By Jerd Smith
Coloradans want the state’s top water road map to mandate faster action, be more accountable, require equitable drought responses between the East and West slopes, and include the crisis on the rapidly drying Colorado River in its estimates of future water shortages.
More than 1,300 individuals and agencies submitted public comments on the draft update to the Colorado Water Plan, according to Russ Sands, chief of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). Read the comments here.
The public comment period ended Sept. 30. The CWCB is scheduled to finalize revisions to the plan in January 2023. [Editor’s note: The CWCB is a funder of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News.]
Commenters, including major water utilities, environmental groups, ranchers and farmers, and city and county officials, have asked for numerous changes.
“The plan lacks the language of urgency throughout. It should emphasize the scarcity of time and water to address the life-or-death reality of the drought and the climate crisis that the state of Colorado is facing,” Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors wrote in their submitted comments.
The CWCB is responsible for drafting and updating the plan and supporting its implementation. Championed by U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper when he served as governor, the state’s first water plan was approved in 2015 after years of public meetings and data gathering.
At the time, it was hailed as a breakthrough in grassroots water planning in the West because of its comprehensive effort to engage the public, analyze existing water use, future shortages, and potential solutions.
Since then, the CWCB has awarded more than $500 million in grants and loans to help communities develop water management plans, projects and other options locals believe are necessary to ensure their water futures.
But the plan was politically difficult to finalize even then because of conflicts between water utilities and environmentalists, pro-dam and anti-dam interests, and agricultural and urban water conflicts.
Regardless, water users across the state say that the water plan has spurred more cooperation than has ever existed before, with public roundtables in each of the state’s eight river basins making decisions and sharing information with one another, using the water plan as a roadmap.
Now, as the CWCB updates the plan and a 22-year megadrought drains the Colorado River system, pressure is building to act quickly.
For example, in their comments several individuals and agencies asked that the updated plan include more measurable goals with deadlines to improve accountability in addressing the state’s looming water shortages and environmental issues.
Business for Water Stewardship (BWS), a nonprofit that seeks to connect corporate funders with environmental initiatives, was among them.
“The water plan lacks specifics and accountability,” BWS wrote. “The plan should include metrics on conservation and storage and guidelines on how we balance competing needs. These metrics are necessary to measure progress on the plan’s goals and objectives.”
Major water diversions between West Slope river basins and Front Range cities were also a topic of concern.
Roughly 80% of the state’s water supplies originate in West Slope mountain snowpacks, while much of that water is moved to the thirsty Front Range in pipelines and canals known as transmountain diversions or TMDs.
The Colorado River District and other West Slope interests want the state to require that when the West Slope is facing ultra-dry conditions and forced to deal with water restrictions and cutbacks, as it often is just because of its geography, urban cities who are using that West Slope water, live under the same rules. The district represents 15 West Slope counties and is responsible for managing the Colorado River within state boundaries.
For years, West Slope communities whose rivers have been subject to severe drying due to drought and climate change, have complained about urban indifference to their plight.
This year, for instance, some West Slope river basins saw runoff that was well below average, while many Front Range communities, thanks to big reservoirs and better runoff from local rivers, saw normal conditions. There were water restrictions to the west, but few if any to the east.
“The river district recommends a stronger stance towards water conservation and a recommendation that communities reliant on TMD supplies tailor conservation needs when any watershed with their source water is undergoing drought conditions. This is particularly important when the end-use basin is undergoing less severe drought conditions than their TMD source watersheds,” the river district wrote.
The CWCB’s Sands said the state has limited ability to act on a request like this one, given that it has no statewide authority to impose drought restrictions.
Still another major topic of concern among several commenters is the ongoing crisis on the Colorado River. The river begins in the Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park and by the time it makes its way west to the Utah state line, it has generated the majority of the entire seven-state river system’s water.
With the river in crisis and lakes Powell and Mead at historic low levels, Arizona, California and Nevada have begun taking cutbacks, a situation that eventually could occur in Colorado, where major metropolitan areas rely on the river for roughly 50% of their supplies.
And while the draft plan acknowledges the impact of climate change and uncertainties regarding future supplies, commenters say it should include more specifics on how the crisis could affect Colorado’s own water future.
The Sierra Club called release of the draft plan premature, because it did not adequately address the Colorado River crisis. Larimer County, the City of Fort Collins and the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance, also asked that the draft plan include more specifics on the river’s dicey future.
“Adding the Colorado River crisis” to Colorado’s already well known water problems, “is like adding an overactive bull into an already somewhat ramshackle china shop,” the Sierra Club wrote. “Having the draft plan revision out at this time is premature given the likely need to stop about 30% of Colorado’s present use of Colorado River water.”
Here too, Sands said, the plan is focused on intrastate water issues and isn’t the state’s primary vehicle for dealing with the Colorado River crisis and protecting the state’s water interests outside state boundaries.
The CWCB is scheduled to address which public requests for additions to the water plan will be included in the final draft at its November meeting, Sands said.
In the meantime, several commenters expressed hope that the revised water plan will create the energy and vision the state needs to address its complicated water future.
Said Colorado Springs Utilities, “The water plan is a formative document that outlines meaningful goals and actions for addressing the water supply gap in a time of increasing water scarcity. It will take political courage to ensure this plan has the impact Colorado requires.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
Clarification: The article has updated to reflect that the water plan is not the CWCB’s primary tool for addressing the Colorado River Water Crisis.
The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.