The ‘whoa’ in the state’s water woes

Earlier this year, Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed Senate Bill 23 — a bill designed to encourage water conservation on the Western Slope — because he thought it created a “polarizing” atmosphere at a time when the Legislature was attempting to build consensus around a state water plan.

There were other factors. Opponents said it created a new water right — a conservation right — that could harm junior rights holders downstream from farms and ranches that voluntarily implemented water conservation measures.

Supporters of the bill found the veto puzzling. Hickenlooper has long advocated conservation as the linchpin to securing the state’s long-term ability to accommodate growth. Indeed, Colorado’s population is expected to double by 2050, one of the reasons Hickenlooper issued an executive order calling for a state water plan to be adopted by 2015.

Draft plans for how the state’s eight largest river basins will meet needs identified in the Statewide Water Supply Initiative have been filtering into the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which has the herculean task of knitting together a cohesive plan that addresses conservation, incremental storage, drought mitigation and alternatives to the growing “buy and dry” trend, in which municipalities buy water rights from agricultural producers.

And it’s clear that thirsty Front Range communities are going to seek more Colorado River diversions. The South Platte’s roundtable plan plainly lists “new Colorado River supplies” as part of its vision for meeting its supply gap.

The Colorado Basin Implementation Plan, on the other hand, starts off with one overarching conclusion: “This document’s strongest finding is that another major transmountain diversion of water from the Colorado mainstem to Eastern Colorado should be prevented as damaging to our recreation economy, environment and agriculture.”

The Colorado Basin cannot give up more water without compromising its ability to meet downstream obligations under the Colorado River Compact. “It’s a little bit like being in the middle of a rubber band and being stretched from both ends; we are being stretched by our water supplies to meet Front Range demands and our legal requirement to continue to allow water to go through to our downstream states and Mexico,” said Eric Kuhn of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Which brings us back to Hickenlooper’s veto. The Associated Press reported Saturday that water providers in four Western states, including Denver Water, had teamed up with the Interior Department to create several small pilot programs in 2015 and 2016 aimed at conserving water in the Colorado River basin.

State Reps. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, wrote an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Sentinel criticizing the effort, saying Lower Basin states should not look to Colorado agricultural producers for relief from their own water mismanagement because Colorado’s agriculture industry is already a leader in conservation.

Everyone talks a good game about conservation, but no one wants to actually turn loose any of the water they save. Hickenlooper may have been right about SB23, but all he did was forestall the inevitable. Water is polarizing. Period.


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