PARCHED: Climate change and growth are pushing Colorado toward a water crisis

Gov. John Hickenlooper's water plan has been big on collaboration, but short on action. He’ll leave the toughest decisions to his successor.

Russian thistle in a former reservoir along the Colorado River in Hite, October 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

Editor’s note: This story is the latest in The Colorado Independent’s ongoing series, PARCHED, which tracks Colorado’s water plan and water supplies in the state.

 

Colorado had plenty of reasons to worry about water by the time it elected John Hickenlooper in 2010.

The state was in its 11th year of drought. The health of its rivers was waning. And early projections of a statewide shortfall had cities and suburbs starting to stress out.

More urgent concerns have surfaced over Hickenlooper’s two terms as governor.

The drought has now lasted 19 years. Low precipitation and hotter temperatures have cut river flows by nearly 20 percent, with no end in sight. And the Colorado River, the state’s main source of water, is over-tapped to the point of possible federal intervention.

Colorado’s population, in the meantime, has skyrocketed with help from Hickenlooper’s pro-growth agenda, while its main source of water funding has proven unreliable. Ranchers are auctioning their cattle early because vegetation is so dry. Trout this past summer were too hot and sluggish to put up a fair fight. And nearly all Coloradans could smell the smoky urgency as wildfires burned our parched forests.

The “dry heat” that used to seem like a plus in Colorado has started, increasingly, to seem like a minus.

Hickenlooper has touted his administration’s 567-page water manifesto as the answer to a looming shortfall in which the state’s water demands are expected to exceed its supply. Colorado’s Water Plan shows us how we can move forward together to ensure we continue to enjoy sufficient supplies for our vibrant cities, productive farms and incomparable environment,” he said when releasing it in 2015.

“We are not at a crisis,” he told The Colorado Independent earlier this month. “I don’t think (Coloradans) should be hysterical, but I think it’s a necessary concern for everyone.”

Factors both in and out of Hickenlooper’s control, however, have cast doubts about Colorado’s ability to avert a water shortage. Though the governor with the glass-half-full outlook has raised awareness about the state’s water supply problems, he’ll leave office in January without a strategy on how, specifically, to solve them. A growing chorus of experts says his failure to put forth lasting solutions has left Colorado in hot water.

 

“We’re not goring oxes any more.”

Colorado’s governors typically have acted as referees rather than visionaries on water policy, if they’ve acted at all. Hickenlooper set out to make a difference in 2013 when he ordered the first statewide water plan to stave off what at that point was projected to be a shortfall in 2050.

By most accounts, he didn’t engage in the specifics. But he saw to it that planners invited input from farmers and ranchers, anglers, rafters and kayakers, environmentalists, and industrial users and municipal users, meaning those of us who hope to keep washing our dishes and showering. All told, his administration likes to note, some 30,000 Coloradans commented on the plan as it was being drafted.

It fell to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), a division of the state Natural Resources Department, to write a plan that reflected the state’s diverse water interests and put them in the broader context of 19th century water laws and 20th century legal obligations to keep the Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande and Colorado rivers flowing to neighboring states.

Released in November 2015, the plan calls for gleaning 500,000 acre-feet of additional water a year – or enough to supply nearly a million people – to avoid the projected shortfall. It seeks to achieve 80 percent of that through conservation, 10 percent through storing more water in aquifers or reservoirs created by new dams, and 10 percent through temporary water transfers from agriculture.

An unusable dock at Green Mountain Reservoir, October 2018. (Photo by Susan Greene)

Environmentalists, though unhappy with the prospect of more dams, applauded the plan for acknowledging the effects climate change is having on water supplies. (Utah’s water plan avoids that subject altogether.) They, along with members of Colorado’s $28-billion-a-year outdoor recreation industry, saw it as a victory that the plan seeks to keep as much water as possible flowing in rivers.

Farmers and ranchers, though fearful that those environmental goals might threaten their water rights, embraced the plan’s commitment to preserving agriculture at a time when massive swaths of farmland and the water rights tied to them are being sold off to cities. That practice, known as “buy and dry,” has, along with urban sprawl, caused Colorado to lose about 1 percent of its agricultural acreage a year since the turn of the century.

For the officials who run municipal water districts, the plan didn’t much affect their efforts to keep water flowing from the faucets, toilets and sprinkler systems of the 90 percent of Coloradans who live in cities and suburbs. Though most of those districts were already managing their limited supplies, they embraced the spirit of statewide collaboration with agriculture and environmentalists that Hickenlooper says is needed to work out solutions.

