Welcoming a More Holistic Approach to Water Sharing in Colorado

Over the past two decades, the state legislature and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, which includes both the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and Division of Water Resources (DWR), have made significant efforts to support alternative transfer methods (ATMs). The goal of these ATM efforts is to minimize the permanent reduction of irrigated agriculture, which results from the traditional “buy and dry” approach of changing water rights from agriculture to municipal and industrial use, reducing negative externalities such as the loss of employment options in rural areas and soil erosion, and encouraging more flexible water leasing opportunities in response to drought conditions. Overall, these efforts, have led to the adoption of ATMs that share over 30,000 acre-feet of water between water users in all parts of Colorado.

Despite ongoing support at the state-level for ATM development and the emergence of new, promising applications for ATMs such as generating new augmentation water supply options, ATM adoption remains hampered by long-standing barriers such as high transaction costs, regulatory complexity, infrastructure needs, and accommodating the diverse needs of all parties to an ATM transaction. Furthermore, the absence of criteria for determining whether a project qualifies as an ATM creates challenges in tracking progress on ATM adoption and offering public, financial support for otherwise multi-beneficial water-sharing efforts. Meanwhile, the Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan, published in 2019, identifies that buy and dry still presents a challenge; finding that 77,600 irrigated acres will come out of production under planned water transfers and that this number could increase pending how future water needs are addressed.

In 2020, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) released a status update report reviewing progress made on the Colorado Water Plan ATM goals. The status update report recommends continued state investment in ATMs and other demand reduction strategies, such as examining local water dedication requirements, which dictate the process by which developers address water supply needs for new development, and promoting water-smart land-use planning initiatives. The status update report also encourages the CWCB and other state agencies to recognize and support a broader portfolio of water-sharing opportunities, such as municipal surplus leasing programs that provide longer-term security for agricultural water users.

A recent WaterNow Alliance survey of Colorado water stakeholders also found support for the CWCB adopting a more holistic approach to encouraging water-sharing efforts. In the survey, 42% of respondents agreed that the ATM acronym might be hindering the understanding of — or participation in — alternative transfer methods. This survey finding is likely due to possible negative associations with “automatic teller machines” or antipathy to ATMs since dry-up is required, albeit temporarily. The WaterNow Alliance survey goes on to make two important findings. First, when asked about preferred terminology to ATMs, 62% of respondents indicated support for the term “water-sharing agreements” over ATMs, citing reasons such as recognizing the collaboration necessary to implement the agreements and providing a clearer understanding of these projects. Second, the survey found that if CWCB were to encourage water-sharing agreements more broadly, 67% of respondents stated they would want to see a more encompassing state program supporting a broader suite of water-sharing activities than currently envisioned under the current ATM program, which focuses on temporary, agricultural-to-municipal transfers. Therefore, a more holistic, water-sharing agreement program could encourage a broader range of water-sharing projects, including emerging opportunities such as leasing water made available from the retirement of coal plants to support community water needs or muni-ag “co-ownership” water-sharing models.

Overall, both the status update report and WaterNow Alliance survey indicate that the state should continue to encourage alternatives to traditional water transfers that result in a permanent reduction of irrigated agriculture and that fail to account for long-term mitigation of negative community impacts. Furthermore, both the report and survey support a more encompassing approach to addressing water supply-demand gaps through collaborative, water-sharing agreements that adhere to the core objectives of the current ATM program, but that reflect a more diverse portfolio of water-sharing approaches offering multiple benefits such as encouraging economic diversification and sustaining long-term agricultural production. The CWCB, as part of the Colorado Water Plan update process, looks forward to discussing the evolution of the ATM program to a more encompassing water-sharing initiative with the broader Colorado water community. In particular, CWCB encourages stakeholders to share thoughts on this direction during the update public comment period, which will occur next spring or by sharing any thoughts through the CWCB Water Plan Update Survey, which can be found at engagecwcb.org.

Alex Funk serves as the Agriculture and Rural Resiliency Policy Specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board. At CWCB, he works with the agricultural community to further the Colorado Water Plan agricultural viability goals, including managing the alternative transfer methods program.