A Western Colorado perspective on “New Supply”

Today’s guest blog about the #2 Upper Colorado River- a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series- is from Jim Pokrandt, Chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. To facilitate discussions on water management issues and encourage locally driven collaborative solutions, nine basin roundtables were established by the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act. These roundtables represent each of the state’s eight major river basins and the Denver metropolitan area.

Upper Colorado River, CO | © Ken Neubecker

Ask Governor Hickenlooper to insist that measures are included in the Colorado Water Plan that provide essential water for healthy rivers, not just the minimum amount required by law | © Ken Neubecker

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The State Demographer predicts that Colorado will double its population to about 10 million people by 2050, and the state is engaged in planning on how to meet that water supply imperative in a balanced way. The biggest area of concern is the Front Range of Colorado— most of the people in the state live there, but most of the renewable, snowpack-supplied water is not there. As a result, the Colorado River system is already a source of 450,000 and 600,000 acre feet of water that moves west to east under the Continental Divide.

“New Supply” is a term in the Colorado Water Plan (currently under construction) that refers to a possible new trans-mountain diversion from the Colorado River Basin in Western Colorado to the Front Range. “New Supply” is one of four “legs of the stool”— a metaphor in the water planning parlance that refers to solutions coming from: 1) New trans-mountain diversions; 2) completion of projects currently on the drawing board or under permit application; 3) conservation/reuse; and 4) the fallowing of agriculture. A draft of the Plan is due by December of this year.

In the absence of a plan, right now, agriculture is the default source of new water supply on the Front Range. Apparently, there is no shortage of willing sellers of agricultural water rights who have already set in motion the fallowing of more than 20 percent of irrigated acreage. In some places, local economies have suffered greatly by the disappearance of agribusiness.

Make no mistake about it. Some people on the Front Range think another Colorado River diversion project will stem the tide of ag buy-up. The details of how that works are not given, but it is an article of faith that agriculture would be saved by more Colorado River system water. Therefore, in a sense, the growing population has put targets on agriculture and the Colorado River.

The Colorado Basin Roundtable believes that a new trans-mountain project should be the last tool out of the box, so to speak, and that is under the generous assumption that a new diversion could actually be completed— in other words, that hydrological shortage, compact questions, environmental protections, and risk to current water users can be overcome. In the meantime, the state should do everything it can to best use the water resources it already has running through its municipal systems. This will make for some difficult conversations about water use and priorities, but no more difficult than the concept of very expensive projects.

This says nothing about protecting water in the streams, as we now know them. In Western Colorado, water in the streams is the foundation of a recreational economy every bit as important to the state as other traditional consumptive uses. We also must remember that agricultural water flowing from the headwaters to the Grand Valley is the same water that people play on.

“New Supply” will be the most difficult question emerging from the draft Colorado Water Plan. How it is handled and prioritized against conservation, reuse, and agricultural fallowing is what bears watching.

Please let those crafting the Colorado Water Plan know that we take the core value of “a strong environment” with healthy watersheds, rivers, and streams seriously! The Plan must prioritize smart water use and reuse over trans-mountain diversions.