That spirit, that ethos that “we’re joined at the hip,” as the governor puts it, has earned his water plan props in a state that is said to have coined the term “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” Those who’ve worked around water policy long enough to remember the bitter, two decade-long fight over the proposed Two Forks Dam see the kinder, gentler approach as the only path forward.

“Colorado’s water world badly needed a new construct,” said Melinda Kassen, a Colorado-based water policy expert with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “What the water plan does is make a shift in who needs to be at the table, and insist that there be a table instead of just litigation in the first place.

“We’re not about goring oxes any more.”

“Because this administration opened lines of communication about water,” added CWCB Director Becky Mitchell, “we’re in a better place than before Gov. Hickenlooper took office.”

Where the plan falls short

For all its big ideas about collaboration, the state water plan lacks specifics.

Its broad-brush, aspirational goals have left water users in all sectors wondering about details. Some are asking how, for example, the state will be able to preserve its farming and ranching heritage while also quenching the needs of population growth, which long has been slurping up agricultural water supplies. Others wonder how, especially in a prolonged drought, the state will manage to store more water in aquifers and reservoirs while simultaneously keeping more water flowing in rivers.

“There are a lot of ideas in that plan that seem, to me at least, mutually exclusive,” said Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. “If you ask me, it’s all feel-good words with nothing concrete coming out of it. I mean, they’re not even working with current numbers.”

Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

By numbers, Schmidt means data projecting water demands and supplies. CWCB’s last comprehensive set of projections, known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI), was released in 2011 but was based on 2008 data that didn’t factor in climate change. Those were the numbers upon which the projected 2050 water shortfall was based.

James Eklund, who ran the Colorado Water Conservation Board while the plan was being written, told The Colorado Independent in 2015 that a new SWSI would be ready in 2016. Months later, he pushed that date to early 2017. That deadline came and went as Eklund quit for a job as a private water lawyer. Mitchell, the state water planner who replaced him at CWCB’s helm, said the agency had been having problems coming up with roughly $2 million to pay for the study, which is now expected for completion in July 2019, three years behind schedule.

“We were overly optimistic about when we could get it out,” said Greg Johnson, the state’s chief of water supply planning.

Some experts question the wisdom of having released a water plan based on such outdated numbers. Tying the plan to more accurate supply and demand projections, they say, would have offered a clearer picture of Colorado’s water realities and conveyed to policy makers a more pressing sense of urgency.

That urgency stems not just from the fact that 19 years of drought have dropped significantly less snow in Colorado’s high country, but also from research showing hotter temperatures are causing what water there is to evaporate or be absorbed by plants at alarming rates. A study by Colorado State University shows that from 2000 to 2014, flows in the Colorado River averaged 19 percent below those recorded the previous 93 years. Similar shifts could be seen this past summer when the state had to set unprecedented use restrictions on the Yampa and Crystal rivers to keep them from running dry.

Hydrologists note that so much has changed in their projections that they are no longer referring to the 19-year dry spell as a drought because that term implies a return to 20th century snowpack levels, which they say is not going to happen. If temperature and precipitation trends continue, as they are expected to, CSU’s data shows Colorado’s water supplies would diminish another 15 percent more by 2050 in addition to the 19 percent decrease that already has taken place.

“That 34 percent turns this drought from a serious challenge to a disaster,” said CSU hydrologist Brad Udall, co-author of the CSU study (and former member of The Colorado Independent’s board of directors). “Policy makers need to be paying attention, close attention, to this data.”

Map courtesy of Colorado State University

Aside from updated data, the water plan also lacks specifics on strategy. The planners assigned to write it struggled for more than a year with the last section, Chapter 10, which promised to lay out “measurable objectives, goals, and critical actions,” and was meant to be the plan part of the plan.

But a close read of that chapter shows very few measurable goals for which the administration can be held to account. The plan underscores the importance of “instream flows” – keeping more water in rivers to protect their ecological balance – for example, but avoids setting levels for what those flows should be. Without those kind of specifics, critics say it’s toothless.

“I found that incredibly frustrating,” said Amy Beatie, former executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit that buys and leases water so it can be returned to rivers. “We need more than conceptual agreement. We need specific expectations and goals before we’ll see any real progress.”

