Northwest Colorado water officials update status of Colorado’s new water plan
If you go
What: Yampa/White Green Roundtable discusses new state water plan
When: 6 p.m., July 8
Where: American Legion Shadow Mtn. Clubhouse, 1055 Moffat County Road 7, Craig
Steamboat Springs — The irony in the room was unmistakable Tuesday night as a steady rain drummed the roof of McKnight’s Irish Pub where about 30 people had gathered to hear an update on Colorado’s water plan.
Due on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk in December, the plan is intended to provide the framework for assuring sufficient water to meet the state’s needs through 2050. It’s expected that, in order to do so, provisions in the plan would need to provide the framework for closing an anticipated gap of 400,000 to 600,000 acre-feet of water supply, given that the state’s population is expected to grow significantly from the 2014 Census estimate of 5.35 million in the interim.
An acre-foot is often described as enough water to support a suburban family for one year based upon consumption of about 890 gallons per day.
“Overall, 10 million acre-feet of water rises in the mountains of Colorado, annually,” speaker Jay Gallagher told his audience. “The state’s population will grow to 8.5 or perhaps 9 million people over the next 50 years, but we’re facing a flat-lining water supply. And 40 million people are sustained by Colorado River water. It’s a big deal. It’s our lifeblood It’s a hard-working river.”
Gallagher is general manager of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District in Steamboat Springs, but also sits on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is charged with assembling an overall state water plan from reports submitted by river basins all over the state. He was joined by Jackie Brown, district manager of the Routt County Conservation District.
Brown serves on the Yampa/White/Green river basin roundtable, which will contribute its own goals for water management to the CWCB for consideration in the statewide plan.
The rain that fell Tuesday night in the midst of what has turned out to be one of the wettest month of May on record in Steamboat Springs (unofficially 6.33 inches of rain at several rain gauges compared to the normal 2.24 inches for the month) amounts to an asterisk in a 35-year water plan, and there is a sense of urgency in the process, according to the speakers.
Although water is abundant in the Yampa Valley at the moment, Brown pointed out that one of the state’s future obligations is to contribute the majority share of the water that must be delivered to the lower basin states of Nevada, California and Arizona under the 1922 Water Compact. And the giant reservoirs on the Colorado River in Arizona, which store much of the upper basin’s compact water in reserve, are historically low.
“Never before have both (lakes) Powell and Mead been this low at one time,” Brown said. “We (at the basin roundtable) like to talk about the Yampa and how we allow water to leave the state, delivering significant amounts of water to meet the compact agreements. If you take that away, where does that water come from? Where do you make it up?”
The big water buffalo in the room, however, was the possibility that powerful Front Range water interests will succeed in influencing the water plan to include a new trans-mountain diversion (TMD) of water from Colorado’s Western Slope to the rapidly growing Eastern Slope.
It was State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush who put the possible implications of a new TMD for Western Colorado on the table. She serves on the Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee that will review the new water plan at the legislature.
“The South Platte and Metro Roundtable has a TMD right up front (in its water plan). Their first solution (to closing the water supply gap) is a TMD. How do you see that playing out in an agreement?” she asked Gallagher.
He responded that the new water plan won’t represent policy, but instead, will set guiding principles for establishing new policies in the future.
A new TMD, “would still have to go through questions about ‘who does it benefit?’” Gallagher said. “And one of the tenets of water policy is ‘Do no harm.’”
Mary Brown, another member of the Yampa/White/Green Roundtable, added that intense negotiation is taking place among representatives of each basin in the state over seven criteria — playfully called the “Seven Points of Light” — that would frame decision making about any new TMD. One of the points being debated would require the developers of a new multi-billion TMD to assume ultimate hydrological risk. That implies the TMD would be junior to all other water rights on the river system. And that, in return, would raise significant questions about whether the diversion could be depended upon to support growth on the Front Range.
Brown and Gallagher agreed after the meeting that most Front Range water districts would prefer any other means of expanding water supply to a TMD. However, failure to put a TMD on the table would be politically unpalatable among their constituents.
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