Can more plumbing save Colorado’s water?

Colorado’s new water plan is in large part about whether and when there should be any new water diversions, where they will go, who will benefit and who will pay for them.

Can more plumbing save Colorado’s water?

When Colorado’s tourism marketing gurus wanted to show the world what the state is all about, they used television spots evoking the powerful call of wild rivers — hikers gazing at waterfalls, anglers wading in still, dawn-lit waters and kayakers and rafters paddling through whitewater. But are those images more myth or reality?

Most of the state’s water is private property, under lock and key.

Thousands of diversions – canals and pipelines — move water to where it’s needed for crops, factories and drinking water. This intricately engineered plumbing system has fundamentally reshaped Colorado’s landscape. Water diversions allow millions of people to live in the semi-desert rain-shadow east of the Rockies, and enable vast emerald alfalfa fields to thrive in the otherwise dry sagebrush steppe of the Western Slope.

Colorado’s new water plan is in large part about deciding whether and when there will be new diversions, who will benefit and who will pay for them.

Most of Colorado's water has been tamed by vast system of dams, reservoirs and pipelines, controlled not by nature, but by valves like this one, used to divert water from Straight Creek to the town of Dillon.

Most of Colorado’s water has been tamed by a vast system of dams, reservoirs and pipelines, controlled not by nature, but by valves like this one, used to divert water from Straight Creek to the town of Dillon.

Colorado, by law and policy, has actively promoted water development for more than 100 years. Thousands of miles of streams and rivers have been dammed, diverted and polluted to provide water for factories, farms, cities, mines and oil and gas operations. As a result, Colorado’s environment has suffered.

Water gushes through a concrete spillway at the base of Dillon Dam.

Water gushes through a concrete spillway at the base of Dillon Dam.

The evolving Colorado water plan talks about the importance of leaving waters in rivers, but finding the flexibility and “extra” water to account for environmental needs like native-Colorado-river fish won’t be easy.

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A state water commissioner checks an automated streamflow gage along Tenmile Creek. The readings help determine how much of the water flows to Denver via Dillon Reservoir and how much goes on into the Colorado River.

Colorado, of course, is not alone.  More than 30 percent of rivers in the United States are impaired or polluted. So much water is drawn from rivers that many no longer flow to the sea year-round. As a result, the extinction rate for freshwater animals like fish and mollusks is five time higher than for land animals.

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Denver Water’s  Moffat Tunnel diversion shunts water from the Fraser River, in Grand County, to the Front Range.

The first draft of the new Colorado water plan recognizes that leaving water in rivers and streams is important, but it’s not clear whether the final version of the plan, due by the end of this year, will include any specific goals for for maintaining healthy streams.

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A water diversion on Jim Creek, tributary to the Fraser River in Grand County, reduces the flow to a sickly reddish trickle.

All over the mountains and Western Slope, residents worry more water will be taken from rivers and streams to the Front Range. Many communities have allied themselves with conservation groups to ensure that streams aren’t dried up.

Grand County resident Kirk Klancke (R) and Trout Unlimitie's Erica Stock discusss how taking water from the Fraser River affects the local economy and environment.

Grand County resident Kirk Klancke (R) and Trout Unlimited’s Erica Stock discuss how taking water from the Fraser River affects the local economy and environment.

The evolving water plan acknowledges the environment, but when it comes to specific actions, water planners generally defer to Colorado water law, which puts few limits on using water for farms and towns, but says that rivers and streams can only get protection to “a reasonable degree,” a standard that is a moving target often subject to interpretation by courts.

This is what water wonks call "infrastructure."

This is what water wonks call “infrastructure.”

Water development has enabled millions of Coloradans to water their lawns and golf courses, but at what cost? Conservation advocates decry calls for shipping more water from what’s left of mountain streams to irrigate grass in the dry plains of eastern Colorado, while Front Range cities, with more than 80 percent of the state’s population, seek to ensure sustainable water supplies for the future.

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In July 2012, during the peak of a ferocious drought, millions of gallons of water were used to irrigate acres of grassy medians and commercial property along Tower Road, in Denver.

How will Coloradans decide to use our state’s water? Read The Colorado Independent’s first few stories on the water plan here, and visit the Colorado Water Plan website to learn how you can get involved.

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About the Author

Bob Berwyn

He writes about energy and the environment while wandering the Colorado Rockies. He's instagram crazy, a digital-era mountain sickness.
bberwyn@comcast.net | @bberwyn | Instagram

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