The administration’s reluctance to commit to specific strategies is perhaps most apparent in the way it has structured decision-making. Under the plan, nine “roundtable” groups – representing Colorado’s eight river basins plus metro Denver water users – are free to choose which water projects should receive state funding.  

“You’d think that if they’re spending the state’s money, there would be a clear articulation by the state of the objectives for that spending,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, Colorado’s biggest municipal water district. “Instead, what you get with that type of bottoms-up approach is a grab bag, a something-for-everyone dynamic that’s not particularly effective in advancing a statewide vision.”

Lochhead is a former state Department of Natural Resources director who served as Colorado’s lead water negotiator under three governors. Although he has described Hickenlooper’s willingness to create a water plan as an “act of political courage,” he has been saying for three years that the end product is not a plan at all, but rather a “compendium of ideas and platitudes.”

He is especially critical that Hickenlooper has not done more to address the impact urban sprawl is having on water supplies. He says the administration should have made more progress helping to establish water markets to allow farmers and ranchers to temporarily lease their water rights without losing them long term. And he cites what he calls the state’s “failure” to not eliminate regulatory impediments to water reuse and recycling projects and to not speed up permitting processes that, for example, have delayed Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir for almost 20 years.

“A commitment to collaboration is all well and good, but it’s not going to get us there,” Lochhead said. “Somebody needs be more aggressive in making some real decisions on where we’re going to come up with enormous amounts of water. But that’s not going to happen, at least under this administration.”

More than a dozen municipal and state water officials interviewed over the past year have echoed Lochhead’s frustrations, but would not speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs or jeopardizing their agencies’ working relationships. Almost all said the water plan lacks clear strategic goals. And several felt that the public engagement aspect took on absurd proportions. Though they laud efforts to seek public comments while the plan was being drafted, they say the administration’s insistence that the number of comments reach into the tens of thousands had less to do with an authentic interest in those comments than it did an interest in inoculating the plan from criticism.

One Front Range water manager who asked not to be named likened state water planners, during the public comment phase, to “those kids in high school who rushed around asking everybody to sign their yearbook.” The manager added: “The thinking seemed to be that the more people they got to comment, the more validating or popular … the plan would seem. It’s kind of hard to take a plan like that seriously.”

For all the time and the nearly $4 million the administration put into creating the water plan, Beatie, the Colorado Water Trust’s former executive director, says she expected it would reflect what she calls “the strategic heart of Colorado’s water community” – an honest recognition that “there’s not enough water right now, right here, for progress, real progress not to hurt.”

“But what they came up with is basically just a multi-page tome that’s more narrative than a plan. It’s just a giant thing that just sits on everybody’s desk.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper touts his water plan as pioneering. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

Hickenlooper dismisses criticism that his plan lacks depth, saying, “One of the most important things we laid out are sets of priorities.”

“Any time you try to do something for the first time and you are … a pioneer, you’re going to get some challenges,” he added. “We knew it was going to be hard and that’s why we tried to engage so many people in the process.”

 

Who should conserve

The governor raised the hopes of environmentalists and water policy reformers in his 2014 State of the State address by saying that “any conversation about water needs to start with conservation.” The “C” word long had been left out of statewide water discussions.

It still is.

That’s because Hickenlooper’s plan puts the entire conservation burden on municipal districts, whose users consume about 8 percent of the state’s water. The plan expects virtually no conservation from agriculture, which consumes about 87 percent.

The governor defends the approach, saying, “Denver Water and all the utilities along the Front Range” have “a moral obligation” to “conserve as much as humanly possible,” and also an obligation to help “sustain food supplies.”

Colorado’s biggest municipal water districts say their conservation programs are meeting those obligations.

Denver Water has reduced per-capita water consumption by 25 percent and says it’s using about the same amount of water district-wide since 2000 despite the addition of about 250,000 more customers. The agency serves about a quarter of Colorado’s population with 2 percent of the state’s water.

“We and the other Front Range water utilities are all basically moving as fast as we can through water efficiency. It’s not something we need to be told to do or incentivized to do by the state. It’s something that we’ve been doing and paying for by ourselves for a long time,” Lochhead said.

Aurora Water has more junior water rights than Denver’s water rights and has started quenching many of its customers’ needs with a $653-million reuse project that turns Platte River water captured downstream of Denver’s wastewater treatment plant into drinkable water. Fast-growing communities such as Castle Rock and Parker have similar projects in the works.

