institution.
Funding is more likely to come from the private sector — whose resources can be limited – and from the state and municipal public sectors, mainly though tax or water rate increases.
In an effort to “identify and determine a path to develop a new viable public source of funding,” the water plan cites ways to glean $10 million here and $40 million there through various grant projects and government partnerships. The plan also suggests a container fee ballot measure that could generate about $100 million a year.
But, in the $20 billion scheme of things, that’s chump change.
Besides, counting on voter-backed funding can be risky. In 2000, Coloradans resoundingly rejected Referendum A, an effort to raise $2 billion for water projects. More recently, they’ve chewed up and spit out measures to raise taxes for transportation and education – both issues that poll higher than water among most Coloradans.
Even if voters could be persuaded to back a water tax, policy constraints such as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) could stand in the way. The current water plan overlooks Colorado’s knot of fiscal caps – an issue planners say they’ll be adding to the final draft.
Water utilities point out that because their customers already pay for water projects through monthly water rates, they’d be paying double through a tax increase.
“A statewide funding initiative, in my assessment, it’s not doable,” Lochhead said. “People aren’t likely to support paying twice.
Lochhead said Denver Water’s board would be willing to consider asking its 1.3 million customers to fund more delivery systems, reuse projects and conservation efforts to help stave off a shortfall. Problem is, he pointed out, he hasn’t been approached by state officials about the prospect of making such an ask. Neither had two other water agency bosses interviewed for this story.
As the gatekeepers of the most promising source of money in the state, water bosses wonder whom if not them the administration is so intent on collaborating with.
East v. West
The tension underpinning Colorado’s water situation is largely between urban and agricultural users. Although, by virtue of their populations, cities and suburbs have more money and political clout, agricultural communities generally have the upper hand because their water rights are usually older, giving them higher priority for Colorado’s dwindling water supplies.
Farming and ranching communities – especially those on the Western Slope with rights to Colorado River water – long have fought efforts by city folk to grab their water, pump it east through the mountains and fuel growth along the Front Range. More recently, environmentalists hoping to keep more water from being siphoned out of the at-risk river have echoed the Western Slope battle cry — “Not one more drop!”
That leaves sprawling Front Range cities and suburbs straining to live within their means. The well known “Use only what you need” campaign by Denver Water, the state’s biggest municipal water supplier, is one of many efforts that has been able to slash municipal water use.
It comes as no surprise that the water plan, in its second draft released in July, is calling for city dwellers and businesses to conserve water in hopes of saving 400,000 acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot is enough to serve two to three households per year at current water use rates.) The plan calls for “medium-level conservation” – meaning, presumably, saving more water than residents and businesses currently are conserving, but not so much that it hurts. Eklund’s team calls it a “stretch goal,” which is financial-speak for a way of challenging people to reconsider what they thought was possible.
The conservation plan is a goal, not a requirement. It’s voluntary.
Nobody seems to question cities’ need to keep conserving more water. Several water insiders do, however, question whether 400,000 acre-feet could actually be gleaned by urging city dwellers and suburbanites to cut back their laundry loads and backyard sprinkling. They also question whether the conservation policy is fair.
Even though municipalities serve about 86 percent of Coloradans, they only consume about 2 percent of the state’s water. Agriculture uses between 85 and 90 percent.
The water plan doesn’t set clear expectations for farmers and ranchers to conserve. Their water rights allow them to tap however much water they can put to what’s called “beneficial use.” If they use less, the water goes to the next user – and so on. So, as things stand, there’s a legal disincentive for agricultural users to cut back.
This doesn’t sit right with many city folks, especially knowing how much water goes wasted by inefficient techniques such as the use of unlined dirt irrigation ditches and canals.
“There’s no question that in other parts of the world, agriculture uses much less water,” Sherman said. “Things can be done. Improvements can be made.”
After reading the plan, Patricia Wells, the Colorado Water Conservation Board member representing Denver, said, “I was struck by the disparity of how we treat agriculture and how we treat the people of Colorado.”
“The only mandates in this plan are all about people.”
Calls for broader conservation are coming from unlikely players – the business community rather than from environmentalists.
