How Precious is Our Water?

Deep in western Colorado, the Grand Valley is an emerald oasis of irrigated land surrounded by the starkness of the high desert.

Two major rivers, the Colorado and the Gunnison, meet in the valley’s heart, near downtown Grand Junction. The network of irrigation canals that fan out from these rivers, distributing water to the valley’s farms and ranches, are what makes these fields unnaturally, welcomingly green.In the midst of this lush desert lies the city of Grand Junction, one of western Colorado’s largest and fastest growing communities. There, Greg Trainor oversees the dirty jobs that keep his city running smoothly—sewage treatment, trash collection, road repair. For the most part mild-mannered and serious, his eyes light up when he talks about a fourth aspect of his job—providing the one thing that no one in town can live without. Water.

“There is nothing that defines the Grand Valley as much as the presence or absence of water,” says Trainor. “Irrigation has created our own fertile crescent.” And fertile it is.

From the peach orchards and vineyards of the town of Palisade to the cattle ranches of Loma out toward the Utah border, the Grand Valley is a marvel of desert agricultural production. Yet, there is concern for the future. “Water challenges your thinking. There is always uncertainty, and when [water] isn’t there, it is such a sharp-edged problem for the community,” says Trainor. For water, there really is no substitute.

The concerns of water users and managers in the Grand Valley represent a microcosm of every river basin in the state—a growing population, the ever-lingering threat of drought, the feasibility and wisdom of more transmountain diversions (taking water from the West Slope to the Front Range), the sustainability of agriculture, the role of water conservation, and the need to maintain water in streams for recreation and ecosystem health, explains Trainor. Tough decisions lie ahead.

Water Beyond The 100th Meridian

The Grand Valley is not alone in its reliance on irrigation to make agriculture successful. In fact, the need for irrigation is one of the fundamental characteristics of life in the West.

It was the western explorer John Wesley Powell who, in 1879, identified the 100th Meridian, an arcing line of longitude that slices through the Great Plains just to the east of Colorado, as the dividing line between East and West in the United States.On this side of the 100th Meridian, precipitation averages less than 20 inches per year. Across the Meridian to the east,where precipitation is greater, agriculture ispossible with little to no irrigation. To the west, irrigation is absolutely essential for agriculture to thrive on a large scale.

Colorado’s climate is extremely variable. Precipitation ranges widely both from year-to-year (top
graph) and from month-to-month and in different locations (bottom graph), affecting water availability. Source: Colorado Climate Center

And irrigate we have. Here in the West,vast quantities of human ingenuity have transformed a scarce resource into seeming abundance. Water borne from Colorado’s peaks and valleys now grows Palisade peaches, Olathe sweet corn, as well as South Texas citrus, Kansas wheat and Nebraska corn. Snow falling on the Rockies fuels the growth of the high-tech industry on the Front Range, but also waters Phoenix’s golf courses, fills the fountains of Las Vegas, and arrives at faucets in California.

That is truly remarkable given that Colorado averages only 16 inches of precipitation per year. But averages can be misleading. While the Grand Valley receives only 12 inches annually, the mountains can collect up to 50 inches. Variability really embodies the state’s climate, both in time and place, and prudent Coloradans throughout history learned early to store as much water as possible when it was available, to save it for later use.

“The difference between a warm and cold year is a couple of degrees Fahrenheit,” says Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken, “but the difference between a wet and dry year can be up to 100 percent of average. Precipitation is remarkably variable, and even more so when you consider location and time of year.”

Yes, location, and the mismatch between Colorado’s demographics and topography have also created cruel realities in Colorado’s water story. Most of our precipitation, about 80 percent, falls on the mountain peaks and slopes to the west of the Continental Divide, but most of our population, about 80 percent, lives to the east. As a result, water is captured in massive reservoirs and routed through concrete rivers and tunnels across the mountains to the cities, farms and ranches of the Front Range and Eastern Plains. These transmountain diversions have enabled the state to thrive, but not without cost. The removal of water from one basin to benefit another can create enormous consequences for the health of headwater streams as well as mountain communities that depend on flows for tourism and recreation-based economies. In effect, Colorado’s biggest challenge has not simply been scarcity of water, but managing to capture and store it when available, move it around, and save it for when it’s needed. Water managers have a natural assist from the state’s mountain ranges, which have an innate storage system—the yearly snowpack that accumulates in the high country.