A sprinkler head waters a lawn in Highlands Ranch, Colo. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

Though most of Colorado’s large municipal water districts are willingly embracing further conservation efforts, their managers say the additional water they’ll collectively be able to save won’t be nearly enough to meet Hickenlooper’s 400,000 acre-foot statewide conservation goal.

“The numbers aren’t realistic because the margins don’t make sense. It’s not feasible to expect all the conservation to come from municipalities when they don’t use even close to most of the water in the state,” said Alexandra Davis, Aurora Water’s deputy director and head of its water resources division.

“What the plan doesn’t say – what nobody will say out loud – is that some of the conservation burden is going to have to fall on agriculture because there’s nowhere else for it to come from. It just is. We need to face that idea rather than pretending that agriculture doesn’t need to be part of this equation.”

That equation, Davis and other municipal water bosses say, needs to address what they describe as enormous amounts of water being wasted by flood irrigation techniques and by seepage from the unlined, dirt ditches through which water is still delivered to many farms and ranches. If cityfolk and suburbanites have to use water more efficiently, they argue that countryfolk should, too.

John Harold, a sweet corn grower in Olathe, is one of the few growers who’ll agree, at least publicly.

“What you see out here are farmers buying all kinds of fancy new tractors but using irrigation methods and open ditches that are more than 100 years old,” he said.

“We’ve got to wake up and become more efficient. But, unfortunately, you have to hit most farmers with a sledgehammer to get them to realize that.”

Others say it’s a myth that farms waste massive amounts of water, and a misconception that more efficient farming and ranching practices could save enough to make a significant difference in the statewide conservation goal.

“That portrayal of us as big water wasters, it’s offensive,” said Paul Kehmeier, a farmer in Eckert who says his 93-year-old father Norman raised him, like Norman’s father and grandfather before him, to use only what’s needed.

Unlined water ditch in Fort Collins. (Photo by Tina Griego)

As Kehmeier tells it, water delivered through the kind of unlined dirt ditches his forebearers built “isn’t being wasted” through seepage, “it’s just being rerouted to natural drainage.” He says any amount that could be saved through lining those canals would be “marginal.” Likewise, he adds, it would make no significant difference if he watered his alfalfa “using flood irrigation or using an eyedropper” – “those alfalfa are going to consume the same amount of water to grow, no matter what.”

That viewpoint is shared by some outside the agricultural community. Anne Castle, who served as assistant secretary for water and science in the Obama administration’s Interior Department, agrees that “agricultural efficiency doesn’t necessarily save water.” 

“So it’s a hard question about what additional contribution agriculture should make,” said Castle, now a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado. She said expects that economics, not efficiency efforts, will ultimately drive agriculture’s role in helping to avert a statewide water shortfall.

A leap of faith

Colorado’s water law system is predicated on the notion of “beneficial use” – meaning that water must be “used,” even if that means wasted, in order for users to keep their rights to it. That system long has created a built-in disincentive for farmers and ranchers to conserve.

It also has led to suspicions about “alternative transfer mechanisms,” the kind of economic incentive on which Hickenlooper’s water plan is banking. ATMs are deals in which farmers or ranchers are paid to temporarily fallow their land and transfer their water rights for municipal use or conservation purposes. Water planners tout them as a flexible way to save more water as prolonged drought and population growth are putting firmer demands on state supplies.

“The key word here is ‘flexible,’ meaning that by changing cropping patterns temporarily – which is something agriculture has a long history of doing – these are short-term solutions when there’s a squeeze,” said Eric Wilkinson, who recently retired as chief of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

But few growers have been willing to agree to such deals, fearing that the process will strip them of their water rights.

“Farmers, from my perspective, don’t like change. They also don’t like risk,” said CSU’s Udall. “For these things to work, farmers need to believe they won’t lose their water.”

Pivot irrigation system. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

In the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District – which spans from Brighton north to Greeley, and east to Fort Morgan – not even one grower has been willing to make that leap of faith. The concern, says Executive Director Randy Ray, is that even temporary water transfers like ATMs require applicants to go to water court and quantify their “yield” – the amount of water their farms or ranches use. Once a yield is quantified, it’s open to public examination, which can trigger long and expensive battles in which more junior water rights holders pose challenges, sometimes trying to degrade or devalue the applicant’s senior water rights. Ray likens that process to getting an involuntary haircut.

“Once you go to water court to quantify your yield, you make yourself vulnerable to getting scalped. Nobody wants to take that risk, at least around here.”

