STERLING —Thousands who commented on Colorado’s draft water plan will be surprised to learn that their letters, postcards and emails may be discounted by at least one of the 15 water bosses working on the issue.
The water plan has been hailed by Gov. John Hickenlooper as an unprecedented grassroots effort to end the state’s long-running water feuds and to avoid a looming water crisis. The plan will determine if Front Range cities with booming populations will suck up more water for growth, threatening farms on the eastern plains and mountain streams.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board asked for everybody’s input – from farmers and ranchers, to city-dwellers, CEOs, water companies, kayakers and anglers. But everybody’s voice won’t hold equal weight. The question the board is discussing is whose voices should count and how much should each perspective matter?
“I am not moved by the form letters. I’m much more interested in the thoughtful comments from individuals,” said Travis Smith, representing the Rio Grande River Basin at the CWCB’s May 20 board meeting in Sterling.
Smith was referring to over 22,000 comments generated by groups like Conservation Colorado that sent out action alerts to members, asking them to weigh in on the plan’s first draft.
Many of those form letters featured John Fielder photos of mountain streams and short, often passionate personal notes about how the plan should conserve Colorado water for fishing, farming and play.
Smith, speaking for farmers and ranchers, said quantity of comments shouldn’t outweigh quality. It’s not a majority-wins process.
“I don’t sign form letters. The ag community in general will show up at the first few meetings and say their piece. Then they go back to work, confident that the entity will carry the weight of those comments,” Smith said.
In all, the draft-plan garnered about 24,000 comments. Approximately 22,906 of those were classified as form letters.
Board members questioned how to judge the relative weight of the different comments, but nobody other than Smith suggested that the form letters shouldn’t count.
A majority of the public wants Colorado to conserve water for the recreation industry and agriculture. But not everybody agrees how water should be used, and the diversity of opinions challenge planners balancing competing and growing demands for water from cities, farms and wilderness.
The comments will be used to shape the second draft of the water plan, due July 15. That draft will recommend ways to divvy up water over the next few decades. It will likely recommend that new laws and regulations get passed – some of which might have a hefty price-tag.
The comments have already spurred “real changes” to the second draft. CWCB will rewrite the section on finding money to help pay for water projects, study which streams may need more environmental protection and add more information on climate change.
“The data show the environment is an important part of Colorado’s water plan, but we need more input from the ag community,” he said. “The environmental groups participated in this process in a big way,” said CWCB director Jim Eklund. “But just because we didn’t hear from the ag community doesn’t mean that’s not an equally important value,” he said.
The most important thing is to mine the comments for really good ideas, nuggets that will help the state move the needle on water issues, Eklund said.
It appears Colorado could cut water use by 30 percent in the next 35 years with simple conservation measures taken by industry, agriculture and individuals, said CWCB staffer Becky Mitchell.
The challenge is finding ways to make that happen – which includes convincing lawmakers to make funds available for water-saving measures, said CWCB director Russ George.
Once planning is done, he said, the hard political work will begin.
Top photo: Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting, by Bob Berwyn.