At the state board’s July meeting about the plan in Ignacio, representatives from environmental groups praised the conservation goals as is and commended the plan’s commitment to keeping water in rivers to protect environmental and recreational flows.
“I’m here with two messages – that of appreciation and encouragement,” Bart Miller, a river expert with Western Resources Advocates, told Eklund and his board. “As it progresses, we’re seeing more details, really good things…”
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, in the meantime, is strongly urging that conservation goals apply statewide — including to agriculture—rather than just to certain sectors.
“We want to make sure that all sides are giving,” said Mizraim Cordero, the Chamber’s vice president of public affairs. “I think there’s still room for more discussion about what goals are achievable by agriculture.”
Eklund notes that there’s a big difference between residential and agricultural conservation because water rights are property rights in Colorado.
“They’re running businesses in agriculture. They’re not doing it because it’s fun… They’re doing it to make money. If you’re telling them they’ve got to add a line item to their balance sheet that they didn’t otherwise anticipate, they’re going to ask you who’s paying for that. And right now, we’re not doing that,” he said.
Given the vastly disproportionate amount of water used by farms and ranches, Colorado isn’t likely to overcome its shortfall without arrangements between agriculture and utilities.
All too often, those arrangements have meant farmers selling off their land and water rights to cities. That practice, known as “buying and drying,” has left wide swaths of the state deserted. Crowley County, for example, once had more than 50,000 irrigated acres and now has only 5,000.
“When we sold our water, we sold our future,” a local town clerk told The Independent in July.
Hickenlooper has made it clear that preserving Colorado’s agricultural tradition needs to be a keystone of the water plan.
The easiest way forward would be if farmers and ranchers could directly market some of their water to utilities. But the “consumptive use” doctrine underlying water law blocks such deals because they put agricultural water rights in jeopardy. If farmers aren’t directly using their water, they risk losing it.
Several top water officials and political leaders have been urging Hickenlooper, in his plan, to enable a market-based system that removes legal barriers. The idea behind so-called “alternative transfer mechanisms” is that farms would step up conservation if cities, through innovative funding, could subsidize efficiency efforts and glean the water savings on a short-term basis. Farmers, in turn, would be assured protection from losing their long-term water rights.
It would be tricky. But it’s doable. Similar deals have been struck in California, which is under crisis with a severe drought. The point in Colorado is to avert a crisis before our next dry spell hits.
“If Hickenlooper wants to make this a priority of this administration, he has limited time to start getting things done,” Lochhead said.
The public has until Thursday, September 17 to submit comments on the water plan.
“We’re waiting with bated breath and open ears. We’re all ears,” Eklund said.
Russell George, former speaker of Colorado’s House and Gov. Bill Owens’ natural resources chief who’s vice chair of the water board, said there’s “a beauty in itself” in the outpouring of civic participation.
“I don’t feel the need for any of us to get hung up on the plan piece of this thing,” he has told The Independent.
But, given the looming shortfall, stakeholders are, indeed, “hung up” — and making sure to speak out while the administration is listening.
Environmental groups and their members are urging the administration to hone criteria for which of the 81 currently proposed “critical actions” are truly critical and should take priority. “Our thought is that it doesn’t really give enough detail such that you could take a giant list of projects and push them through,” Miller said.
Several water experts are pressing Hickenlooper hard to end the stalemate between the Front Range and Western Slope over using extra Colorado River water when it’s available. The water plan proposes a conceptual framework for how negotiations between the two sides should go. But it offers no concrete solutions.
“That’s where the plan falls short and where the state needs to get creative and ambitious and take a leadership role in actually brokering a deal,” said Nichols who, as a member of the committee that oversees compacts between Colorado’s distrusting river basins, has seen deal after deal blow up. “There are discussions going on about putting more meat on the bones before December and how to implement a meaningful plan, maybe by changing some laws.”
The business community is trying to galvanize its members to read the plan and chime in. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is pressing for specifics about costs and what, if anything, Hickenlooper will do to prod agriculture to measurably cut back.
“We commend that the Governor has made water a major priority and has moved the ball. But we definitely encourage him and other leaders to continue (giving) specificity to help carry things out,” said the Chamber’s Cordero.
Is he confident that’ll happen by final draft in December?
Said Cordero: “I’m not going to answer that one.”