Go Time for Colorado’s Water Plan: meeting the plan’s environmental & recreational goals

By Nelson Harvey, excerpts pulled from an originally published piece in the Winter 2016 issue of Headwaters magazine

Read the first part of this series here.

go time bugEven now, months after Colorado’s Water Plan was finalized in November 2015, questions continue to circulate about how the voluntary plan will work—how the state’s utilities, businesses, advocacy groups and individual water users will take responsibility for its goals. Here, we turn those questions on one of the plan’s nine defined measureable outcomes: watershed health, environment and recreation.

The connection between the health of Colorado’s forests and the quality of our water seems abstract, until you consider that 80 percent of the water we use for drinking, irrigating and washing flows through a forested watershed before it gets to the tap. Protecting clean water requires protecting vast swaths of forest that often cross jurisdictional and political boundaries, areas that face threats as varied as wildfire, flood, invasive species and abandoned mines. Even for the savviest collaborator, it’s a formidable challenge, and one that the water plan addresses head-on by recommending the creation of locally based protection and management plans for 80 percent of the watersheds considered “critical” to Colorado’s water supply—along with 80 percent of locally prioritized streams—by 2030.

Cottonwood Pass

Credit: Heather Dutton, Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project

“These plans look at everything that impacts watershed health, from fire to transportation to agriculture,” says Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), a watershed protection group, and co-founder of Coalitions and Collaboratives, Inc., which gives technical support to emerging watershed groups. “Having these plans in place in your watershed gives you the ability to find grants and do projects that move the needle in the right direction.”

In the Arkansas River Basin, a group called the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative that was founded in the summer of 2015 with the help of a $265,000 CWCB grant has already hit the ground running. The group, established by the Arkansas Basin Roundtable as part of putting its Basin Implementation Plan in motion, is working to assemble a watershed protection plan, while simultaneously creating maps of vital infrastructure to guide firefighters battling blazes near the town of Victor; thinning forests and cutting firebreaks around Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville; and researching where to place sediment and debris basins in the Huerfano and Cuchara drainages to minimize sediment runoff during floods.

Aside from supporting groups like these by helping to pay for the staff and facilitators who keep them running, state agencies could speed the formation of new groups by sharing best practices around the state says Gary Barber, an independent water consultant in Colorado Springs and former chair of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable.

“The CWCB could cross-pollinate, acting like bees in a field of flowers,” Barber says. “They could show individual basins what has been done in other basins and allow them to replicate those things.”

There’s also an urgent need for the state to boost funding for environmental and recreational water projects generally: The water plan estimates that covering 80 percent of critical watersheds and streams with protection plans alone could cost $18 million, and meeting all of the state’s environmental and recreational water needs such as river restoration work or the establishment of whitewater parks could require between $2 and $3 billion by 2050. The current funding pot for such projects pales in comparison: About $11 million in state funds is available each year, or just $385 million between now and mid-century.

One idea the water plan floats to close the gap is a state-sponsored “green bond fund” that would sell state-issued bonds to environmentally concerned investors content with slightly below-market returns, using the proceeds to fund water projects. Another possibility is public-private partnerships that pair state funds with contributions from corporations to pay for projects overseen by local watershed groups.

Though funding is still in question, Ekarius says she’s pleased with the water plan’s direction: “We all depend on ecosystem services from these watersheds. It’s great to see the state saying that we have to take care of these systems, so that they take care of us.”



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