PARCHED: As hundreds of thousands of people move to Colorado, a critical water supply report is years behind schedule
Editor’s note: Marianne Goodland reports on water issues for this ongoing series: PARCHED, which looks at conservation, the role of agriculture and storage, as Colorado prepares for a looming water shortage brought on by population growth and climate change.
John Hickenlooper and his administration spent four years and millions of dollars working up Colorado’s first statewide water plan out of what he called an urgent imperative – a projection that water needs will exceed supply by 2050.
But those water supply projections, upon which the water plan was based, are now nine years out of date, raising questions about the current state of Colorado water, given the recent population boom and more evidence that climate change has become a larger problem for water supplies.
Mark Eiswerth, a water expert and economics professor at the University of Northern Colorado, points out that ”[e]ven if water providers are completely successful in implementing projects [already planned], state water experts predict that we will meet only about 80 percent of the forecasted needs in the municipal and industrial sectors by 2050.”
The Colorado Water Conservation Board [CWCB], the agency overseeing water supplies as well as the state water plan, won’t have new projections quantifying our water shortage until summer of 2018, despite its commitment in 2010 that it would update and refine the data “every few years.” In the meantime, Hickenlooper earlier this month appointed Becky Mitchell—the official who for the last five years has been responsible for compiling that data—to head the agency and carry his plan forward.
“Coloradans and our water communities are working like never before to solve our state’s challenges collaboratively,” Mitchell said at the time of her appointment. “The same kind of cooperation that led to Colorado’s Water Plan will fuel the long-running effort necessary to continue putting the plan into action.”
Mitchell’s appointment was welcomed by both lawmakers and environmentalists who work regularly with the state’s water board.
Mitchell “knows the plan inside out,” Kristen Green of Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest environmental advocacy group, told The Colorado Independent. “She’s great at being collaborative and reaching out to different stakeholders.”
State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said Mitchell would bring “the right balance of institutional knowledge and fresh ideas on how to meet the water demands of the state.”
The challenge ahead is immense. Sonnenberg, who also chairs a summer interim legislative committee on water, says the state needs to know what has changed over the last nine years. While, he says, he suspects supply and demand forecasts are still roughly in line with the last projections, the update “could force us to accelerate what we need to accomplish” to tackle the impending water shortage.
The population surge
Water planning is a complex numbers game that factors in current and projected population, climate patterns, water policies on the local, state and federal levels, and the competing needs of farmers, ranchers, city dwellers, businesses, oil and gas drillers, environmentalists, birders, anglers, rafters, kayakers and everyone else who relies on the health and vibrancy of Colorado’s rivers.
Hickenlooper – whose legacy as governor will be shaped largely by the unprecedented growth he has championed in the state – ordered the first statewide water strategy in 2013 out of a need for an informed, cohesive and clear plan forward.
The administration’s 540-page plan, released in November, 2015, is predicated on a 2010 report, known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, pronounced swa-zee. The first SWSI report came out in 2004 at a time when the state was in the process of developing its infrastructure around water planning. The most recent report, an update, was based on 2008 data about water supplies. Since then, Colorado’s population has surged from about 4.9 million to 5.6 million people in 2016. The state is growing by 100,000 people per year, and the population could reach close to 10 million people by 2050, according to both the water plan and the 2010 water supply report.
John Stulp, special policy advisor to the governor on water, said that population growth now appears to be slower than what the water plan and 2010 SWSI had predicted – more in line with a population of about 8.5 million rather than 10 million by 2050. That’s good news in terms of demand, but the state still needs to figure out how to provide water to the three million additional residents.
The 2010 report projected that the Front Range will continue to be the most populous area in the state, but that population on the Western Slope will double. With that kind of growth on both sides of the Continental Divide, the 2010 SWSI projected Colorado would be short about one million acre-feet of water by 2050 and cities and towns would have to at least double their water supplies. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, or enough water to satisfy two families of four for a year.
In the nine years since the state compiled data for its 2010 report, Colorado also has weathered its most disastrous wildfires, a drought in 2012 and a 100-year flood later that same year. In 2015-16, the United States experienced the warmest winter ever recorded.
Turnover, burnout and bureaucracy
The water plan has been criticized as a “compendium of ideas” rather than an actionable plan forward. Some of Colorado’s top water experts see it as a political move to make Hickenlooper look like he’s on top of water issues, but without having to make tough decisions that could affect developers or could inflame longstanding water tensions between the east and west sides of the state. At the time the plan came out, Peter Nichols, a water attorney who sits on the Interbasin Compact Committee, a statewide water working group, said the plan had a lot of nice words but without a lot of action tied to them.
