Sunday, August 25, 2019

State plan takes on the challenges of water future

Far more than transmountain diversion

By Alissa Johnson

The state of Colorado released the second draft of the Colorado Water Plan on July 7, a full week ahead of schedule. The nearly 500-page document represents water experts’ latest understanding of Colorado’s changing water supply, its growing water needs, and what can be done to ensure that future communities have enough water to thrive.

The plan has been getting a lot of attention for addressing potential transmountain water diversion projects that would carry water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, including the Gunnison River. But local water experts say that’s one small part of a comprehensive document.

“One thing that’s interesting is the amount of attention that transmountain diversion has gotten in the Colorado Water Plan. That’s really just a page or two out of about 500 pages, but it has gotten more attention than the rest of the document combined,” said Frank Kugel, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

In fact, the plan doesn’t address specific project proposals for transmountain diversion. It provides a conceptual framework to guide the consideration of any future proposals—what Kugel calls sideboards for future discussions—including protection for local communities.

“There will be strict principles applied to any future transmountain diversion projects. The diverter has to accept the risk of that project and understand that if there is no water available, they are the first ones to be shut off,” Kugel said.

The full plan considers many other aspects of water management. As Kugel explained, “We’re facing the risk of having twice as many people [in Colorado] by the year 2050 and some 10 to 15 percent less water supply due to climate change. Those two paths are going in opposite directions, so we need to figure out how to serve more people with less.”

To do that, all nine of Colorado’s Water Basin Roundtables, the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board have been providing input to the plan.

As the Water Plan website states, “The 27 members of the IBCC, representing every water basin and water interest in Colorado, have agreed that unless action is taken, we will face an undesirable future for Colorado with unacceptable consequences.”

The process has attracted a lot of attention from the public. Julie Nania, water director for High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), says that more than 24,000 public comments were submitted on the first draft of the plan.

“As a plan itself it’s important, but it also facilitates a conversation, taking a closer look at the difficult water issues in Colorado… and how to move forward and protect natural resources while ensuring that communities have the water they need to thrive,” Nania said.

After an initial review of the second draft, Nania is encouraged by the progress that has been made: there are strong urban conservation goals; emphasis has been placed on the importance of healthy rivers, watersheds and watershed planning (including a recognition of the $2 billion to $3 billion needed to keep them healthy); and stringent principles have been developed to vet any future transmountain diversions projects.

“Two things HCCA will look at as we move forward are funding… and more robust criteria for projects before the state decides to fund them,” Nania said. While the plan acknowledges the cost of maintaining healthy rivers and watersheds, there is no funding mechanism identified for other types of projects.

“And we would always like to see stronger language against new transmountain diversions,” Nania continued.

Kugel said the local Water Conservancy District is also in favor of forgoing transmountain diversions for other measures. “We’d certainly like to see smart growth measures for future development on the Front Range to develop plans and subdivisions that use less water through higher density and less landscaping,” he said.

Kugel added that pursuing already-identified projects, looking for opportunities to reuse water, increasing storage options on the Front Range, and repairing existing infrastructure would also go a long way toward meeting water needs.

“We have an aging infrastructure that needs attention to perform at its most efficient level. There are dams across the state that are restricted on their maximum storage because of safety concerns,” he said.

And while the latest draft does include some significant revisions—including discussion about a strategic action plan to help decide what legislation, policy changes, and funding might be needed to meet water needs—the plan is not yet final.

Public comment on the new draft is open until September 17, and the plan still needs to go to the roundtables for approval, including the Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

A final Colorado Water Plan is slated to go to the governor in December, after which questions about legislation, policy, and funding will need to be answered. Progress has been made, but there is more to be done.

As Nania said, “Based on first review, we’re heading in the right direction but we’re going to need strong leadership from the state to carry through the vision of the whole.”

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