Path forward is murky in Hickenlooper’s final water plan

James Ecklund and John Hickenlooper show off the final draft of the Colorado Water Plan.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has made public Colorado’s first statewide water plan. Though the document is intended to save the state from a looming water crisis, neither he nor state lawmakers have any specifics on how to implement it.

With only one generation until Colorado’s water supply is projected to fall short, the administration set out two years ago to craft a strategy, which Hickenlooper had hoped to start putting in action immediately.

But, as the effort has taken shape, critics have blasted it as a plan without a plan — more of a snapshot of Colorado’s water woes than a blueprint for long-term fixes. The first draft promised a chapter on legislation recommendations, but that chapter was left blank. The second draft proposed “critical action items” that, although replete with goals, lacked concrete steps for real action.

In touting his final draft — a 560-page document that’s as thick as a phone book — Hickenlooper assured the crowd at his press conference Thursday morning that Colorado now has “a plan with measurable objectives, concrete goals and detailed critical actions, all driven by our statewide water values.”

But what the plan doesn’t have, still, are specifics on how the state will be able to quench its many water thirsts by 2050, when water demand is projected to vastly exceed supply. What it doesn’t say is who’s responsible for making sure the plan’s “goals and critical actions” move from paper into reality. In response to criticisms that earlier drafts lack substance, the administration went heavy on the term “measurable objectives” in its final draft. Problem is, there’s no strategy for how to meet those objectives.

Members of Hickenlooper’s water team say the plan is a guide for moving forward, even if it doesn’t exactly lay out just how to get there.

Water Conservation Board member Russell George, who served as executive director of the Department of Natural Resources in Gov. Bill Owens administration, has been looking at the state’s water shortages since the 2002 drought and played a major role in helping create “water roundtables” whose suggestions form the heart of the plan. George lauds the effort, even though he acknowledges the plan offers no actionable solutions for living within the state’s water means.

“It shouldn’t,” he said. “That’s a political decision. This is not a political document. This is a collaborative, almost scientific document, including social science and hydrology.”

As George tells it, Coloradans shouldn’t expect an actual plan in the water plan as much a “foundation to begin having the political conversation.”

Surrounded Thursday by dozens of people from across the state who worked on the document, Hickenlooper emphasized that the plan is only the beginning, saying all Coloradans must share in its implementation and make sure the work is “transformed into meaningful action.”

“Time is of the essence, and we have to get right to work,” he said. “Now’s the time to prepare bipartisan, collaborative legislation that will allow us to make progress on the plan’s measurable objectives, and to do so in the upcoming session.”

Asked what’s on his 2016 legislative agenda for water planning, he demurred, saying, “I’ve learned not to come up with specific requests until I’ve had a chance to talk to legislative leadership.”

The session is less than seven weeks away and lawmakers are already hurrying to submit legislation by December 1, the first of two deadlines for bills for 2016.

Critics point out that the plan is heavy on thinky concepts, but lacks specifics such as a list of water projects, funding mechanisms and hard-set requirements for water users. In a September 30 letter to the Colorado Water Conservation Board,  Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who chairs the state’s interim Water Resources Review Committee, summarized public concerns voiced in a series of meetings held throughout the state this summer.

“The committee heard strong support for including more specifics in the plan that would explain how the state will help implement” solutions, she wrote. Roberts said the plan should address how the state will fund the estimated $20 billion it will cost to pay for the water needed to make up for the projected shortfall.

The final draft doesn’t come much closer to addressing her — and the public’s — concerns.

Among the goals that don’t have concrete solutions: conserving 400,000 acre-feet per year by 2050. (One acre-foot of water is 352,851 gallons, about the amount of water used by two families of four per year). It’s what the administration calls a “stretch goal,” meaning it’s merely aspirational, with no requirements behind it and no details on how to achieve it on a volunteer basis.

Another goal without a solution: 400,000 acre-feet of water that should come from new or expanded reservoirs. There are several already in the works, including two new reservoirs planned for the Poudre River, expansion of two reservoirs in Grand County and Chatfield reservoir in Jefferson County. James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which drafted the plan, told The Colorado Independent that these projects alone could bring in 300,000 acre-feet of water. But, for reasons the administration hasn’t explained, these projects are mentioned only briefly in the water plan, and are absent in the chapter on water storage and what the regional water groups would do about it. Eklund indicated that listing projects in the plan, especially ones not in the works, would give ammo to those who oppose them.

Business leaders have complained that the plan, in previous drafts, doesn’t ask enough of agriculture, which uses 89 percent of the state’s water. No matter how many low-flow toilets you install or how much you cut back on watering lawns in the cities and suburbs, they point out, it’s just a drop in the proverbial bucket.

