Colorado’s Water Plan NOW: Where we landed at the close of 2014

One evening last fall, Becky Mitchell’s neighbor caught her in the driveway and posed a question that any concerned, curious and perhaps slightly nosy neighbor might ask: “You seem awfully busy, why have you been gone so much lately?”

Mitchell, who is the head of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), explained that she’d been supervising a team of 10 staffers charged with the rather Herculean task of assembling and drafting Colorado’s first official state water plan. The overarching goal: to bridge an anticipated and potentially catastrophic water gap of roughly 500,000 acre-feet, or 163 billion gallons, per year that could surface by mid-century if state demographers’ forecasts are borne out.

Looking back on that driveway encounter, Mitchell believes she could have conveyed the importance of her work on a more personal level. “I could have said to my neighbor, who loves gardening, that hopefully in 25 years she’ll have the same Colorado she has now,” Mitchell says. “She’ll be able to keep working in her garden, rafting, skiing. To be honest, I’m hoping that my neighbor doesn’t even notice the impact of the water plan, because she lives in the same Colorado or better.”

Water planning is nothing new. It’s a critical way to make sure our water-centric lifestyles endure, and it’s something many of Colorado’s irrigators, local governments, utilities and water districts have been doing in one form or another for more than a century. What’s new about Colorado’s Water Plan, though, is the way it weaves these disparate local concerns together into a statewide tapestry, providing a more complete vision of the state’s water future than we’ve seen before and articulating that future in terms of Coloradans’ water values.

The plan’s broad goals—demonstrating how to close the projected water supply gap, preserving and improving the state’s environment, finding viable alternatives to agricultural buy and dry, protecting Colorado’s interstate compact entitlements, improving the water project permitting process, and re-aligning state water funding—are all designed to advance those water values and ensure Colorado remains a good place to run a business, raise a family, take a ski vacation or enjoy the natural beauty for decades to come.

One basic service of the water plan has been to synthesize the vast trove of technical and political work that now underpins water management in Colorado, in order to identify both areas of broad statewide consensus between river basins and points of disagreement where more dialogue is essential. “The first draft is a great start—it doesn’t pretend to solve anything but lays out the difficult discussions ahead,” says Jim Pokrandt, head of communications and education at the Colorado River District and chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. Moving forward, Pokrandt says, “We’ll have debates about how some of the plot lines should go, but we will all be reading from a common script.”

Jim Pokrandt
Photo By: Jayla Poppleton (2)

“The first draft is a great start—it doesn’t pretend to solve anything but lays out the difficult discussions ahead.” – Jim Pokrandt
Getting to draft No. 1

Writing that script has been a monumental task, not only on the part of the state’s nine basin roundtables, but also for Mitchell’s outfit at the CWCB. Between four and five staffers have dedicated themselves almost full-time to the plan for months, and CWCB director James Eklund says there’s no one in his 46-person agency that hasn’t somehow contributed to the effort. A wide range of other government agencies, from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Department of Local Affairs, have also lent staff to help author the plan’s 19 sections and 11 chapters. A large part of the job has been reviewing and synthesizing the thousands of public comments submitted so far.

Central to the plan are the eight Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) drafted by basin roundtable groups from around the state and integrated by CWCB staff into the document. The BIPs quantify water gaps looming in each basin with heretofore-unseen detail, forecasting future “consumptive” water needs like municipal, industrial and agricultural uses along with “nonconsumptive” needs like environmental and recreational flows. After cataloguing future needs, the BIPs then list “identified projects and processes,” or IPPs, intended to address needs in each basin, along with goals and measurable outcomes for tracking progress.

The roundtables submitted drafts of their BIPs to the CWCB in July 2014, and revised drafts are due in April 2015, eight months before the first final draft of the water plan lands on the governor’s desk in late 2015. Many have been watching with anticipation, and perhaps a degree of skepticism, to see how the CWCB would integrate the BIPs into the state plan, particularly where those plans articulate conflicting visions for the future.

“We speckled parts and pieces of the BIPs throughout the water plan,” says Mitchell. “We looked for similarities, we looked for differences, and we chose sections of them to weave into every chapter depending on the subject.”

Most roundtable members say the CWCB has proven receptive to their comments on how the BIPs were incorporated in an early draft of the plan and eager to ensure that the overarching plan accurately reflects the views of each basin. “In dealing with the issues where there are a lot of disagreements, they are using specific quotes [from the BIPs] rather than trying to interpolate what the plans mean to say, and we appreciate that,” says Mike Preston, chair of the Southwest Basin Roundtable and general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

In the plan’s first draft, Mitchell says, the CWCB opted to focus primarily on areas where the BIPs overlap, while also highlighting more contentious subjects that will continue to be negotiated between now and December of 2015, when the final plan is due. All the BIPs, for instance, focus on closing their municipal water supply gaps, in part by pursuing conservation and demand management, while also protecting wetlands, recreation and water quality, recovering endangered species, and complying with and managing the risk associated with interstate compacts. They all aim to increase storage, in part by pursuing multi-purpose projects, and the majority seek to reduce reductions in agricultural water shortages while also improving ag efficiencies. The most glaring disagreements arise where one basin’s BIP identifies water from another basin as a target for its own new supply.

