Water fights run deep in this state, and officials long avoided drafting a plan for what to do about it.
But Gov. John Hickenlooper knows avoidance is no longer an option; water is running out.
As Colorado’s population rises, the gap between supply and demand is expected to grow to millions of gallons of water per day by 2050. Already, nearly every drop of groundwater, river-water and rainwater has been claimed in our state.
Just like energy and the Internet, water needs to be regulated.
But farmers and ranchers have one set of interests, city dwellers have another and environmentalists have staked a claim in the fight, too. The current laws, based in frontier feuds, favor farmers and ranchers – particularly the ones whose families have owned their land decades before others.
Some fear states like California, that are already dealing with drought, will grab water from Colorado, either with money or force. After all, water wars are the future, stated a 2012 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the FBI and the CIA.
In 2012, Colorado was ravaged by wildfires and drought. In response, in 2013, Hickenloooper ordered various state departments to craft a long-term water plan. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is heading the effort.
“Throughout our state’s history, other water plans have been created by federal agencies or for the purpose of obtaining federal dollars,” the order says. “We embark on Colorado’s first water plan written by Coloradans, for Coloradans.”
But what Coloradans? City folks? Farmers? Ranchers? Outdoor enthusiasts?
To figure this out, the state needs to hear from people. But do Coloradans even know this planning process is taking place? And, with water wars looming, how can a plan solve the thousands of conflicting water needs Colorado must balance as the planet heats up, our rivers dry up and our population swells.
Don’t touch the water
Theresa Ellsworth didn’t know about the state’s efforts, but she knows in her gut that something is wrong with how water laws work here.
Ellsworth lives halfway between Frisco and Breckenridge, at the foot of the Tenmile Range. In the spring, water rages around her subdivision. Runoff from the mountains surges down the Blue River, feeding millions of gallons of water into Dillon Reservoir each day.
But Ellsworth can’t use any of it, not even a few drops for a petunia patch. She gets her household water from a well, and if she uses well water to wash her car or water her lawn, she’s breaking the law – unless she were to buy into an expensive state-run water trading program that she can’t afford.
“How can I tell somebody this isn’t fair?” she says, with no idea that Hickenlooper’s water-planning process is going on.
Ellsworth isn’t the only one who hasn’t heard of the state water plan or efforts by officials to seek public input before the comment period on the first draft ends today.
John Minor, Summit County’s elected sheriff, didn’t know about the planning effort, either. And he’s a public official who, like it or not, deals with water in his job.
His deputies get called in a few times a year by water inspectors who enforce the state’s peculiar groundwater laws. See, these inspectors risk their necks threatening people with water shut-offs and fines. Colorado water law – a tangled mess – isn’t exactly user friendly. Few have the time or energy to untangle it. And many Coloradans don’t like that the government is on their land and trying to take what they see as their water.
So, they make threats, and Sheriff Minor and his deputies have to help keep the inspectors safe.
Minor, a British-born libertarian, rubs his chin incredulously as he ponders the irony of his job as a water cop. Shouldn’t he know about the state plan?
From the start, Hickenlooper and his water planners have sought widespread public input into Colorado’s first-ever statewide water blueprint, even launching a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter. There’s a one-stop website for commenting, and it’s easy to sign up for email alerts and snail-mail updates.
But like Minor and Ellsworth, many people who should know and care about the water plan just haven’t been reached — or maybe they have, and just haven’t tuned in.
State officials are trying, “but they’re not very good at it,” Eagle County resident Ken Neubecker said. General skepticism about unwieldy government planning efforts probably cause some people to shy away, added Neubecker, a longtime river runner, fly fisherman and head of the Colorado River Basin Project for American Rivers.
“You can never get too much grassroots involvement,” he said. “This plan is really important for the future of the state. It won’t trump water law, but provides a road map for the future instead of looking back at the past. People need to get their comments in, talk about it and tell their friends,” Neubecker said. “This is a chance for people to actually speak.”
So, what’s the plan?
The first draft Coloradans are being asked to read and comment on is 300 pages long. It’s clouded with fuzzy statements about conservation and cooperation among water users. It’s vague.
Hidden behind the fuzziness is a blueprint that does not solve historic tensions between water-producing areas west of the Continental Divide and water-hungry areas to the east, commenters suggest. Front Range cities and farms need the water to continue to thrive, but Western Slope farmers, environmentalists and outdoors enthusiasts are close to saying, “Not one more drop.”
Federal agencies have sent in comments, wrangling for control. This is one more chapter in the century-long drama over water rights between Colorado and the feds.
State agencies insist they share goals with the feds: more water conservation, reuse and recycling – all nebulous concepts.
The plan calls for more options to avoid permanently drying up farmland, but it doesn’t say what farmland or where. It needs to be specific to make it more than just a memo or feel-good document, water watchdogs say.
Today is the last chance to comment about what people like and don’t like about the first draft. Once the second draft gets released, the public will have another chance to comment between July 15 and Sept. 17.
Whether or not everybody who wants a say knows he or she can have one has yet to be seen.
With our series “Colorado water: What’s the plan?” The Colorado Independent will in the coming months cover the formation of the water blueprint and detail the political, economic social and environmental tugs-of-war that will be stretching it as it takes shape.
Please follow our multimedia coverage and weigh in with your comments and questions as we try to make sense out of one of the driest yet most pressing issues we face.
Top Photo by Bob Berwyn. Sailing Dillon Reservoir: A new Colorado Water Plan will help shape how Dillon Reservoir is managed during the coming decades, with implications for recreation in high country resort towns and for residents of growing Front Range cities.