“You run the risk, if you’re not thoughtful about [water planning], to fundamentally change what Colorado looks like,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson at a launch event in January, celebrating the newly updated 2023 Colorado Water Plan. Sen. Simpson is a farmer/rancher and the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Water issues were a large reason he ran for office in 2021, where he now represents Senate District 6.
“Colorado has demonstrated, for 150 years, our ability to lead in this space … We’ve established the tools and the mechanisms to do that,” says Sen. Simpson.
But creating a statewide water management plan is not a straightforward task.
The state’s first 2015 water plan was broad: Ask any given stakeholder what the plan meant to them, and each will give a very different answer, says Russ Sands, chief of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) Water Supply Planning Section.
This was by design. Ideally, anyone can find inspiration in the plan to leverage the type of work they specialize in. That thought process carries forward in the new plan. The 2015 water plan set a vision through objectives, goals, and actions, but stopped short of being prescriptive, allowing local leaders to determine the best ways to address future water needs. The 2023 plan provides a refreshed vision, along with specific actions that are outlined as opportunities to advance that vision.
“The first water plan charted new ground and was ambitious in its own right in doing that,” says Sands. “The new plan tries to capture that energy but is delivered in a more straightforward, accountable, and actionable way.”
The CWCB is the state agency that authored both the old and new plan and works to shepherd its implementation. Sands’ team — many of whom joined the agency after the 2015 water plan was released — was responsible for incorporating thousands of pages of feedback and years of input to produce the new water plan this year.
With the 2023 plan in hand, some wonder how far we’ve come since the first plan. Not many of the 2015 water plan objectives were directly reported on, but its vision pushed forward non-traditional collaboration across the state. For the CWCB, the 2023 water plan was a chance to capitalize on that vision and celebrate successes while resetting expectations in ways that match the reality of what’s achievable, how CWCB can assist, and how stakeholders can play their own critical role in the implementation of the plan, Sands says.
Now, Coloradans are called upon to demonstrate what really is achievable with the new plan and to show how far the state will advance over the next decade.
“[The 2015 water plan] caused the conversations to happen, that then started leading to the projects … it really was a document ahead of its time,” says Scott Lorenz, senior project manager at Colorado Springs Utilities.
Lorenz participates in three of the nine river basin roundtables in Colorado. These regional roundtables, established in 2005 by the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act and organized within the state’s major watershed boundaries, facilitate discussions on water management issues and encourage locally driven, collaborative solutions. Their work funnels into the water plan. Each roundtable creates its own basin implementation plan (BIP) representing the basin’s individual needs and priorities. Summaries of those plans form big pieces of the state water plan, and feedback garnered during roundtable meetings informs other statewide sections of the plan.
“The  water plan really put it out there that you can’t have a bunch of individual projects that are going to be competing with each other,” says Rebecca Tejada, director of engineering at Parker Water and Sanitation District. For Tejada, the most effective solutions consider basin-wide and even inter-basin needs.
But as Celene Hawkins said at a November 2022 CWCB meeting: “There is an inherent tension/conflict between creating something visionary and something measurable.” Hawkins represented the Southwest Basin on the CWCB board at the time.
The agency recognized as early as 2017 that many of the measurable objectives from the 2015 water plan couldn’t, in fact, be effectively measured to track progress, Sands says. However, they were effective at sparking action. The challenge for CWCB was identifying how best to bottle the momentum that would continue to spur good work while adding more accountability to the plan.
The 2023 water plan celebrates major progress in areas like water conservation, which has resulted in decreased statewide per capita water use of 5% since 2015.
But the CWCB hasn’t directly reported data on each of the 2015 plan’s eight measurable objectives, which had set targets for issues like supply-demand gaps, funding and water-wise land use planning. In fact, officials say there was never an effort to directly track the 2015 plan’s objectives.
“What we found is that [the measurable objectives] weren’t very measurable, for a lot of reasons,” says Lauren Ris, deputy director at CWCB. “They sounded good and objective and quantifiable, but at the end of the day, it was really hard as a state agency to come up with data that allowed us to measure progress.”
Another challenge is that the 2015 objectives each came with variable timelines—some 2025, 2030, or even 2050 goals. The plan also didn’t assign accountability for achieving each objective, making tracking progress difficult. And many key terms were undefined. One example was the goal to cover 80% of locally prioritized rivers with stream management plans (SMPs) by 2030. SMPs are data-driven river health assessments, but questions arose around what “locally prioritized rivers” were.