Some 340 miles to the west in Eckert, Paul Kehmeier rolled the dice on the land his great-grandparents homesteaded in 1894. In the hierarchy of water rights, his are senior – and valuable.

When the drought hit in 2001, he and his father Norman figured it would pass the way other dry spells had on the West Slope. Farmers, Kehmeier notes, are “eternal optimists.”

But in 2016, after a decade and a half of drought conditions, father and son decided that waiting for more rain and snowmelt would be less an act of optimism than of foolishness. And so they agreed to participate in a pilot project with CSU and the Nature Conservancy whereby, for a price, they stopped irrigating about 60 acres of land from late June through mid-September of that year and let the water flow “down the creek” into the Gunnison River, then to the Colorado River. The deal was part of a larger project funded by the Walton (as in Walmart) Family Foundation to test the efficacy of water markets in Colorado.

“The only way to meaningfully conserve water in agriculture is to not grow crops, plain and simple. And the only way to make that happen is to make it worth a farmer’s while financially,” said Kehmeier, who was pleased with the outcome and would agree to similar water transfers in the future.

Although he said he and family appreciate what he calls “all the nostalgia and warm feelings about agriculture” put forth in Hickenlooper’s water plan, they realize that “when push comes to shove, (municipal) users with the political power and money are going to get what they want, and everybody knows that.

“I don’t think we can turn back the tide.”

 

The funding question

Paying farmers to send water “down the creek” on a scale large enough to achieve meaningful savings will require money. Lots of it. And the most frequent criticism of Hickenlooper’s water strategy is that nobody knows where that money will come from.

Even the water plan’s price tag has been questionable.

Eklund said in 2015 that implementing the plan would cost $20 billion. He wouldn’t specify which water priorities and projects that amount would fund. Rather, he said that his estimate was a rough, “back-of-the-napkin” analysis that considered “numerous funding areas.”

Weeks after her appointment as Eklund’s successor in 2017, Mitchell put the water plan’s price tag at what she called “a more realistic $40 billion.” That higher price included water quality projects and funding to restore flows and ecosystems in Colorado’s rivers.

Hickenlooper’s pro-business-, pro-development-, and PR-sensitive office cringed at that disclosure. Over the past year, Mitchell has reined the figure back to $20 billion. “It’s what we can do, reasonably, as a state,” she now says.

Of the $20 billion, about $16 billion is expected to come from municipal water districts via consumer water rates, and another $1 billion from federal grants and revenues from the state severance tax. That tax, levied on oil and gas companies for drilling, long has been Colorado’s biggest source of water funding. Revenues were at $68 million annually in fiscal year 2014-2015, but took a nosedive in fiscal year 2015-2016 just as the water plan was being released. State officials have decided that severance tax revenues fluctuate too dramatically to reliably carry out the water plan.

That leaves a funding gap of more than $3 billion for parts of the plan that don’t already have revenue streams. Those include subsidizing conservation by municipal water districts in economically depressed parts of the state, paying to rehabilitate streams and rivers after decades of over-depletion, and paying farmers like the Kehmeiers to temporarily fallow their land.

Hickenlooper will leave office in January without having identified a way to fill that funding gap. “Some of the funding is still not locked down,” he acknowledges. His departure comes just as a new development on the Colorado River has created additional pressure – one far more urgent than a looming shortfall in 2050 – to conserve.

The federal government has given Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah until the end of the year to agree on a plan to send more water to Lake Powell, the massive reservoir in which the four Upper Basin states store Colorado River water, to ensure they can meet their contractual obligations to deliver a certain amount annually to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. Lake Powell is less than half full after years of drought and overuse. If Colorado fails to conserve enough water to help replenish it or otherwise meet the terms of the “drought contingency plan” the Upper Basin states are currently negotiating, the feds could step in and curtail our access to river water.

Rain above Hite Crossing. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

“If the same hydrology (patterns) that started in 2001 continue, Lake Powell will be dry within three years. It is a very serious situation, an existential threat that we need to be acting on sooner rather than later,” Lochhead said, noting that the state’s water strategy needs to be more proactive than simply hoping we have a few big snow years “To me, that’s not preparing. We’re staring a crisis in the face.”

“We have to get after it,” added CU’s Castle. “Every year we wait, it gets worse.”