Colorado’s historical annual average streamflows, shown in acre feet at the state line, are distributed more heavily on the West Slope of the Continental Divide, while more of the demands for water, stemming from cities and towns plus irrigated agriculture, come from the East Slope of the Divide. These disparate streamflows exist despite the 630,100 acre feet of water transferred on average from West Slope to East Slope through transmountain diversions every year. Source: Statewide Water Supply Initiative 2010, population figures from 2008, irrigated acreage from 2005.

While skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and other winter sports devotees track every winter storm with the hopes of scoring some of Colorado’s famous powder, Trainor and other water managers follow the buildup of the snowpack, considering what it will mean for that year’s water supply.

The snowpack is essentially a giant frozen reservoir, albeit a temporary one, but crucial nonetheless. As temperatures rise in the spring, the snowpack begins to melt. Mountain streams and creeks swell and water begins a wild and raucous journey down from the high country. Left alone, the water would quickly run off, heading eventually for the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, leaving many of the state’s rivers dry—or at least very low—by the end of the summer.

Now, much of the spring melt is captured in one of Colorado’s nearly 2,000 reservoirs, which together can store almost 6.5 million acre feet of accessible water—enough to cover the entire state with 1.2 inches of water. For most Coloradans, the state’s reservoirs are a place to spend the day fishing, sailing, waterskiing, or just relaxing with friends and family on the shore. However, the reservoir system is vitally important. It allows water managers to control flows, holding back water to prevent floods during high flow years and releasing more water during droughts.

Water stored in reservoirs is available on an as-needed basis—providing water for ranches and farms when river flows are low, for city dwellers to use in their homes yearround, for boosting flows for recreation as well as riverine ecosystems, and for meeting the state’s obligations to deliver prescribed amounts of water to downstream states. Of course, water storage too is not without its drawbacks. Reservoirs and dams reduce the natural flow of streams and alter the timing of high and low flows, impacting water quality as well as fisheries and wildlife that depend on the natural rhythms of stream-reliant ecosystems. Reservoirs also result in a significant loss of water through evaporation. The Bureau of Reclamation, for example, estimates that 8,500 acre feet of water—as much as 85,000 Coloradans would use in a year—are lost to evaporation from the state’s largest reservoir, Blue Mesa, annually.

But as an insurance policy against drought, reservoirs are indispensable. During the 2002 drought, the state essentially lived off its storage capacity, coming within half a million acre feet of a serious crisis. The reservoir system staved off disaster, but just barely.

The Looming Water Gap

The possibility of prolonged droughts returning to Colorado, coupled with the water demands of a growing population, has prompted water planners to take a hard, comprehensive look at the future.

Though Colorado is a headwaters state, meaning that four of the most important rivers in the West originate here—the Colorado, the Platte, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande—the water in those rivers is shared with 18 other states, the Republic of Mexico, and tens of millions of people. In fact, we are legally obligated to allow nearly two-thirds of our surface water to flow across our borders.

After those obligations are met, about 6 million acre feet of water remains in an average water year to be put to use in Colorado. Typical of arid and semi-arid western states, about 86 percent of the water available here is used for agriculture. Municipalities demand nearly 7 percent; about 2 percent is allocated for industry; another 2 percent is used to offset water pumped from the ground; and about 3 percent is intentionally left in streams for the benefit of the environment and recreation.

Those numbers aren’t static. The most recent Statewide Water Supply Initiative report (SWSI 2010), published by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), forecasts that an additional 600,000 to 1 million acre feet of water will be needed by 2050 for cities and industries if Colorado’s population grows as projected, nearly doubling to between 8.6 and 10 million people. Demands stemming from the growing population could likewise double the share of the state’s water going to municipal water use—at a cost to other current uses.

