Colorado must begin work now to augment its water supply

By John Redifer

In May, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order requiring the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop a state water plan. This call to action is in response to a number of studies indicating that increasing water demands will far outstrip available supplies. By 2050, this water deficit is expected to be roughly 500,000 acre feet.

At the August meeting of the Colorado Water Congress, the governor urged all members of the water community to work together to meet this “water crisis.” 

The governor’s executive order requires the Water Conservation Board to work with other state agencies, as well as the interbasin compact committee, river basin roundtables and all other interested parties to build a bottom- up solution to our current crisis. 

The governor expects such an approach to produce a plan that will close the gap between municipal and industrial water supply and demand without damaging our agricultural economy, harming the environment or injuring our growing recreation and tourism industry. In reality, members of our water community have been attempting to devise such a solution since the drought of 2002.

In the spirit of the governor’s request, Grand Valley domestic water providers and irrigators recently met and adopted a set of principles they believe should guide the development of the state water plan.

The problem we confront is that water allocation is a zero-sum game. We have a finite supply of water and an ever-increasing demand for its use.

Currently, Colorado water law recognizes four beneficial uses of water. It can be used for municipal and industrial purposes, to meet agricultural needs, to protect the environment or to promote recreational activities. Efforts to “close the gap” between water demand and available supplies will not eliminate the gap. They will simply reallocate the gap from one existing beneficial use to another.

We quickly realized that the problem is not how we are going to close the gap, but what is the best method for reallocating existing limited water supplies to best meet the needs, as expressed by proponents of each of the four identified beneficial uses.

Unfortunately, our principles have been mischaracterized as yet another Western Slope water organization’s defiant statement of “not one more drop of West Slope water for the Front Range.” Rather than address the issue of how water should be reallocated, we sought to provide input into the best process for reallocating water in the short term while providing a means for development of a more long-term solution.

We believe that short-term reliance on our current market system, as established by existing state water law, is the most effective and efficient way to reallocate our limited water supply to meet the state’s future needs. Further, we believe that local governments are best suited for determining their future growth and development plans, while local water providers are most able to make the best decisions on how to meet the water needs of these communities.

The state can assist these local entities in meeting the needs of their constituents by providing assistance in the form of advice when requested and funding. Well-intentioned efforts by the state to mandate activities at the local level are more likely to increase costs without providing better solutions. 

Long-term, we do not believe there is sufficient water available in the state to meet all of our needs for municipal and industrial growth while protecting our agricultural economy, promoting tourism and recreation and ensuring a healthy and flourishing environment. Every other state in the Colorado Compact is facing the same situation.

To address our long-term needs, we believe the state water plan must include two things. First, we must have in place an equitable plan to address the possibility of a future compact call by the Lower Basin states. Second, our state must begin working with the other states in the Colorado River Compact, as well as the federal government, to develop, fund and implement an augmentation plan that will increase water supplies in the entire region.

James Ecklund, the new director of the Colorado Water Conservation board, has been quoted as saying that augmentation is “neither politically or technically feasible.” But we believe it is even less feasible to believe that we can continue forever to rely on our existing water supplies to meet our future water demands beyond 2050, while maintaining the cornerstones of our economy, protecting our environment and continuing to provide a high quality of life for all our citizens.

Augmentation will be politically challenging, very expensive and full of environmental challenges. Rather than run from these obstacles, we must start now to work toward a solution that will overcome them. Hickenlooper, as the chairman of the Western Governors Association, is uniquely situated to get this discussion started. 

Someone far smarter than I am once said, “All the greatest accomplishments of humans began with someone saying it can’t be done.” Well, that has now been said, so it is time to roll up our sleeves and go to work.

John Redifer served as the Colorado Basin director on the Colorado Water Conservation board for seven years. He is currently vice president of the Ute Water Conservancy District board of directors.

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