Colorado River basin water planners gather local input
When Gov. John Hickenlooper signed his executive order for a statewide water plan, he gave it a tight deadline. The state’s consultants are now working to gather insights from residents and stakeholders in river basins throughout the state, including the Colorado headwaters in Grand County.
At a Grand County town hall meeting in Granby on Feb. 12, most of those stakeholders included ranchers, water engineers and representatives from the county’s municipalities. They came to learn more about the Colorado state water plan, find out what is means for the Colorado River basin and express their concerns.
Last May, Hickenlooper signed an executive order demanding a statewide water plan on his desk by December 2014, and a draft by July.
Louis Meyer, a civil engineer with the company SGM, was contracted to help prepare the Colorado water plan. He said that while the governor’s timeline is aggressive, preparing a water plan is both timely and necessary. Most states in the Western U.S. have water plans. Only Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado lack one.
“This was a wise move for the State of Colorado,” Meyer said. “We have a lot to accomplish in the next few months to make this happen.”
The planning process has held nine roundtables, which included the Colorado metro area and the state’s eight major river basins. Within the roundtables, the state’s consultants worked to bring together diverse interests within each region, including recreational, environmental, agricultural and municipal interests.
“Those communities that plan for the future, by and large, are better able to meet customer’s needs than those that don’t,” Meyer said.
With a growing population and obligations to send Colorado River water downstream to other states, a Statewide Water Supply Initiative forecasts a looming water shortage, or “gap.” This gap could be 500,000 acre-feet by 2050.
The state population is expected to double by that time, jumping to 10 million residents. While most of that growth will be on the Front Range, projections show the fastest-growing counties will be in the Colorado River basin.
Adding to the urgency of the water plan is a prolonged drought and dismal snowpack. Water reserves in Lake Powell in Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada have dropped to alarming lows, which could have trickle-up effects in Colorado. Low levels mean the reservoirs lose their ability to generate electricity. If those electric turbines can’t move, utility rates in Colorado could soar, and that lack of revenue could take a bite out of the Bureau of Reclamation’s budget for other projects.
Colorado’s water-use pie
In the past, Coloradans have used water-rights transfers from agriculture to meet water needs, but the governor and other lawmakers no longer find that model acceptable because of its economic and environmental impacts on rural communities, including Grand County.
According to Meyer’s town-hall presentation, municipal and industrial consumption account for 9 percent of the state’s water use. Recreation, fisheries, augmentation and recharge take 5 percent. The majority of the state’s water use, 86 percent, goes to agriculture. To close the future water gap, at least some of the state’s conservation efforts might have to come from agriculture.
But local ranchers took issue with that figure. While most of the state’s agriculture is concentrated on the Front Range, east and southwest regions of the state, it’s still a significant part of Grand County’s economy. As meeting attendees pointed out, many ranchers in the Kremmling area use flood irrigation in the spring for their hay, making their fields look like lakes by the summer.
“You’d assume the water was used and gone forever if you didn’t know any better,” said Chris Sammons, whose family has ranched in the area for over 100 years. “But the ground is a sponge, soaking up water, recharging it back into the basin and downstream.”
Sammons figures her hay only consumes a tiny portion of the actual irrigation water she uses. Sending the rest of that irrigation water back downstream helps Colorado meet its water rights obligations to other Western states and the nation of Mexico. That’s not the case with water piped to the East Slope.
Other suggestions coming from Grand County locals included stronger leadership among government officials managing water and lands, with lower turnover in these roles. They also suggested changes to the state’s land uses and development, and stronger educational campaigns on the true cost of water in the state.
Many of these suggestions are already being considered as part of the Colorado River Basin’s goals and measurable outcomes as consultants like Meyer work on a statewide water plan draft, due to the governor this summer.
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.
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