Many question whether we can meet those rising water demands without losing some of our agricultural base. In all likelihood, the answer is no. Most of our rivers are already being used to the fullest extent possible, without jeopardizing either the environment or our ability to meet our obligations to other states.

The Rio Grande, South Platte and Arkansas basins are already at or near full apportionment, meaning no one else can expect to be granted the right to use additional water of any substantial amount from these rivers. That leaves the Colorado Basin, which, theoretically, could have as much as 800,000 acre feet of water left to develop in a year of average precipitation.

That much water could nearly meet the state’s high-end estimates for the amount of additional municipal and industrial water needed 40 years from now. However, studies by the CWCB have shown that under some modeled climate change scenarios, that buffer is completely wiped out, making any significant diversions of water from the Colorado a risky bet for continuing to meet those downstream obligations.

On the Colorado River, our obligations are to the Republic of Mexico as well as the states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California, which collectively are referred to as the lower basin states. “The lower basin has been getting extra water because we [here in Colorado] haven’t developed all of our allocation,” says Hannah Holm, coordinator for the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. “But, now we are getting closer to using all of our allocation. At the same time, there appears to be less water available, and with climate change, we could be facing an even drier future. So, it looks as if we are on a collision course.”

Climate change is certainly the wild card in the question of future water supplies. Warmer temperatures mean a longer growing season, more uptake of water by vegetation, and more evapotranspiration— evaporation from soil and water surfaces and transpiration from plant surfaces that moves water into the atmosphere. Warmer temperatures would also mean more rain, less snow and earlier runoff. According to a recent study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, those factors taken together could amount to between a 14 and 18 percent reduction in runoff in the Colorado River Basin by 2069.

Changes in the snowpack and runoff hydrology will have a sweeping impact on the way water is used and managed in Colorado— disrupting everything from the time of year irrigators and others are allowed to divert water to the operation and management of water storage systems. Higher temperatures will result in more demand for energy and cause peaks in demand for hydropower. Warmer water will make life difficult for cold-blooded fish and riverine ecosystems, and changes in the timing of streamflow could disrupt ecological processes that have evolved over long periods of time. The Climate Change Preparedness Project, put together by the University of Colorado-based Western Water Assessment, is an attempt to help water managers think through these future outcomes in order to get ahead of them. But planning for unknowns is no simple task.

Looking 40 years out is about as far as anyone has been able to go. The SWSI 2010 report analyzes possible scenarios for water supply and demand through the year 2050. Using information collected there, as well as through other CWCB-funded studies, a statewide assembly of stakeholders called the Interbasin Compact Committee has put forth a portfolio of strategies for meeting the gap between future supply and demand.

Often referred to as the “four-legged stool,” the proposed actions include further water conservation improvements, farm-to-city transfers of irrigation water rights, new supply (generally understood as additional transmountain diversions from the Western Slope’s Colorado River tributaries to the Front Range), and moving forward with already-planned projects to increase storage capacity. Of course, different interest groups have tried to either knock specific legs off the stool or add additional ones. Some environmental groups and Western Slope interests want to take transmountain diversions off the table and push for an expansion of Front Range water conservation efforts. Others are proposing even more expensive and energy-intensive projects such as piping in water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming or from the Mississippi River to the east.

To sort through the potential impacts on the water supply of implementing different combinations of these strategies, the CWCB developed a “portfolio tool.” Settings can be adjusted, for example, to calculate how much irrigated farmland could be saved by ramping up water conservation programs or by diverting water from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range.

“Use of the portfolio tool is forcing water managers and stakeholders to face up to the hard questions that lie ahead,” says Holm. “And, it is also stimulating new and creative thinking, which is what we need to overcome the water supply gap while maintaining agricultural communities and environmental values.”

The Incalculable Value Of Water

Economics have always played a role in the development of water supplies. For starters, water development has historically been heavily subsidized by the federal government. Many of the state’s big infrastructure projects, including reservoirs and transmountain diversions such as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, were mostly built with federal funds. Water users have had to repay only a fraction of the costs for these projects since payments were spread over decades with no interest and no adjustments for inflation.

