Colorado’s “New” Water Plan

Colorado’s comprehensive water plan may face funding issues, but may represent a more prosperous future for the state.


Since the writings of Solomon nearly 3,000 years ago, it has been said that “there is nothing new under the sun.” He was not referring to the continuous planning by water officials in the West, but he could not have described it better.

Last month, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced what he called Colorado’s “first-ever” comprehensive water plan. It is the final product of a decade of meetings, committees, and proposals. As adopted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the 500-page plan calls for $20 billion worth of conservation measures, though no specific strategy for funding it.

Interestingly, the press reports mention the 10-year process, but also claim this Governor ordered CWCB to begin statewide water planning in 2013. In fact it has been underway a long time – not one decade, but several. But when things go well, there is plenty of credit to go around, and much of this new water plan is praiseworthy.

It calls for a new statewide conservation goal of 400,000 acre-feet of water by 2050. It also mentions a projected shortfall in municipal and industrial water demand of 560,000 acre-feet by 2050, and proposes to reduce that shortfall to zero by 2030. Again, the math is a bit unclear, but whether we plan to conserve 400,000 or 560,000 acre feet, it would be a good thing either way.

Interestingly, the plan also calls for construction of 400,000 acre-feet of additional water storage – which many of us have advocated for years. Colorado is growing, not shrinking, and its need for water will continue to grow. Colorado is entitled under interstate agreements to substantially more water than it uses – including a million acre feet a year in the Colorado River – so many of us think it is irresponsible not to store available water during wet periods, so it can be used during dry periods.

Fifteen years ago, I served on the CWCB and we advocated several creative new ways to store water, including expanding existing reservoirs (in some case by enlarging the dam, and in others by dredging the bottom), and using underground storage in closed aquifers. Both techniques have been used successfully elsewhere, and both are now part of Colorado’s official state plan.

The new plan also mentions the prospect of new trans-mountain diversions – which will always be controversial in Colorado and are the most unlikely solutions to Front Range water problems. Half of the Colorado River is already diverted to the Front Range, and even people in the Denver area are skeptical of any more future diversions. There are, as the plan points out, plenty of ways for Denver to conserve water, and to store more of its own supply. In fact, as Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead points out, their residents have already reduced usage 20 percent over the last 10 years without any major problems.

Lochhead (a fellow former Colorado DNR Director) was quoted saying, “We can go a lot lower without sacrificing quality of life.” He’s right.

Colorado has been down this road many times before, and the same giant unresolved issue is always present – funding. Much of the anticipated $20 billion cost of these water measures would be borne by utilities and their customers (who have not yet been asked if they want higher water bills), but the State also needs another $100 million a year for its share.

The report suggests new federal funding (very difficult in today’s budget-sensitive Congress), tax increases (perhaps a statewide mill levy, higher severance taxes, or a sales tax increase) – or a new bond program. Only the latter approach would really be new, and regardless, it is a can of worms.

Many in Colorado view new water projects with suspicion. A 2003 initiative to create bonding authority for water projects became so unpopular that it was defeated in every county, and became a campaign issue against candidates (including me) in three consecutive elections.

That measure authorized no new water projects; it was merely a future funding mechanism. Still, a century of history gave Coloradans good reason to suspect the worst: that someone might eventually use it to build trans-mountain diversions to “steal” water from one basin to another. So the proposal went down in flames at the ballot box and the result was, for another generation, no new water storage at all.

The comprehensive plan completed last month provides some hope that Coloradans might eventually emerge from those years of distrust and work together on a long-term solution. That could involve both conservation and creative new storage in every river basin of the State (instead of diverting water between them), public-private partnerships, bonding and other new funding sources, and a genuinely more prosperous future for all of Colorado. That would be something new under the sun, and would be worth all the effort that has gone into it.

Greg Walcher Senior Advisor

A member of the Dawson team since 2006, Greg is the author of Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back. He is a Western Slope native.

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