Those criticisms are scoffed at by some in agriculture, including state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who chairs the Senate’s powerful Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee. In his view, the plan doesn’t do enough for Colorado’s farms and ranches and gives merely “lip service” to agriculture. Instead of avoiding “buy and dry” — the practice of buying and fallowing agricultural land for its water rights — the plan embraces vague, conceptual new ways to do it, such as through temporary transfers of water rights that would cut the amount of productive agricultural land.

The plan estimates a cost of up to $20 billion to implement all its goals, but again, without a sense of where that money would come from. And, although Hickenlooper spoke Thursday of the need to address funding issues to implement it, he didn’t say whom he has in mind to foot the bill — or how. He said there are laws currently on the books that are counterproductive to the plan, but either couldn’t or wouldn’t specify which ones.

Hickenlooper’s office long has stayed mum about its water strategy, deferring questions to Eklund, who points to the plan’s list of 185 to 200 proposed “actions,” many of them legislative, but won’t say which, if any, he has in mind to push this session.

Alan Salazar, the governor’s chief strategist, told The Independent Thursday that the administration may have to rush to form a legislative agenda on water, given that lawmakers already are well in the process of figuring out what bills they want to carry in 2016.

Salazar noted that members of the legislature — specifically those on the House and Senate agriculture committees and the Interim Water Resources Review Committee, which takes the lead on water legislation each year — have been kept informed of the plan all along. The governor has asked them to “get behind the plan, see where you view opportunities.”

“We’re not trying to impose bills,” Salazar said. “The purpose of the plan is not to have a legislative blueprint. It’s to show the state’s collective vision for the next 50 years.”

“The governor is trying to be very diplomatic. The worst thing he can do is say, ‘Here’s the plan, and I already have a legislative agenda to implement it.’ That won’t work well with legislators,” especially with split control between the House and Senate, he added.

Some critics see Hickenlooper’s diplomatic approach as a cover for inaction.

Jim Lochhead, head of Denver Water — Colorado’s biggest municipal water agency — said this week that it’ll take leadership from the governor to unite  “West Slope, East Slope, agriculture, municipalities and environmentalists – putting aside our individual interests and coming together to do what’s best for Colorado.”

Given the bitter divisions between those water users, some at the Statehouse want to see Hickenlooper use his political clout and status as a lame-duck to actively move the plan forward. Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, vice chair of the water resources review committee, told The Independent that Hickenlooper will need to take an active lead on bridging long, deep divisions between water users on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, told The Independent Thursday that the water plan isn’t likely to get major traction in the 2016 session, and that it’s more likely it’ll be more of a focus in the 2017 General Assembly. As she sees it, lawmakers will need time to “unpack” the plan, learn what’s in it, and figure out their role in implementing it.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t have any major bills” on the plan this session, Guzman said.

That would leave Hickenlooper, who’s term-limited out of office in three years, two legislative sessions to solve some of the state’s most longstanding, contentious and perplexing problems, including how to balance water usage between the West Slope farmers and ranchers who have first legal rights to water and the growing Front Range communities and businesses that can’t survive without it.

Some say the governor has done his job simply by ordering the state water plan and now needs to step back.

“Conservation and storage targets, funding, watershed health, they all sound pretty good on the surface,” said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, a statewide association of more than 400 member organizations. The real work of building water projects, setting rules for conservation and otherwise implementing the plan will fall mostly to a host of regional water groups and water providers, not to the state, he argues.

“Colorado is fiercely decentralized, and that includes water,” added Chris Treese of the Colorado River District. He calls the water plan a positive step forward, but he also hopes the governor remains true to the plan’s bottom-up approach, which is to let local officials who sit on water roundtables in Colorado’s eight river basins and in Metro Denver take charge of implementation.

Said Sonnenberg, whose ag committee will take the lead on reviewing water bills tied to the plan: “It’s a great idea if we can figure out how to make it work.”

Correction 11/23/15: The original version of this story misspelled Jim Lochhead’s last name “Lockhead.”


  1. I can see a “water grab” being set up here…in the name of Progress…As an owner and user of irrigation water, I have done everything recommended and beyond for my water, years ago…So, I see that “Water and Fracking” go hand in hand…need water to frack…etc…Water disputes are not new, and will always be at odds with the big developers, and big oil and gas…they want the water for profits, I want to grow stuff…I don’t trust some of the Democrats in Denver…Governor Frackenlooper, and “Don’t let ’em in” Polis…cannot trust those wealthy, self financed Blue Dogs…

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