In other instances, large communities have been able to use political clout to support the movement of water to their users by lobbying for these projects or through outright buying of large, valuable water rights.

Horsetooth Reservoir is part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.

While water in Colorado is a public resource and is not individually owned, the right to use surface and groundwater in Colorado has many of the qualities of private property ownership. Water rights can be bought, sold and even rented by individuals, groups or organizations.

As in real estate, the value of a water right is partially determined by location, location, location. There are other factors as well, such as the seniority of the right, meaning the position of the right in the priority system, where senior rights holders have an advantage over juniors. Historical consumptive use, a figure representing the amount of water permanently removed from the stream system by human activity that could continue to be similarly “used up,” also affects a water right’s value. But location is without a doubt the most important element.

Amy Beatie is executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the state’s streamflows. The trust buys water rights in order to change their decreed use to what’s called an instream flow, or water left in the stream for the natural environment. The most valuable water rights Beatie encounters are in active markets.

“Take a large, senior water right in Clear Creek near Georgetown,” says Beatie. “That is a highly active water market, and you may pay $35,000 per acre foot of historical consumptive use. The same type of water right in another area with a less active water market might cost $800.”

While the pricing of water rights often reflects market value, individual water bills do not even come close to covering the true value of the water coming out of the tap. According to Chuck Howe, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Colorado, one of the biggest shortcomings of how water is priced is that people get to use very expensive water without really paying for it. Utilities charge consumers for the operational and maintenance costs of water delivery but leave out an important chunk of the value of water—the investment or opportunity costs.

Many cities in Colorado acquired their water supplies long ago at very low cost. But, if put on the market today, there would likely be people clamoring to buy those rights at steep prices. However, municipal water suppliers are nonprofit organizations, so the market value of the water rights held by the city cannot be reflected in the water prices charged.

“Boulder County has an inventory of water rights valued at somewhere near $400 million,” says Howe. “The costs of those investments are not reflected in the fees the county charges. If they were, the price of water would be nearly double the current level.”

Howe argues that if the true value of water was included in the pricing structure, it would lead to more rational water use and consequently more conservation. “If you have a really big lawn and you want to grow bluegrass in August, then you should have to pay a great deal for it,” says Howe. “People pay attention to prices.”

The economics of water becomes increasingly important as we begin to develop strategies to confront the gap between water demand and supply.

The SWSI 2010 report found that a mix of conservation strategies including education, rate adjustments, leak detection, and incentives to replace inefficient appliances and water-dependent landscapes cost between $5,000 and $8,000 per acre foot saved, depending on the level of reductions achieved. The cost of new infrastructure projects designed to increase storage capacity or transport water ranged from $5,900 per acre foot for projects on the West Slope up to $32,200 per acre foot on the East Slope. Agriculture-to-urban water transfers, including transaction fees, related infrastructure and treatment, cost between $33,500 and $40,000 per acre foot.

Even as conservation is clearly more cost-efficient than “concrete and steel” infrastructure projects, it takes longer to produce results and requires more difficult political and regulatory actions aimed at changing people’s behavior.

“People’s habits change slowly,” says Trainor. “They get used to running their sink while they are shaving, or having a bluegrass lawn. So, we take the long-term approach with education, hoping to change people’s water consumption habits so they are ready when a big drought occurs and we have to stretch the supply.”

Is More Water Out There?

Leaders throughout the water community recognize that conservation, both municipal and agricultural, must be a part of any portfolio of solutions moving forward. But, water conservation too has its limits. So, beyond building new projects to divert and store water that we may or may not have, or moving water away from agriculture, are there any other sources? Can we “create” more water to compensate for climate-induced reductions in supply or to provide for our growing population?

The tamarisk or saltcedar leaf beetle, Diorhabda
elongata, is being used as a biological control agent to destroy non-native tamarisk plants, possibly freeing up some water supply. Tamarisk infestations are common in Colorado, including along the North Fork of the Gunnison
River (below).

