Hickenlooper has an opportunity to usher in new era in water planning

By Drew Peternell

Colorado is waking up to the sobering reality that its finite water resources may not keep pace with projected population growth. A recent, state-sponsored analysis predicts a “gap” between water supply and the water demands of the nearly 6 million expected inhabitants of the Front Range in 2050.

In an age of water limits, can Colorado meet its water needs for agriculture, industry and growing cities while also protecting its rivers and quality of life?

Yes, but only with creative solutions and strong leadership. Gov. John Hickenlooper has a golden opportunity to move Colorado away from reliance on costly and destructive large dams and pipelines toward a smart water future built on low-impact alternatives such as conservation and reuse, small-scale storage and innovative sharing arrangements between cities and farms.

We urge the new governor to seize the moment.

Gov. Ritter took the first step in 2008 when he charged the Interbasin Compact Committee with developing a vision of Colorado’s water future. For the past three years, the committee and other stakeholders have worked to identify Colorado’s 2050 water needs and the water supply strategies that would best meet those needs.

We commend the committee’s efforts and fully support its conclusion that the status quo approach to satisfying Colorado’s water needs is unacceptable.

Additional development of water from the Western Slope for use on the Front Range, for example, would be highly expensive, time-consuming and controversial. Existing transmountain diversion projects have left a number of Western Slope rivers and streams unable to support fisheries and other environmental and recreational values and have damaged Western Slope communities. The Hickenlooper administration should say “no” to further trans-mountain diversion projects.

By contrast, without impacting rivers and streams, conservation can significantly reduce water demands. Recent state analyses project that, by 2050, conservation could reduce statewide water demand by over 600,000 acre-feet annually — an amount of water that exceeds the high-end projection of the 2050 gap. The governor should commit the state, through agency policy and new legislation as necessary, to meeting this conservation goal.

Several Front Range communities are pursuing water projects that involve reuse, localized small-scale storage and aquifer recharge in which excess water is stored underground in wet years for use during drought. If designed properly, these projects have minimal impacts, and they are a far better choice than additional transmountain pipelines. The new administration should encourage more communities to adopt projects of this nature.

In recent years, there have been numerous water transfers in which agricultural lands are dried in order to move irrigation water to municipal purposes. Given the important role farming and ranching play in food production and in providing open space and wildlife habitat, “buy and dry” transfers should be avoided.

Hickenlooper’s administration should promote alternative agricultural transfer methods — such as rotational fallowing and temporary leasing agreements — that allow agricultural water resources to be shared with municipalities without requiring a permanent dry-up of irrigated acreage or further depletion of rivers and streams.

Finally, under Hickenlooper’s leadership, Colorado should work to quantify and meet the instream flow needs of fish and wildlife and outdoor recreation. These non-consumptive uses of water support Colorado’s natural heritage, quality of life, and economy. Fishing alone generates $1.4 billion in economic activity annually in the state. The governor should make protection of these public values a priority.

Now is the time for Colorado to embrace new thinking about water supply. Gov. Hickenlooper can lead the way by promoting a balanced vision of Colorado’s water future that preserves and enhances the health of the state’s rivers.

Drew Peternell is director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project in Boulder. Trout Unlimited is a grassroots sportsmen’s conservation group with 10,000 members in Colorado.


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