Western Slope water a hot topic at public forum

High-country streams such as this tributary of the Gunnison River should be running bank-high in late May, but this year mountain snowpacks already are almost gone.

The Colorado River this year is a lesson in doing less with less.

Tuesday’s public forum on the “Value of the Colorado River to Western Colorado Economies” may have raised more issues than it answered, which is what such forums are expected to do.

However, among the full complement of the arcane numbers and dollar figures expected from anything with “economies” in the headline, there was quite a bit more.

Presented by the Mesa County Conservation Forum (http://www.mccforum.org) and the Colorado Mesa University Water Center, the two-hour discussion and question-and-answer session gathered a well-versed panel of irrigators, farmers, river runners, tourism representatives and state parks managers, all of whom evidenced the extensive reach of the nation’s fifth-longest river (1,450 miles in a good year).

They agreed the value of the Colorado River transcends the billions of dollars in jobs and direct cash the river adds to local and state economies.

“The Colorado River defines who we are on the Western Slope,” said Steve Acquafresca, Mesa County’s director to the Colorado River Water District and a former state representative.

“Asking a farmer about the value of water,” said orchardist Bruce Talbott of Talbott Farms, who uses the river to grow such crops as apples, peaches and wine grapes, “is like asking anyone here in the audience the value of oxygen. Without it we don’t exist.”

According to a report from Protect the Flows, a coalition of more than 500 small-business owners in the seven states in the Colorado River basin, the river in Colorado alone supports an estimated 80,000 jobs and contributes approximately $9.6 billion each year to the economy.

However, according to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, speaking in a recent interview: “Over the last 12 years, we have lost 35 percent of the stored water available on the Colorado River through consumption and drought.”

That means we’re using the river to water our lawns, wash our cars and green our parks faster than the river can regenerate itself.

Conserving water certainly makes sense, but “people get nervous when you start trying to sell conservation,” said Max Schmidt, manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District.

One reason, he said, is because “Colorado (water law) says ‘use it or lose it,’ and people wonder what happens to the water we save.”

A Mesa County farmer saving an acre-foot of water (approx. 326,000 gallons) quickly finds someone with deep pockets looking to transfer that water to the Front Range, Schmidt said.

“An acre-foot of water goes about $2,500 on the Western Slope but on the Front Range that same water goes for $300,000 or more,” he said. “And once it goes over there, we’re not getting it back.”

And water rights won’t mean anything if the state gets into a Front Range vs. Western Slope water fight, Talbott and others said.

“Agriculture uses 80 percent of the water, but less than 2 percent of the population still lives on farms,” he said. “Politically, we don’t exist.”

Which, the panel agreed, begs the question of whether the average Western Slope resident realizes the true cost of water.

“It’s too cheap,” asserted one audience member. Widespread conservation efforts won’t work “until the cost (of water) becomes more relative to what it’s true cost is in a desert environment.”

David Miller, chairman of Alpine Bank’s green team, said that company cut its water use by more than 25 percent in less than five years.

“But one of the challenges we faced was water is so cheap,” he said.

When Alpine Bank approached its landscapers about reducing water use, the response was: “It’s so low, why do we care?” Miller said.

Because, Acquafresca said, water is finite.

“Society has to accept that water is a finite resource,” he said. “We’re seeing that this year.”

At a time when streams should be rushing toward peak runoff, the Natural Resources Conservation Service reported Friday the snowpack in the upper reaches of the Gunnison Basin as zero.


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