When it comes to the precipitation that falls in Colorado, we get what we get. But some are working off the hope that we can make new water appear out of thin air by forcing clouds to give up the goods. The practice of cloud seeding has been practiced for years, with arguable results. Cloud seeding involves sending silver iodide vapors up to the clouds to stimulate precipitation.

Denver Water, the state’s largest utility, has employed the concept, gaining an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 acre feet of water annually, at a cost of $12 to $23 per acre foot. The induced precipitation falls across about 6,000 to 7,000 square miles of watersheds that feed the agency’s reservoirs.

Nolan Doesken, Colorado’s State Climatologist, remains unconvinced. “The science of cloud seeding in the lab is rock solid, but the application is a little harder to determine,” he says. “The underlying variability of precipitation in any one location makes it difficult to definitively conclude that the change you observe is directly related to cloud seeding.”

Still, ski resorts and numerous others continue to pursue it. According to Larry Hjermstad of Durango-based Western Weather Consultants, there are ongoing cloud seeding efforts in the central mountains and a number of the state’s major watersheds.

Another water “source” that has been explored is the removal of tamarisk, a deeprooted invasive plant that aggressively obtains water from the soil and groundwater. In Colorado, major stretches of the Colorado and Arkansas rivers have been infested with tamarisk. A single mature tree can produce up to 500,000 seeds per year, crowding out native plants along waterways. Tamarisk likely uses about the same amount of water as other phreatophytes, or water-loving plants, such as willow or cottonwood, but tamarisk also invades more upland areas where it replaces non-phreatophytes, which use much less water. The Grand Junction-based Tamarisk Coalition has been leading efforts to control tamarisk. Removal is a time-consuming and labor-intensive job involving cutting, herbicide application, and continued monitoring to ensure that regrowth does not occur.

North Fork of the Gunnison River.

There are indications that a new biocontrol agent, a beetle that aggressively attacks the tamarisk, could allow re-establishment of native vegetation, benefiting habitat and possibly resulting in water savings. There again, some of the hope has been lost. A 2010 report by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that removing tamarisk does not result in long-term additional streamflow.

A few of the 107 cloud-seeding ice nuclei generators operating in mountain areas across Colorado, in an effort to stimulate precipitation and bolster water supplies..Photos courtesy Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Others have pointed to Colorado’s natural gas industry as a potential water source. Nationally, the industry averages 10 barrels of water for every barrel of oil it obtains from the ground. This “produced” water is considered by the industry a nuisance waste to be disposed of—usually, it’s evaporated in holding ponds or re-injected deep underground. Colorado’s State Engineer, the top official responsible for water’s administration here, has established rules for regulating produced water within Colorado’s system of water rights. And the industry is working on how this water might be treated in order to be used by others.

Yet another possibility is desalination, or taking the salt out of salt water. It’s an expensive and energy-intensive process. Although landlocked Colorado has no access to seawater, there is the very distant possibility that, through an exchange, Colorado could use more water from the Colorado River by subsidizing a desalination operation in California. An existing desalination plant in Yuma, Arizona, has recently shown promise, producing 28,000 acre feet per year at a cost of $600 to $900 per acre foot. The plant was built in 1992 to satisfy treaty obligations related to the salinity levels of Colorado River water that was sent across the border to Mexico. Arizona and Nevada are keenly interested in desalination, but the potential benefits for Colorado are a long ways off. Still, at this point every option is being explored.

For Greg Trainor, the solution to the water challenges that Colorado faces isn’t “new” water. Rather, it involves coming to terms with the conflict between the different values that make Colorado such a great place to live—economic growth, agricultural production, environmental health and recreational opportunities. The reality is that we are rapidly approaching a time when trade-offs will have to be made regarding the ways that we value and use water. In order for those conversations and ultimately, those decisions, to be most effective, public education is imperative.

“We need the public to understand the values and the uses of water, the importance of conservation, the factors that affect supply, the fact that climate change is a real threat. It is a long-term proposition,” explains Trainor. “You don’t implement a water education program in 2012 and in 2013 the world changes. But, an informed public is essential in order to have the right conversations about sharing values and looking at the problems and crucial decisions we face.”

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