Tom Gougeon is president of the Denver-based Gates (as in Gates Rubber Company) Family Foundation, which funds ways of balancing Colorado’s disparate water needs. Given that there’s a lot of stress on the system right now,” he says it’s important to harness “that sense of impatience and urgency.”

Gates has an ally in the even deeper-pocketed Walton Family Foundation, the biggest private funder of sustainable water projects on the planet. Walton has taken a special interest in funding conservation projects and water banks along the Colorado River.

Recognizing that Colorado can’t wait for Hickenlooper’s successor to come up with a funding source, the two philanthropies have formed a 25-member working group to make a recommendation.

“This plan is only as valuable if it has secure, sustainable funding to support it,” said Ted Kowalski, the head of Walton’s Colorado River Initiative.

Made up of experts representing a wide variety of water interests throughout the state, the working group is considering a bottle tax, a tourism tax, and a tax on sports betting as possible funding options. Whichever of those or other methods it picks, the goal is to raise $100 million in revenues annually, totalling $3.2 billion by 2050, the year in which the shortfall is currently projected.

The group aims to come up with a suggested funding plan in the next few weeks, then urge lawmakers to start crafting bills for the 2019 session, which starts when Hickenlooper leaves office in January.

In the meantime, a state-organized group called the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) is attempting a parallel effort to come up with a water funding recommendation, but sources close to those talks say they’re languishing.

By most accounts, it’s easier for philanthropies to prod movement because they don’t face the political pressures that politicians do. Hickenlooper is eyeing a bid for president.

“We don’t operate on two- or four- or six-year terms. We’re uniquely situated in asking people to participate in the conversation because we can have a longer view,” said Kowalski.

Added Gougeon: “The fact that we’re not the decision makers, I think, gives us the freedom to explore these possibilities.”

 

Water, post-Hickenlooper

Whichever funding option is recommended, it will likely require voter approval. The working group is eyeing the 2020 ballot, allowing almost two years to educate Coloradans about statewide water needs.

But state Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, wants to push for a ballot issue in 2019: “The truth is that Colorado doesn’t have the luxury of waiting,” he said.

Parched lakebed of Green Mountain Reservoir, October 2018. (Photo by Susan Greene)

Regardless of which year, there will be obstacles. A long list of other statewide needs – such as education, health care, rural broadband, and possibly transportation – will be competing for state funding. And Coloradans have a less than stellar record of approving water taxes. Voters in 2003 soundly rejected a statewide water funding ballot measure in a defeat blamed largely on the fact that the initiative gave no specifics about which water projects it would fund. Politicos say a future measure, if it’s to succeed, would need to be more specific than the 2003 effort and than Hickenlooper’s 2015 water plan.

It will be in the ironing out of those specifics and deciding which water projects would and wouldn’t be funded that one of Colorado’s most outspoken water watchdogs expects the spirit of collaboration at the core of Hickenlooper’s water plan could break.

Nothing will happen with the water plan until there’s money on the table. And when there’s real money to discuss, mark my words, that’s where the real fight will begin,” said Colorado River activist Gary Wockner.

As Castle, the former Interior Department undersecretary, tells it, “It will require dedicated leadership at the highest levels in order to make progress” convincing voters to approve a statewide water tax and leading Coloradans to conserve enough water to start replenishing Lake Powell.

“I don’t know the extent to which either of the two candidates (for governor) will prioritize achieving some of these goals,” she said.

Neither Democrat U.S. Rep. Jared Polis nor Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton has much experience with water policy. Neither tends to raise the issue on the campaign trail. And neither particularly impressed their audiences when speaking to state and local water officials at the Colorado Water Congress in August. In prepared remarks that Stapleton recited like a term paper and Polis delivered with a notable lack of energy, both said they’d carry out the water plan and find a way to raise the $100 million a year to do so.

Stapleton seemed to favor sports gambling as a funding option. He hedged when asked about climate change’s effects on water resources. And he said the state will need to build new ways to store water because “conservation won’t get us where we need to go.” Some water wonks bristled when he mispronounced the word aquifer.

Polis emphasized a heavy investment in conservation and water efficiency. He said “growth needs to pay its own way” when it comes to water infrastructure. And he said he would oppose any transmountain diversions (projects carrying water from the West Slope to the Front Range) “that are not universally agreed upon.”

Both campaigns since have refused to answer The Independent’s questions about the specifics of their candidates’ water stances.

“I would like to hear more specifics from them about some of the fundamental policy issues. I think a lot of people would,” Lochhead said. “My concern is that we’re not moving fast enough. Things need to move more quickly, a lot more quickly, than they are today.”

