Rivers form the lifelines of Colorado’s economy and lifestyle. On both sides of the Continental Divide, the Colorado, Arkansas, Rio Grande, and the South Platte rivers provide world class fishing, paddling and fantastic scenic canyons. Yet not only do these rivers and their tributaries provide engaging recreation opportunities, they also provide most of Colorado’s clean, safe, reliable drinking water, support our thriving agricultural communities, and substantially contribute to Colorado’s culture, heritage, and economy as a destination for visitors from around the world.

Unfortunately, the rivers we know and love are at risk. A swelling population stretches our water supplies, evidence is mounting that climate change is reducing flows on the Colorado River, and securing and sustaining Colorado’s supply of clean, safe drinking water continues to be top of mind. About 80% of Colorado’s population live in Front Range thriving cities like Denver, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins, while 80% of Colorado’s snow and rain falls on the Western Slope. The Front Range has long depended on “trans-mountain” projects to pump, pipe, and divert water across the Continental Divide from the Colorado River Basin and others for drinking water, municipal use, recreation, and agriculture. These dams and diversions decrease river flows, degrade our environment, and impair river recreation, a key element for Western Slope’s vibrant tourism economy.

In 2013, the State of Colorado recognized looming threats facing our rivers and water supply systems. To better manage our finite water resources and establish a sustainable path towards water security, we needed a blueprint to guide the State in the right direction. Governor John Hickenlooper ordered the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to develop, with the help of the nine basin Roundtables, citizens, and stakeholders across the state, Colorado’s first water plan. The Governor’s Executive Order stated that the Plan must incorporate Colorado’s water values:

  • “a productive economy that supports vibrant and sustainable cities, viable and productive agriculture, a robust skiing, recreation and tourism industry;
  • efficient and effective water infrastructure promoting smart land use; and
  • a strong environment that includes healthy watersheds, rivers and streams, and wildlife”

Over a two-year period, the CWCB and the basin Roundtables engaged Colorado’s farmers, ranchers, businesses, outdoor recreation companies, and communities to include a wide range of water needs and highlight the importance all Coloradans place on a flexible and reliable water supply.  Some of the chief priorities were the value of clean drinking water, increasing action around water conservation in our cities, improving vital river and watershed protection, and supporting flexible water policies. Promoting water sharing between farms and cities while protecting our agricultural heritage resonated across the state. By November of 2015, with input from over 30,000 people across the state, the CWCB presented, and the Governor signed, Colorado’s first Water Plan.

The Water Plan synthesized a wide range of input into reasonable criteria to guide its implementation. Projects must be sustainable and cost-effective, meet multiple demonstrated needs, and have community input and support. But the plan also noted that existing public resources are all too often spent disproportionately on expensive dams and diversions that damage Colorado’s rivers. Instead, the state should focus on cost-effective tools, like water conservation actions and stream flow improvements to enhance and protect rivers while ensuring clean drinking water supplies that are currently underfunded. Since the state does not currently have enough money to support all types of water projects, Colorado must do a better job at balancing funding for critical projects that are good for communities, rivers, farms and wildlife with projects traditionally receiving state support. The Colorado Water Plan is a guide to do just that.

The Colorado Water Plan breaks down the priorities for managing the array of water needs across the state into critical actions and measurable objectives to guide implementation. As new projects are introduced, they will be measured against the criteria laid out in the Plan to ensure projects are worthy of state investment, protect our environment, and have local support. The measurable objectives in the Colorado Water Plan include:

  • Conservation: Setting a measurable objective to achieve 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water conservation by 2050.
  • Supply-Demand Gap: Creates a measurable objective of reducing a projected 2050 municipal and industrial gap in water supply from as much as 560,000 acre-feet to zero acre-feet by 2030.
  • Land Use: Defines a measurable objective that by 2025, 75 percent of Coloradans will live in communities that have incorporated water-saving actions into land-use planning.
  • Agriculture: The Plan sets an objective that agricultural economic productivity will keep pace with growing state, national, and global needs, even if some acres go out of production.
  • Watershed Health, Environment, and Recreation: It sets a measurable objective to provide 80 percent of the locally prioritized rivers with stream management plans, and 80 percent of critical watersheds with watershed protection plans, by 2030.
  • Funding: The Plan sets a framework to sustainably fund its implementation. In order to support this objective, the State will seek options to raise additional revenue in the amount of $100 million annually ($3 billion by 2050) starting in 2020.
  • Education, Outreach, and Innovation: The Water Plan creates a measurable objective to significantly improve the level of public awareness and engagement regarding water issues statewide by 2020, as determined by water awareness surveys. It also sets a measurable objective to engage Coloradans statewide on at least five key water challenges (identified by CWCB) that should be addressed by 2030.
  • Storage: Colorado’s water plan does not have plans for, nor does it explicitly support, any specific storage project. However, the plan indicates that the state may act as a participant in projects that align with the Plan’s values, yet must follow the specific seven-step criteria for any new projects. The Plan sets a measurable objective of attaining 400,000 acre-feet of water storage through identified projects and processes (IPPs) by local water providers. The majority of these IPPs include improving efficiencies at existing storage sites, conservation and reuse, and agricultural transfers.

Since Colorado’s Water Plan was finalized, implementation of the plan has been positive, but slow. Communities across Colorado, like those in Grand County, the Roaring Fork, and Gunnison valleys, have developed stream management plans identifying specific projects to improve the health of the river and nearby communities. In 2016, the Colorado Legislature appropriated $5 million for the development of watershed plans and another $1 million for implementing environmental and recreation projects, the latter receiving requests for funding far exceeding the allotment.

However, projects Coloradans value most, those that protect rivers, enhance urban water conservation, and encourage flexible water sharing, have been difficult to measure. Transparency on these types of projects are essential to identify how well we are, or aren’t, meeting the various objectives laid out in the Plan, such as urban conservation and environmental goals. It’s time for Colorado to spend less on expensive storage projects, and more on cost effective and water efficient projects that benefit both citizens, businesses, and rivers.

Colorado’s Water Plan sets a new path to secure a water future that protects our state’s rivers, secures clean, safe, reliable drinking water for our communities, and preserves our agricultural heritage. Our water security depends on funding the critical, smart elements of the plan to protect rivers and clean drinking water today and into the future.