John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, CWCB board member, and member of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, says he endorses the approach of focusing on consensus areas, particularly since the year and a half that the CWCB had to prepare the plan’s first draft wasn’t time enough to resolve all of Colorado’s water disagreements. In the months leading up to submission of the final draft, he believes the CWCB will “make every effort to bring those conflicting basins together and try to work out some solutions that can morph into a state policy.”

The most glaring disagreements arise where one basin’s plan identifies water from another basin as a target for its own new supply.
Divergence across basin plans

On that front, there’s much work to be done. One significant point of divergence between the basin plans centers on the level of water conservation governments and water providers should strive for in the coming decades. For instance, the Colorado River Basin BIP calls for setting a “high” basin-wide conservation goal as defined by the CWCB, while the South Platte/Metro roundtables’ BIP mostly shies away from endorsing the CWCB goals except by supporting a “medium” level of conservation for the metro area.

“The South Platte Basin already implements conservation at high levels compared to the rest of the state,” says Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, explaining the position of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, which he chaired until recently. “In our BIP, we also tried to articulate that even though ‘high’ sounds better than ‘medium,’ which sounds better than ‘low,’ you could have just as great or greater results with a medium level of conservation and high market penetration [greater customer adoption] than with a high level of conservation and less market penetration.”

Conservation targets can significantly affect future water management planning, as any meaningful reduction in demand will lessen the need for water providers to secure additional water supplies through other methods. (The draft water plan itself adopts a “medium” statewide conservation goal, which could provide up to 320,000 acre-feet per year, although the CWCB says only half that amount could safely be hedged against the water gap.) This leads to what is perhaps the most glaring point of contention between the BIPs, and that is whether, when and how to build a new transmountain diversion project that would pipe Colorado River water to the Eastern Slope. The South Platte/Metro BIP identifies the development of “unappropriated Colorado River supplies” as essential to close its future water supply gap, which is projected to be 75 percent of the total gap statewide by 2050. The Arkansas Basin BIP also emphasizes the importance of keeping this water supply option available to meet future needs without sacrificing large swaths of productive farmland. Yet the Colorado Basin BIP states that such a project “should be prevented as damaging to our recreational economy, environment and agriculture,” and every other West Slope BIP is strongly apprehensive of the state or East Slope basins going that route.

West Slope representatives, including the general manager of the Colorado River District, Eric Kuhn, who has been widely vocal on the subject of uncertainty regarding additional Colorado River development, believe a transmountain diversion could ultimately harm the state’s existing Colorado River users, including entities on the Front Range such as Denver, which currently relies on transmountain diversions from the Colorado River to supply half of its water. Beyond the state’s borders, some members of the Upper Colorado River Commission, the body that administers the Upper Colorado River Compact of 1948 between Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, are also concerned that further transfers of water out of the Colorado River Basin could increase the risk of the upper basin violating the 1922 Colorado River Compact. “It’s certainly something that’s being watched by our neighbors in the upper basin,” says McClow, who is also Colorado’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Although the water plan draft doesn’t take a formal position on a new transmountain diversion—and has garnered both support and criticism for that neutral stance—it includes a preliminary framework of factors that would likely need to be addressed for such a project to move forward. The Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC), which includes two representatives from each basin roundtable, hammered out this list, referred to in the draft state plan as the “Draft Conceptual Agreement,” in the spring and summer of 2014. A breakthrough in the IBCC discussion came when Front Range water interests conceded that a project might not be able to divert every year, instead pulling water only in wet years to keep West Slope water uses intact. Some snowpack or flow-based triggers would establish when the project could begin diverting, although those remain undetermined.

No roundtable has formally endorsed the conceptual agreement, now being termed simply a “framework for future discussion,” and West Slope roundtables argue that more water conservation, reuse and recycling in the South Platte Basin could entirely eliminate the need for such a project. The Colorado Basin BIP says a transmountain diversion should be the “last tool out of the toolbox,” while the other three West Slope BIPs argue for additional criteria or requirements Front Range entities would need to have met, such as exhausting all other water supply solutions, before such a project could be decreed or constructed. Front Range roundtables, meanwhile, see a new diversion as essential to prevent the widespread “buy and dry” of Eastern Slope agriculture. They maintain that enough unappropriated Colorado River water remains to supply some version of a project, and that actions toward such a project must be pursued sooner rather than later to be prepared to meet the gap.

Private and commercial boating on the Cache la Poudre River, pictured here, and dozens of other rivers, as well as fishing, skiing and other recreational pursuits comprise a $34.5 billion economy in Colorado. Many of these activities rely on streamflows, making recreation an important water
supply need Colorado’s Water Plan seeks to protect. Photo: Courtesy Mountain Whitewater Descents

Does the draft plan go far enough?

