Three cheers for the state water plan! So ... what’s next?
By Jack Bombardier
On Nov. 19, the final draft of the Colorado Water Plan was delivered to Gov. John Hickenlooper. In the future, this might be looked back upon as a watershed moment for Colorado (pun intended).
Since our fair state was first settled, water disputes have been a constant source of controversy. And now, after 14 years of drought and a never-ending flow of people wanting to live here, the challenge to supply enough water to keep everyone happy has never been more urgent.
The governor was smart to understand that water drives Colorado’s economy and our quality of life more than anything else, including 200,000 sustainable jobs in our tourism and recreation economy. His emphasis on ensuring that the recreation and tourism economy tied to healthy rivers is taken into account in the plan is welcomed by the Colorado business community and environmental stakeholders alike.
As I see it, there are two main water issues underlying all of the others. The first is supply and demand; drought is chipping away at the supply and more folks moving here all the time are increasing demand. The second is the fact that 89 percent of Colorado’s population lives on the Front Range, and 84 percent of our water flows west. These realities make it impossible for everyone to get everything they want. However, the new water plan represents a good first step toward reaching that ideal.
I live beside the Colorado River, and with only a slight turn of my head I can see it flowing past my window as I write this. For most of the year, I run a float fishing business called Confluence Casting and take people from all over the world down the river. From my perspective, I see a precious resource, one that not only provides me with income but that helps people connect to the natural world in a very deep and almost spiritual way. River corridors like the Colorado and others are why people come here to live or visit in the first place. Quality of life is a hard value to define, but you know when you have it, and when you don’t. And here in Colorado, we definitely do.
As much work as it took to get the water plan completed, now is when the heavy lifting begins. The plan outlines the main issues we face, and a number of different methods that we might use to help ensure our water supplies for the next 50 years or longer. But there is nothing in the plan that is really mandated. It’s sort of an “all of the above” wish list of things. Since all of the state’s Basin Roundtables and other varied stakeholders were involved in crafting the plan, it includes elements that everyone both likes and dislikes. That’s the nature of compromise.
From my narrow perch, I don’t want to see any more trans-basin diversions or dams, and not a drop more water going east. But even if we consider diverting water to the Front Range, let’s first consider smarter solutions that maximize water that is already available. For sure, available water could be managed a lot better than it is now, whether by reducing waste at the municipal or agricultural level, or by amending outdated water law. Colorado water rights have a “use it or lose it” provision that discourages landowners from keeping water in the rivers when they don’t need to take it. It can also be in a farmer’s short-term interest to sell their water rights to a city. Why not make it easier to lease it instead?
I’m as pleased as everyone else that the Colorado Water Plan is now a real, living document. It is heartening to see the governor has placed conservation values at the center. The most cost effective and easily implementable way to ensure our businesses and communities have enough water to thrive is to improve urban and agricultural water conservation.
The Colorado Water Plan may only be a first step, but every great journey begins with that. Now the plan needs to be implemented. The positive momentum we’ve created must be continued with robust and detailed criteria for project selection and adequate funding to protect our rivers, outdoor recreation industry, agricultural heritage, businesses and thriving cities. May we all look back in the coming years and say that Colorado’s great and successful journey towards a comprehensive water policy began on Nov. 19, 2015.
Jack Bombardier is the owner of Confluence Casting, based in Gypsum, Colorado.