Colorado water plan to help state cope with water shortages
By Russell George and James Eklund
Water is an essential ingredient in making Colorado special. Whether one lives on the Western Slope, the Front Range, North Park or the San Luis Valley, it is what makes Colorado’s productive businesses, farms and ranches, our thriving recreational industry, our beautiful environment and our vibrant cities possible.
Water is in short supply. In the coming decades, there could be a gap between water supply and demand of as much as half a million acre-feet or more per year. The entire state is put at risk by this scenario, but it is particularly threatening to Colorado’s rural communities. Unless we do something to manage our water future differently than we do today, more and more agricultural water will be bought to supply our growing cities, thereby drying up hundreds of thousands of acres of productive farm land and jeopardizing the economy and livelihoods of rural Colorado.
Northeastern Colorado alone is expected to lose approximately 20 percent of agricultural land currently under production from purchase agreements already in place.
This water supply future is unacceptable. We must have a plan that uses our best thinking and problem-solving to provide an adequate and secure water future for all Coloradans. In May of this year, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop Colorado’s water plan. This is an unprecedented undertaking for Colorado, but fortunately much of the work that is needed to develop the plan is already done.
During the drought of 2002-2003, the state commissioned the most comprehensive study ever done of Colorado’s current and future water demands and supplies, a study that is continually updated so it includes the most current information available.
In addition, in 2005 the state Legislature created the Interbasin Compact Committee, a group of 27 water leaders representing every major river basin and water constituency. It also created nine basin roundtables, groups of water leaders in every major river basin that have been taking an in-depth look at their basins’ water challenges. For the last several years, these groups have been engaged in thoughtful dialogue while working hard to understand Colorado’s water challenges and ways they could be addressed.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Interbasin Compact Committee and basin roundtables have reached consensus on a variety of actions that will lead to a better water future, including support for alternatives to permanent “buy-and-dry” of agriculture, for conservation, for projects that meet certain criteria and more. Colorado’s water plan will not be a top-down plan full of state mandates and requirements. Instead, it will be built on the foundation of the work of these groups. And that is a strong foundation.
The citizens in each basin are in the process of developing water plans for their regions. Because this effort is under way, we don’t yet know all that Colorado’s water plan will include. What we do know is the plan will be balanced and will reflect Colorado’s best values.
The governor’s executive order specifies that Colorado’s water plan must promote a productive economy that supports vibrant and sustainable businesses and cities, viable and productive agriculture and a robust skiing, recreation and tourism industry. The plan must further efficient and effective water infrastructure, promoting smart land use and a strong environment that includes healthy watersheds, rivers and streams, and wildlife.
Colorado’s Water Plan will reaffirm the state Constitution’s recognition of priority of appropriation while offering recommendations to the governor for legislation that will improve coordination, streamline processes and align state interests.
With the help of many stakeholders and interested persons, the Colorado Water Conservation Board will deliver a draft of Colorado’s water plan to the governor by Dec. 10, 2014. The Water Conservation Board will then work with the governor’s office to finalize Colorado’s water plan no later than December 2015.
For more information, visit Colorado’s water plan online at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com.
Russell George is the Colorado River representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. James Eklund is the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.