How directly the revised 2015 version of Colorado’s Water Plan addresses tough conflicts for water sourcing like the transmountain diversion question will be the ultimate test of its value for many water managers. “I would like it if the plan hits the tradeoffs head on,” says Dave Little, director of planning for Denver Water. “There is a demonstrated need for new water supply in the state, and there is no free lunch, and I will be curious to see if the document has the courage to highlight ways that we can secure that new supply and the tradeoffs involved with that. Because someone’s world is always being played in when you are meeting water needs.”

At least in its first draft, some say, the water plan has done a decent job highlighting those tradeoffs that loom in the future. “Early on, the Colorado River District was concerned that the plan would tread lightly on the tough issues,” says Pokrandt. “But our voice was heard, and at this point in time the draft does a good job of pointing those interbasin differences out.”

Others argue that merely calling out existing conflicts between basins does little to show how Coloradans can meet the full extent of future water needs. Yes, the plan identifies the consensus actions most agree the statewide water community must pursue in the near term no matter what, including moderate degrees of conservation, reuse, sharing of water supplies between ag and municipal uses, and implementing already-planned projects, and then proposes funding and policy solutions that could further the implementation of these near-term goals. But for the state to be prepared for a future that could demand even higher levels of conservation, ag transfers, or even transmountain diversions while still protecting the diverse set of state values declared by Gov. Hickenlooper’s executive order, some contend, will require that the water plan declare bolder, more decisive policy goals.

“There is a demonstrated need for new water supply in the state, and there is no free lunch.” – Dave Little

“I really think that the governor believes he can craft a plan that makes everyone happy,” says Drew Beckwith, water policy manager for Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based environmental group. “This is an impressive effort, and we’re on the right path. But I think the current draft of the water plan is very milquetoast, it’s very gentle, it doesn’t strike any big policy initiatives, it doesn’t say yes to something.”

To send Colorado off and running toward its water future once the plan is complete, Beckwith argues that Gov. Hickenlooper should use the plan to declare a water conservation goal that governments and water providers across the state could aspire to meet. “I’d like to see it be a high conservation goal, calling for water use reductions of one percent per year statewide,” Beckwith says. “I don’t think it has to be mandatory or statutory—I think as long as the governor says it, it becomes an aspirational goal, and merely having it out there as an official piece of language creates an environment in which no one wants to fail at meeting the goal.”

Any list of goals that the state ultimately endorses would have to satisfy many user groups besides the environmental community, including business groups and water providers. For instance, along with a conservation goal, the plan could set a goal for fully developing the state’s compact entitlements. “Going forward, the big umbrella decision that the state will have to make is whether or not to include bold goals and statements in the plan that will make some people happy and other people really upset,” says Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, a group of 14 water providers south of Denver working to reduce their dependency on unsustainable groundwater withdrawals. “I don’t think we’ll get just a statewide conservation goal, or just a list of must-have water projects on that list. A package of bold goals would have to include something for everyone.”

Gaining momentum without overstepping bounds

For the utilities, conservancy districts, farmers and others whose everyday work consists of lining up their water supply, the importance of what the water plan will do is likely matched by what it won’t do, and that includes advocating alternatives to the prior appropriation doctrine, infringing on the status of water rights as private property, or banning the practice of agricultural buy and dry outright. Nor will the plan have any regulatory teeth or take the place of local water planning.

“We are not here to dictate how things are done,” says Mitchell. “Hopefully local municipalities will see this as a guide. It will open lines of communication within their areas and can be used to aid their own planning.”

Still, the plan’s final chapter, which remains to be fleshed out, will include recommendations for state legislators looking to make a difference in water policy by modifying existing statutes or passing new ones. And the CWCB, along with other state agencies, will use the plan in deciding how to spend limited funds on water projects, environmental restoration, or water quality improvement efforts. Finally, individual water providers will need to play a critical role in implementing the plan’s recommendations for closing the future water gap.

Even after the December 2015 draft is final, the water plan is intended to evolve as climate, population and other conditions in the state shift in the coming years. Going forward, the plan will be updated on a regular schedule, and each update will serve as a check on progress toward the plan’s original goals. Mitchell says revisions will likely involve gathering technical studies like the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, using them to update BIPs, and, finally, updating the water plan itself.

In the meantime, many hope the draft plan helps to boost the momentum behind projects and policies that enjoy broad support in Colorado, while laying out concrete steps to continue assessing options for closing the gap and advancing the discussion on more divisive issues. Moving forward, for instance, Preston says he would like to see an objective inquiry led by the state into the cost per acre-foot of different alternatives to provide new water supply around Colorado. Such an analysis would provide a better backdrop for sound decision-making as tradeoffs are analyzed.

“Identifying areas of alignment and figuring out how to aggressively pursue the things that are agreed upon, that’s something the plan can help with,” says Preston, citing as an example growing levels of support for multi-purpose storage reservoirs that provide agricultural, municipal and environmental benefits alike. “Where there are differences, the plan can help provide structure for future discussions to iron them out and work them through.”

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