Even if the goal wasn’t structured to truly be measurable and even if it hasn’t actually been met, demonstrable progress was made: There are now 26 SMPs on rivers across the state, 25 of which were supported by CWCB grant funds.
For the 2023 plan, the CWCB didn’t want to be pigeonholed by objectives that might not necessarily have a lot of impact or spend time “spinning on numbers,” says Sands. Instead, the 2023 plan clearly defines what the agency can and cannot do, acknowledging the limitations it faces.
“Something that we really tried to clarify with the update is to make sure that there really was a clear line of sight between the actions that we’re committing to and the visions that are in the plan,” says Ris.
The 2023 plan is organized around four action areas — vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds, and resilient planning. The vision in each action area sets an aspirational goal for Colorado, then backs it up by offering a suite of actions on how to help get there. Of those actions, 50 are CWCB-led. Each has a final deliverable and timeline: “You’ll know when they’re done. You can check a box,” says Sands. The plan also includes 50 example partner actions to guide work in the field for the numerous individuals and organizations who will also be critical to implementation.
Are They Listening?
For Lorenz, nuanced differences in how the CWCB writes about solutions show that they are listening to what’s happening on the ground—at least for those in the water business.
“The most you can hope for, for a state agency, is that they’re really tracking with what’s going on in the state,” says Lorenz.
For example, the term “alternative transfer method” (ATM) was previously used to describe ways to share water that didn’t permanently dry up agricultural land, primarily by transferring water on a temporary or intermittent basis from agriculture to other uses through some form of lease arrangement. Now, the CWCB (and the 2023 water plan) is using the term “collaborative water sharing” to describe these activities, which is what Lorenz and others across the state have used to describe their projects.
“Everybody was assuming all the water was going to come from agriculture to go to these other uses. But that wasn’t true on the ground. A lot of our excess water in wet years was going to agriculture. And in every single year, we have water going to maintain streamflows, and to benefit environmental purposes,” says Lorenz. “Collaborative water sharing” broadens the ATM concept to simply refer to sharing water between two or more users, whether it’s agricultural to municipal uses, agricultural to environmental uses, municipal to environmental uses, or some other arrangement through a voluntary, temporary and compensated agreement.
But not all those on the ground feel that their water plan thoroughly showcased their work. The 2015 and 2023 water plans have been celebrated for putting environmental and recreational water use on equal footing with municipal and agricultural water use, and in many cases this has happened. “It brings together water interests that have traditionally been at odds with each other and provides an excellent forum to discuss cooperative projects,” says Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project and chair of the Southwest Basin Roundtable’s environmental and recreational subcommittee.
But Whiting says the plan still doesn’t include much information to evaluate environmental and recreational water supply needs.
While more detailed data is being developed through the SMP and integrated water management planning processes, the timing was probably not right to get that SMP data into the water plan, Whiting says.
“We’re making good progress in developing environmental and recreation info through SMPs, but it is a slow process and we have a long ways to go to catch up with the level of information available for ag and municipal [use and planning].” says Whiting.
A document like the water plan—and even an agency like the CWCB—cannot itself mandate action. Its main job is to set a vision and course, and hopefully to provide sufficient resources, in funding and expertise, to back it up. Beyond that, the plan is only as effective as the people and organizations on the ground working to implement it. That much hasn’t changed between the original plan and the new update.
“Where the rubber hits the road is those partnerships and the collaboration around the state, and where projects and funding can get done to really take big strides toward meeting those future water goals,” says Emma Reesor, executive director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project.
Stakeholders agree that outreach is critical. As more communities see the possibility of win-win water solutions—those serving both agricultural and environmental users, for example—more projects will be implemented.
“The incentives are much bigger than state government, much bigger than city government, than any government. It’s what happens on the Colorado River. It’s what’s happening in the ag economy, not just in Colorado, but throughout the West. It’s what’s happening to housing markets and the Front Range. Those are the things that are driving change,” says Lorenz. “[The CWCB] won’t ever be the one driving it.”
Rather, the CWCB will continue to drive awareness, facilitate collaboration, inspire innovation, and provide funding to meet broad needs and goals. For example, the CWCB is trying everything within its scope to get as many people engaged in water efficiency and conservation in Colorado as possible, says Sands: “That’s how we’re going to meet our future water challenges.”
Emily Payne is a writer covering the intersection of food, agriculture, health, and climate. She is editor of the global nonprofit Food Tank and consults across sectors—including startups, NGOs, and universities—to help connect those supporting food systems solutions.