Can the state water plan bridge the gap?

Front Range, West Slope still miles apart on vision for Colorado’s water future

Water inlet works at Dillon Reservoir.

When Colorado’s earth cracked open in the great drought of 2002, it may have also cracked open a new corner of consciousness about the finite nature of the state’s water supplies. Spurred by the drought, Gov. Bill Owens and Department of Natural Resources chief Russ George created a series of grassroots river-basin-based roundtables around Colorado and started crafting a statewide vision of how the state will allocate river flows in the 21st century.

Ten years later, the process will culminate with completion of a formal state water plan, ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper — but there will have to be some serious compromise on the “last 10 percent,” says longtime Colorado River advocate Ken Water inlet works at Dillon Reservoir. Neubecker, an associate director of American Rivers.

But a round of draft documents posted in recent weeks once again raises concern about a host of transmountain water diversion projects that would require huge amounts of energy and disrupt communities and agriculture in the Colorado River Basin.

Some of the projects have been floating around for decades, representing a Rube Goldberg view of the world, where every problem has an over-engineered technical solution: The Big Straw, which would slurp billions of gallons of water from the Colorado River just before it crosses into Utah; the 500-mile Green River pipeline from Wyoming that supposedly would generate hydropower along the way; the Yampa pumpback, the Blue River pumpback and a new Wolcott Reservoir in Eagle County.

“Keeping the idea of these zombie water projects, when there just isn’t any more water to fill those [new] reservoirs doesn’t make sense. … There’s not enough to fill the reservoirs that are here now,” says Save the Colorado campaign coordinator Gary Wockner. The water bosses are missing the big picture by ignoring the fact that Lake Powell and Lake Mead are near or at their lowest levels ever (since filling), Wockner says.

The downstream demand from Arizona, Nevada and especially California throws a huge political monkey wrench into the works that could someday result in a regional showdown, as the Lower Basin cashes in its water chips under the rules of the 1922 Law of the River. Such a so-called Compact Call would require many Colorado water users to curtail their uses.

Developing any new major Colorado River diversions would only worsen the situation, and all of the zombie projects revive visions of the old-school water wars that got Neubecker involved in river conservation back in the 1980s, when Aurora sought to siphon even more of the Eagle River’s flows across the Continental Divide.

“I was fishing a lot on the river when I heard about it, and I remember thinking, ‘They can’t do that,’” he says.

The statewide planning push is designed to seek consensus. There’s no question that the basin roundtable configuration has been an improvement over previous tactics, which consisted mainly of “throwing lawyers at each other,” Neubecker says. All in all, the process has been smooth. Each basin — nine, in all — carved out its own vision for Colorado’s water future.

The regional groups have publicly posted “Basin Implementation Plans” for public comment. It’s a key step for the plan, because the final versions should reflect public concerns. In the spirit of the longterm planning initiative, there’s a user-friendly online portal that, for once, doesn’t look like a government website:, literally begging for comment.

Now that it’s time to put it all together, cracks are starting to show along traditional fault lines. Some of the big Front Range communities say the plan must include provisions to shunt more water from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range.

“They’re looking for certainty that there will be another transmountain diversion,” says Colorado River Water Conservation District spokesman Jim Pokrandt. “The Colorado River Basin Roundtable position is, to the degree that there ever could be one, it’s the last tool out of the box.”

Neubecker goes further to say there simply is no water left to divert in the Colorado River Basin.

Already, aquatic ecosystems are struggling in streams affected by existing diversions. Taking more water could push them over the edge. Recent studies show a big shortage looming within just a few decades, up to 3.2 million acre feet under moderate climate change scenarios. If there’s any common ground, it’s that the shortages will be equally painful across the state. If, as projected, the Front Range population nearly doubles by 2050, it’s all but certain that those new residents won’t all be able to have bluegrass lawns.

Already, 85 percent of the state’s population lives in the South Platte Basin, which is pushing for the new transmountain water diversion option. The South Platte Basin produces about 1.4 million acre feet of water annually, and already supplements that with 400,000 acre feet of water from the West Slope, with 85 percent of the water used for agriculture.

Whether all of Colorado’s ranches and farms will survive is questionable. Every day, water providers along the Front Range field inquiries from agricultural water users seeking to sell their irrigation allocation — at city prices. According to Neubecker, it’s an unspoken fact that the Front Range cities could meet most of their projected supply gaps with transfers from agriculture, but that there’s tremendous political pressure to prevent the decline of the traditional industry.

The pending showdown over the state water plan (a draft is due in about three months, with a fall 2015 deadline for the final version) shows once again the need to connect the dots between water planning, land-use planning and social, economic and cultural values associated with agriculture — not to mention the ecological values of healthy streams and rivers.


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