The CWCB is supposed to update policy-makers with new SWSI reports every few years. But that hasn’t happened since 2010. In 2016, the Colorado General Assembly authorized the CWCB to take $1 million out of its construction fund to update the SWSI report. At the time, the CWCB said the update would be done by mid-year 2017. Meaning now.
CWCB officials now say the report is more likely to surface around June 30 of next year.
The reason for the latest delay differs, depending upon whom you ask.
Minutes from a February 2016 meeting of a group of Denver-area water agencies, city and county officials, and representatives from agriculture, recreational, environmental and municipal water users, show that contractors had been selected for the SWSI update and “work will begin very soon.” “…Delivery targeted for mid-2017,” the minutes read. That was before the legislature had even approved the $1 million to update the report.
By Sept. 8 of that same year, progress appeared to have come to a halt. Minutes from the same working group’s meeting said that “[ e]verything with SWSI is on hold. There is no staff. No technical work has started.” According to the meeting’s minutes, those remarks came from the CWCB’s Craig Godbout, a program manager in the agency’s water supply planning section, which was then headed by Mitchell.
Mitchell disputes that work came to a standstill, stating that one of the biggest holdups has been navigating the state’s contracting rules. In attempting to put together an elaborate series of contracts to handle the SWSI update, Mitchell said, the CWCB ran into delays due to the state’s procurement rules, and the approval process was more complicated than the CWCB anticipated.
These nine groups, set up by state law, include more than 300 representatives from counties, water providers, agricultural, municipal, industrial, environmental and recreational interests. Each roundtable covers a major river basin in the state – eight in all – plus a separate one for the Denver metro area.
The role of the roundtables, established in state law, is critical in every aspect of the state’s water planning. The roundtables are responsible for knowing the water situation in each of their nine areas and coming up with projects to satisfy water issues as well as the implementation plans for those projects. Those implementation plans formed the technical background for the state water plan.
Stulp told The Independent that roundtable members wanted to provide some of the technical expertise for the next update. Choosing who would participate slowed things up, he says, adding that he thinks the SWSI process is now “back on course.”
Mitchell and the CWCB’s former director, James Eklund, noted that the basin roundtables have seen turnover — and some burnout in membership. Once the SWSI was updated in 2010, Stulp says, the roundtables used that information to develop their own basin implementation plans. When the water plan was done, work on the SWSI update began, and once that’s done, the basin plans will in turn be updated, and the cycle repeats.
Mitchell says that despite the churn, the cycle works. SWSI is the technical piece that the basin roundtables rely on as they plan projects to solve a variety of water issues in their own areas. The water plan then is the status report, which asks “are we doing what we say we would do?” she said.
Greg Johnson, a program manager in the CWCB’s water supply planning section, is in charge of putting together the 2018 SWSI. “We wish we had more control over the timing,” he told The Independent last week. “But coming off the water plan, people, especially at the basin roundtable level, had put in thousands of hours of effort and it was hard to ask them to get back on that train for the SWSI” just three months after the water plan was rolled out.
Sonnenberg sees the delay in updating SWSI as a reflection of a lack of interest by the Hickenlooper administration and its appointees on the water board. His committee needs the update as it maps out priorities for the water plan for the next five years.
Part of the delay, he said, is due to turnover at the CWCB, which most recently included its former director. Eklund left in April to join the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs as a water law and infrastructure expert. Sonnenberg pinned the delay on Eklund, saying there during his tenure there was “a lack of interest in following through.”
Eklund chose not to respond to Sonnenberg’s criticisms, saying they had a good relationship while he was at the CWCB and that Sonnenberg had been very helpful on water issues. He noted that Sonnenberg had either been consulted on or a proponent of every major piece of water legislation.
What we learned from SWSI 2010
The 2010 report found that Colorado’s rivers generate about 16 million acre-feet of water every year—that’s 5.2 trillion gallons a year. On paper, that sounds like an abundance. But two-thirds of that water doesn’t stay in Colorado. If flows out of state under agreements drawn up decades ago with neighboring states that rely on our water.
The report pointed out that 80 percent of the state’s water is on the Western Slope while 80 percent of the population is on the Eastern Slope, including most of the state’s irrigated agricultural lands. Those farms and ranches use about 89 percent of the state’s consumed water, which doesn’t flow back to streams, rivers or aquifers.