Whichever candidate wins in November will have to persuade state lawmakers and voters from urban areas – who already will be shouldering 80 percent of the cost of implementing the plan through their water rates – to agree to an additional water tax.

He also will have fences to mend with folks who’ve complained that Hickenlooper’s administration has iced them out about where state water policy is headed.

In September, a group of West Slope water users slammed Eklund (the former CWCB director whom Hickenlooper kept as Colorado’s lead negotiator on the Colorado River), accusing him of a lack of transparency about his talks with other Upper Basin states on how to manage water in severe drought and replenish Lake Powell. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, had especially harsh words about what he saw as Eklund’s refusal to keep his group apprised on the agreement to bank water in Lake Powell. Growers on the West Slope fear that water banking efforts could strip them of their water rights.

“We haven’t seen those documents that are about to be executed. We’ve been told that we don’t need to see them. We’re not OK with that. We don’t think it’s acceptable. We think those documents need to be shared with us and frankly the impact of those documents needs to be shared with the water users of the Western Slope and the state of Colorado,” Mueller was quoted last month by The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction.

His remarks called into question how “joined at the hip” statewide water interests really are, despite Hickenlooper’s push for collaboration and trust.

Eklund since has shared the details Mueller sought, but continues to be distrusted not just on the West Slope, but also among some of his former state colleagues and other water officials who have questioned whether his work practicing water and infrastructure law at the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs conflicts with his representation of the state on Colorado River issues. In response, he says he won’t make his client list public. “My firm wouldn’t allow that.”

Though he has advised Polis on water, infrastructure and regulatory issues, Eklund says he’s not vying for another political appointment. “I’m not interested in a position with a Polis administration, or a Stapleton administration, for that matter,” he told The Independent Sunday.

He says he has told Polis what he tells anyone who asks about the water challenges Colorado is facing: “That at this point, we’ve not been doing the kind of conservation that we need to bend the curve at Lake Powell, and that Colorado’s governor will need to oversee and encourage scaling up by the entire water community for it to do any good. That’ll take leadership right now, when it’s hard for me to overstate the urgency that we face on this river.”

Eklund lauds Hickenlooper for setting a tone of collaboration not just in Colorado, but with the six other Colorado River states with whom he negotiates. That approach, that ethos of “we can work together to control our destiny,” he said, “has become our brand as a state.”

“Governor Hickenlooper believes that our brand can be exported.”

Leadership on water and other environmental issues requires a certain art in messaging, the ability to strike a balance of conveying urgency without creating panic. Udall underscores this point by quoting Colorado physicist and environmental activist Amory Lovins: “You can’t depress people into action.”

“In politics, being a doomsdayer doesn’t get you anywhere,” said Udall, the son of a congressman and presidential candidate, nephew of an interior secretary, and brother of a U.S. senator. This state has more positive things going on than anywhere else in the West. We have a lot of really good people here trying to come up with solutions. Are they trying hard? For the most part, yes. Are they doing enough? No.”

As Udall tells it, Colorado needs more than branding to avert a water crisis.

Climate change is coming at us faster than anyone expected just a few years ago. The wheels are coming off and nobody seems to be responding quickly enough,” he said. “We need leaders willing to take swifter action.”

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. This article captures what I have been most worried about (water and impending crisis) for many months. Excellent job in this article by Susan. And, I wonder why this is considered a state of Colorado problem. It isn’t. It is a regional problem. As for California, why aren’t we hearing more about efforts and funding toward desalination? If we can run pipelines through multiple states to deliver oil for distribution at ports, why isn’t there work being done (on a regional level) on desalination at the Pacific coast and distribution INLAND to western states that will be starved for water? Water from the Colorado River to California was part of a plan based on another time. Those with vision should be thinking about the new climate reality, and new shared technologies to save us and protect us as we move into a different future.

  2. It’s amazing that not many state politicians want to even consider talking about the water problems Colorado is facing. Given the fact that overpopulation has made things worse, the least they could do is put a moratorium on new housing starts until the issues are resolved. A friend said recently that Washington, Oregon, and California are sitting on large gold mine called the Pacific Ocean. And while environmentalists keep insisting desalination is stupid and wasteful, pretty much everyone else knows other wise. Sooner or later, the Pacific will be supplying a lot of water to replace what was once supplied by the Colorado River – and others.

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