Colorado water: agriculture, people and ecosystems compete for a limited supply

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According to speakers at a water forum last week, Colorado faces a difficult–if not a dismal–water future.

At the outset of the Metro Roundtable Reception held in downtown Denver Thursday evening, John Stulp, special policy advisory to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, cited the need to come up with a win-win solution for water.

But all testimony given later in the meeting suggested such perfection is not easily attainable. If you move water to accommodate a rapidly growing population, you inevitably take it away from some other purpose.

The bigger losers in this water-soluble game of Chinese fire drill are agriculture, which currently uses 85 to 90 percent of the state’s water, and natural ecosystems, such as the vast complex of life along waterways.

Some 500,000 to 700,000 acres of agriculture are projected to be dewatered in coming decades as cities buy farms for their water rights, a process informally called “buy and dry.” That process was described by Stulp as the status quo – and one he says is unacceptable.

Already, much water originally allocated for farms in the Fort Morgan and Sterling areas has been sold to water providers in the Denver metropolitan area, said Joe Frank, executive director of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.

“It’s not very visible yet because the water hasn’t been removed from the (agricultural) land,” said Frank, whose district distributes water from Fort Morgan to the Nebraska border.

But while these transfers have occurred in the free market of willing buyer and sellers, he called for a step back to question “whether it is really the best way to find new water supplies.” A better answer, he suggested, was to detain lingering spring runoff, which last year was estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 acre-feet.

But John Sanderson, water program director for The Nature Conservancy, pointed out that free-running rivers during spring also have value. “Those high flows are important to maintaining habitat,” he said.

Sanderson noted that 15 percent of aquatic species found in and along Colorado’s creeks and rivers by the first settlers have been extirpated form this region, while another 40 percent are now endangered, threatened or otherwise at risk.

“If we don’t get this right, we run the risk of this figure being much higher 40 more years from now,” he said.

Everybody, of course, also cites the economic contributions of their sector. Agriculture, by some definitions, is the second most important industry in Colorado. But Sanderson said studies have found that water in streams also has significant economic benefit to the state.

Sanderson pointed to the need to raise money to preserve water and riparian habitat similar to Great Outdoors Colorado, the initiative that uses proceeds from the lottery to preserve open space.

And, like Stulp, The Nature Conservancy sees benefits from collaboration. Sanderson pointed to benefits accrued to multiple constituencies in the planning of Elkhead Reservoir, near Craig, and now to similar efforts to meet multiple needs in management of the Dolores River below McPhee Dam, in southwestern Colorado.

Many of these issues had been evident in the 1990s, but the drought of 2002 triggered new efforts at collaboration. Responding to the drought, Colorado released a broad study called the Statewide Water Supply Investigation in 2004, with a second iteration in 2007.

Then, in 2005, Russell George, a former water lawyer from Rifle who then headed the Department of Natural Resources, explained his vision of a new process, which has led to the formation of roundtables of people from the various river basins in Colorado, and then discussions among the various basins, with the statewide body called the Interbasin Compact Committee.

While any true success from that long, laborious process has yet to be seen, most participants concede benefits of what Stulp described as the bottoms-up approach.

“It doesn’t mean we all agree. It just means that we’ll sit in the same room and talk,” said Stulp at Thursday evening’s meeting. “Five years ago, they didn’t want to even talk.”

Jennifer Gimbel, director of the state’s leading water policy agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, noted several recurring questions in the water world. Stopping growth is not an answer, she said, as half of the population increase is expected to come from in-state, with births outpacing deaths. “It’s more a question of how we grow,” she said.

Improved water efficiency and conservation alone are “not the silver bullet,” she said. And as for removing water from farm lands, the vast majority of which is used to grow corn to be fed to cattle in feed lots, Gimbel cited the need for “food security.”

Instead, speakers said Colorado needs a portfolio of solutions that includes reuse of existing supplies, limited ag transfers, and new water storage projects to hold back spring runoff.

Among the new ideas to emerge since the 2002 drought was development of water in the Green River in either Wyoming or Utah. The water later passes through Colorado for about 20 miles, giving Colorado an arguable right to water in the river even if it is diverted to another state.

Aaron Million, a Fort Collins-based entrepreneur, came up with the idea and continues to pursue it. But the South Metropolitan Water Supply Authority later proposed a similar idea, drawing on either Flaming Gorge Reservoir or Fontenelle Reservoir, both located on the Green River.

Rod Kuharich, executive director of the South Metro group, said his group has met with people from the Wyoming cities of Cheyenne, Casper, Torrington and Green River, but he ultimately sees the deal being a state-to-state transaction, if it ever occurs.

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