Colorado’s water plan finally shows signs of progress

Since John Hickenlooper’s administration finalized Colorado’s first-ever statewide water plan in November, watchdogs have been wondering when — and if — state officials might start putting the document into action.

Some had feared the issue, which is likely to irk at least some of the state’s many competing water interests, might be put off until after the November election. But, alas, there’s at least some forward movement this election year.

This week, state lawmakers are taking a first look at an annual water projects bill that includes at least three items that might trigger some water planning momentum.

The largest? A $5 million yearly transfer to the Colorado Water Conservation Board construction fund “to implement the state water plan.” That money would come from a severance tax “perpetual base” account that had $350 million in the bank as of June.

But what would that $5 million be spent on? The measure, Senate Bill 16-174, doesn’t exactly say, other than it could be “studies, programs or projects.”

Rep. Ed Vigil of Fort Garland, the Democratic chair of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, is the House sponsor on the bill, which was introduced Monday. Asked Tuesday what the state would get for taxpayers’ $5 million investment, he said that was a question he intends to ask the Water Board when the bill hits his committee.

The Water Board, which is part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, is responsible for implementing the water plan — a pet plan of Hickenlooper, who has said that warding against a massive, mid-century water shortage is a key goal of his second term.

The state water plan, finalized November after two years and more than 24,000 public comments from throughout the state, lacks specifics on what legislation should be proposed or even which specific projects would help Colorado solve a looming water shortage of some one-million acre-feet by 2050.

An acre-foot of water is the amount of water it would take to cover Sports Authority field at Mile High from endzone to endzone with one foot of water. A family of four uses about one acre-foot of water per year, or about 326,000 gallons, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s still not much there in there,” water lawyer Peter Nichols, one of Hickenlooper’s water appointees, told The Colorado Independent as the water plan was being drafted last summer. “There are a lot of platitudes and clichés and nice words like ‘foster,’ ‘develop,’ ‘encourage,’ and ‘coordinate’ in this draft. But those aren’t action words. Those words won’t carry us. They’re not going to meet our water needs for 2050.”

This week’s water projects bill does propose some specifics — albeit relatively small ones in the $20 billion context of the statewide water plan’s projected price tag.

One provision in the measure seeks $200,000 from the Conservation Board’s construction fund to study underground storage, such as refilling aquifers, “along the front range [sic].” That provision matches up neatly with a bill awaiting action from the House Appropriations Committee.

House Bill 16-1256, sponsored by Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio, got a glowing vote of support from the House Agriculture Committee last month. Brown’s bill would task the water conservation board with studying storage possibilities along the South Platte River between Greeley and Julesburg. But if that measure fails to survive the full House, the study could still move forward under the projects bill being proposed this week.

The second specific item tied to the water plan is $1 million to update the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, also known as SWSI (pronounced SWA-sea). That 2010 study, commissioned by the Conservation Board, identified the one million acre-foot water shortage that became the driving force behind creating the state water plan.

But many believe the SWSI figure is too low, perhaps by as much as another one million acre-feet. During the water plan development process, officials on the Conservation Board stated the SWSI study would be updated in the next year or two to more accurately estimate the water shortage Coloradans will face in the future.

The bill is on the calendar for its first hearing in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee on Thursday.

Photo credit: Ken Lund, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.