Water is for fighting, not dithering; guv’s call to action on water is welcome
It won’t be long now until Mother Nature does her thing, turning the page on what has been a particularly long, especially cold and wonderfully wet winter in most of Colorado. As April winds down and temperatures rise, that winter snowpack painted across the high country will soon be unleashed into the rivers of Colorado.
This year, run-off is likely to take an especially awesome form. Snowpack levels are in the ballpark of where they were in 2011, a year when the spring melt was downright violent.
At one point late that spring, recall, more than 50,000 cubic feet per second exploded through the measuring machinery at Westwater Canyon, just west of Mesa County Commissioner John Justman’s farm near the state line.
Loma commuters will remember that as the year when a low-lying stretch of Interstate 70 was washed out by the artillery-force of the fast-moving spring melt.
A host of variables will ultimately determine whether this year’s bulging snowpack translates into a comparable run-off. But reservoir operators are preparing for that possibility, already releasing water from several storage units to make room for what’s to come.
While Mother Nature is doing her part to make water available to the masses, you would be hard-pressed to say the same about the state’s water policy. Talk abounds, but action is glacial. Three cheers for Gov. John Hickenlooper for calling on policymakers and water leaders to throw the water-bus into gear.
The governor is right — after years of analysis and hundreds of meetings as part of a framework I helped create during my time in the Legislature, the time for action from the able men and women who make up the state’s water leadership is now.
If you look at the reservoirs, ditches, pipelines, canals and irrigation systems that make life in this arid country possible, most are the handiwork of leadership from another time. The next time you drive by the Wayne N. Aspinall Federal Building on 4th and Rood, honk your horn and shout “thank you” — it was the water leadership of the legendary congressman and his cohorts that brought about a good deal of the water infrastructure that makes modern living across our state possible.
But there is a limit to how much even the boldest leadership from a bygone era can do to meet the challenges of the here and now. The world has changed, and pressing obstacles abound.
• Existing storage on the Colorado River is inadequate to meet the competing demands of the various states that rely on it. The not-so-small matter of “who gets water and who gets screwed” during periods of sustained water shortage remains an unsettled question at the federal level. So what, you ask? Here’s what — on the other side of this fight are Harry Reid and the 55 members of the California congressional delegation.
Smallish states like Colorado and Utah will be dramatically disadvantaged if these negotiations occur during crisis. Smallish states that are themselves divided will, against the political power of the lower basin states, surely not stand a prayer.
• In-state challenges for Colorado are equally real. According to a state analysis, “(The) gap between supply and demand by 2050 (is) projected at 500,000 acre feet (one acre foot = enough water to supply 3 households of 4 for a year). Population (is) projected to double by 2060 from 5.5 million now to 10 million.”
Against the backdrop of these challenges, it is hard to argue for a “wait and see” approach.
What is Colorado’s plan to unite itself in advance of “shortage” negotiations with the federal government and California, et al? More, what is our plan to provide water to 4 million additional residents by mid-century?
Some will ask what the rush is to answer these questions. My best response to that is, thank heavens Congressman Aspinall didn’t think that way.
All of this is the reason to welcome Hickenlooper’s call to action — under the terms of a just-passed bipartisan bill, the state’s water leaders will release a broad-based water plan this December with the express intent of taking these big questions head-on. After several years of meeting, studying and debating, Hickenlooper was right to, as they say in legislative parlance, call the question.
Yes, it will be a bit of a fight, but so what. Water is for fighting, not dithering. The sooner we get our own house in order, the better the position we will be in to engage the more ominous fights ahead.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He graduated from Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.