‘Where’s the beef’ in Colorado’s water plan?

A cow stares at the camera.

FRISCO — The first draft of Colorado’s new water plan offered plenty of background information about the state’s water, but didn’t say exactly what can be done to avoid a looming water-supply gap. By 2050, the state could be short billions of gallons per year — twice as much as Denver now uses annually.

A shortfall that big could crimp Colorado’s economy and put even more pressure on rivers and streams that have been nearly tapped out by thirsty cities and farms, Gov. John Hickenlooper said two years ago, when he ordered state agencies to build the first-ever statewide water plan.

Now, just half a year away from the deadline, conservation-minded state planners are polishing up a visionary final draft of the plan, due July 15, for one final public review before going back to Hickenlooper and the State Legislature, to be buffeted by Colorado’s political winds.

Aiming to answer what can be done to prevent a water crisis, Colorado Water Conservation Board experts previewed a new action-plan at a late-May water summit in Sterling — a pep-talk to rally CWCB directors and dozens of other water chiefs from around the state for the final round of planning.

For starters, all the info compiled for the plan shows clearly that  conservation alone could fill most of the much-feared water gap, state planners said, referring to an aspirational goal of saving 400,000 acre feet of water each year — about three times the capacity of Cherry Creek Reservoir or the amount of water that would fit in 200,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

[pullquote]”In the American West, it’s hard to instill a conservation ethic without a drought to impel people to do so.”[/pullquote]

But it will require more than just fixing leaky faucets and pipes, using modern low-flow toilets and showers and upgrading irrigation systems on farms.

The only way to get there is by instilling “a water efficiency ethic throughout Colorado,” the new action list states.

That may sound vague, but it’s probably the philosophical fountain from which all other actions will flow. If there’s no will, there’s no way. And it’s not clear whether the ballyhooed Colorado water planning effort will break years of political inertia, said Lawrence MacDonnell, a natural resources law scholar at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

MacDonnell led an academic review team that issued a report on the draft plan in April, finding that it offers little in the way of specifics. “As written, the Draft is not really a plan; it is a summary of a process that has identified problems … ” the reviewers wrote.

At this point, the new action list is still full of words like “improve, research, explore, strengthen, consider, monitor, encourage and support.” Nothing seems concrete.

The plan’s bureaucratic tone peaks with this golden nugget: The plan will “establish a process to identify processes” to address the water gap.

“Where’s the beef?” said MacDonnell, acknowledging the difficult political challenges ahead. Even a simple step like requiring retailers to sell only certified water-efficient outdoor sprinklers would be controversial, since many people believe government has no business telling stores what to sell.

“You know how it is in Colorado,” MacDonnell said, referring to a general antipathy toward government control.

In fact, the new action-item list says the state should consider such sprinkler standards as a way to achieve measurable water savings.

But mandating water-efficient appliances would require state lawmakers to act, and the failure of this year’s rain-barrel bill is a clear sign that the Legislature is not exactly racing toward that enlightened water-efficiency ethic mentioned by the plan, MacDonnell said.

“I appreciate the fact that the state is constrained, but a lot more could be done than the draft plan suggests,” said MacDonnell, who served on an academic review panel that combed the first draft.

Similarly, it will take a lot more than just feel-good language to spur a shift in the way farmers and ranchers use water. Upgrading the massive pump, pipe and sprinkler networks used in modern irrigation is not trivial, MacDonnell said.

“It’s an enormous investment, and it’s hard to believe we’re going to come up with that kind of money,” he said.

From what he’s seen so far, the draft plan hasn’t found a way to grapple with the state’s most fundamental water issues, including how to connect land-use planning with water planning.

“What seems to be missing is what’s going to drive action among the thousands of players … What could we do to make that final plan have teeth?” he said.

Even though the big players are at the water-planning table, the effort hasn’t encompassed everyone.

“There are hundreds of these little water-supply organizations. Their immediate problem is trying to get water for their new developments, and they don’t have the resources to take on these issues, like thinking about wildlife or watershed health,” he said. “They’re often profit-driven entitities, or small cities just feeling the pressure of getting water supplies, and they can’t afford to take the big view,” he said.

New water ethic?

That’s why the overarching goal of creating a new water ethic in Colorado is so important, and that’s something that will only happen over time.

A water plan can help guide such transformation, but sometimes, shock treatment is the only thing that works, said University of California, Irvine, social scientist David Feldman, who recently completed a study of how Melbourne, Australia changed its cultural attitude about water during a drought so bad it got its own name — the Millennium Drought.

The greater-Melbourne region is home to about 4.3 million people – not so different from Colorado’s population – and they managed to cut their water consumption in half during a blistering 10-year dry streak, but not without some strict guidance from a regional water czar who had the power to force different water companies to work together, Feldman said. Since the drought, water savings have continued in Melbourne.

“In the American West, it’s hard to instill a conservation ethic without a drought to impel people to do so … and our water rights systems encourage using our water rights, or risking losing them,” he said. Under that structure, there’s little incentive to conserve water, he added.

“To avoid the worst case scenario, its probably best to realize that, here in the West, climate variability and change dictates that we … probably are entering a period where what we have today is the new normal.”


Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons, Flickr.


  1. It is more important to keep the drilling and fracking out of the water sheds…once the water is poisoned, it is useless…I am a source water owner, and I say, keep your hands off of my water, until it leaves my property….the water wars are just beginning again in earnest….

  2. It’s funny that “where’s the beef” was used in the title. Cattle in CO requires 682.5 billion gallons of water per year, so that actually offers a concrete way to preserve water.

    (According to the United Nation’s Water for Life Study, a kilo of beef requires 15,000 liters of water. Converted, that’s 25,756 gallons to make one pound of beef. According to colorado.gov, “Colorado has around 2.65 million head of cattle each year”. Assuming the average cattle provides 570 pounds of meat (from a 1,150 pound cattle), that’s 682.5 billion gallons of water per year.)

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