The 2010 report also looked the state of the Colorado River – the biggest source of water for our state, and for the entire Southwest. The report included a review of environmental and recreational water supply and demand, municipal and industrial water supply and demand, and the water needs of ski resorts, breweries, and the state’s energy sector, based on electrical generation as well as oil and gas fracking.
The supply gap could be eased by changes in state water policy and efforts by the nine roundtable groups to address issues such as how the agriculture industry uses its water, additional storage from new or expanding existing dams and reservoirs, and conservation efforts, which have proven most successful during times of drought when Coloradans feel the squeeze.
Without its own data projecting the effect of climate change on water supplies, the water board drew data from experts such as the state’s climatologist and the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University in forming the state water plan. It warned, for example, about decreased water supply resulting from “dust on snow,” a phenomenon that occurs when wind pulls dust from deserts or other areas without vegetation and deposits it on mountain snowfields. That in turn increases solar radiation, “which speeds up snowmelt and leads to earlier spring runoff” by as much as three weeks, the water plan said.
Out of the 91 occurrences of dust-on-snow tracked since 2005, 10 took place in 2013 alone. If these dust-on-snow events continue at or near the same rate, the Colorado River alone would be short 750,000 acre-feet of water. That’s twice the amount of water used by Denver every year, the report warned.
What will the 2018 SWSI look like?
Stulp said the updated SWSI will be based more on technical data than the 2010 report, which looked at water supply gaps driven by the natural cycle of how water is generated and consumed in Colorado. The update will, instead, look at water supply and demand as a structural gap – based on the equation of how much new demand the state will face, minus the water projects already being planned statewide.
The updated report also will include updates on extreme weather conditions from drought to flooding and on the condition of Colorado’s rivers and streams. Improved water flows help both preserve fish and other wildlife habitats, as well as improved conditions for recreational activities, such as fishing or rafting.
“It’s amazing how fast six or seven years goes by,” Stulp said, referring to the 2010 SWSI.
The CWCB’s Johnson said the 2018 SWSI will rely on the roundtable expertise through four technical advisory groups, dealing with agriculture, municipal and industrial water uses, planning scenarios, and environmental and recreational water supply. The technical groups will act as peer review over the analysis provided by the contractors, who are now setting up the methodology, figuring out what models to use, how to quantify socio-economic factors, such as land use and population density, and then “crunching the numbers.” The technical groups will review that information in September.
One of the biggest differences for next year’s SWSI, Johnson added, will be its inclusion of an elaborate series of scenario planning. That planning will take into account population growth, social values and climate change. “Let’s imagine different futures and how the variables will change” that future, he said.
“We want to come up with something that is scientifically defensible. In the end we will get a better product.”
Johnson laid out a timeline for completion of the 2018 SWSI with the CWCB board at its monthly meeting last week in Crested Butte. The methodology development, which is being done by contractors, will continue through November, with technical evaluations to wrap up in late spring. A final report, according to Johnson, should be issued by June 30, 2018.
The ticking clock
When Hickenlooper issued the order for the water plan in 2013, lawmakers felt they had been left out of the process. In response, in 2014, they passed a bill that sternly claimed that the purpose of the water plan is to determine state policy on conservation and development of water resources, and that the General Assembly “is primarily responsible for guiding the development of state water policy.”
That work is left mostly to the legislature’s 10-member interim Water Resources Review Committee, which will begin its summer schedule in August.
During 2015, the water committee traveled around the state, gathering public input on drafts of the water plan and coming up with their own views on how the plan should look. Since then, lawmakers’ roles have been largely confined to passing bills to come up with the money to start implementing the plan, although those bills ($5 million in 2016 and $10 million in 2017) have said little about exactly how that money would be spent.
The late SWSI update isn’t a big deal to Rep. Diane Mitsch-Bush of Steamboat Springs, a Democrat who sits on the water committee. She said that she doesn’t think the delay would make a difference but acknowledged that the information would be important because lawmakers can’t just rely on assumptions about the state’s water supply and demand.
Sonnenberg said that during the water committee meetings in August he wants lawmakers to meet with the water board to discuss what’s going on with the SWSI.
“It’s important we have the updates so we can see if we’re on same trend or if we have drastic changes,” he said.”[But]growth in Colorado has been fairly predictable.”
This is Colorado, Sonnenberg said, and people love coming here. Between 2008, when the last SWSI update was issued, and 2016, 700,000 new residents settled in this state. By next summer, another 100,000 are expected.
Feature photo of Long Lake by Ray Schoch
Ditch photo by Allen Best
Map of Colorado’s river basins courtesy of the Colorado Water Conservation Board
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