Water meetings bring legislators to the upper Gunnison Valley

“The problems we face can’t be solved quickly”

A series of water meetings in Mt. Crested Butte this week gave state politicians and water officials a chance to mingle and discuss current water issues across the state as well as future challenges.



The state’s quarterly Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) meeting was arranged to coincide with the Western State College water workshop later this week. The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state legislature’s Interim Water Resources Review Committee also had meetings this week.
While the meetings took place in the Upper Gunnison River Basin, there wasn’t much discussion of Gunnison-specific issues. Instead, the resounding topic across all the meetings was a dwindling water supply and growing demand for water all across Colorado.
Following a severe drought in 2002, a statewide water supply study was conducted and completed in 2004. Called the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, the study had some dire predictions for the state’s water supply by the year 2030.
In response to the study, the same year the state legislature passed House Bill 1177, the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act. HB 1177 called for the creation of the IBCC to provide a permanent forum for broad-based water discussions.
The state is now updating its water supply study to look at predictions for the year 2050. According to the latest estimate from the state demographer, the population of Colorado will double by 2050, requiring between 800,000 and 1.7 million additional acre-feet of water, based on current usage. Climate change is also expected to reduce the amount of water available for use in the Colorado River Basin.
On Monday, July 20, the IBCC met with the state legislature’s Interim Water Resources Review Committee to have a discussion on the IBCC’s goals and accomplishments so far. It was a chance for state senators and representatives to look at the success of previous water-related legislation, as well as to consider what sort of issues the legislature might be facing in the future.
Peter Nichols, one of Governor Bill Ritter’s appointments to the IBCC, gave an overview of the Interbasin Compact Process. “The reason this whole process was formed was a growing recognition of Front Range water needs, industrial water needs, and also environmental and recreation demands,” Nichols said. “The idea occurred that instead of having all the basins trying to develop water supplies independently, the basins should work together.”
South Platte River basin representative Erik Wilkinson said, “Seven years ago this month the CWCB decided to move forward with the Statewide Water Supply Initiative. That was the first time in the history of Colorado that the state decided to look at water supply and demand. There was a real lack of big picture planning that the state should have been doing for a number of years. The thought was there was plenty of water available.”
He continued, “2002 gave everybody a glimpse of what a normal year could look like in the future without planning. We are limited in supply, the demands are much higher than we thought, and the assumptions some people had about their ability to use the Colorado basin to get water when they needed it were false.”
Nichols said there has been some momentum since HB 1177 was approved and several major water projects were recently proposed, including the Windy Gap reservoir project near Granby and the Wolford reservoir project.
But those projects are still quite a way from providing a real benefit to water users in Colorado. Nichols said, “The problems we face can’t be solved quickly. This is water, after all. A simple water court case can take over a year to resolve.”
Thus, Nichols said it would take many years of problem-solving to find the 800,000 acre-feet of demand projected for the future of Colorado.
Colorado Department of Natural Resources executive director Harris Sherman said, “it’s not a question of whether we grow or not. It’s how we grow.”
Sherman said the CWCB, which the DNR oversees, was taking a hard look at new water supply projects across the state. Sherman recognized the history of contentious fights over water and trans-mountain diversions. “How can we look in the future and turn these into win-win situations?” he asked. “These are challenges this group is trying to focus on.”
The meeting between the IBCC and the Interim Water Resources Review Committee was just one of many water-related discussions that took place this week.
Earlier on Monday IBCC had a discussion on the next phase of the Colorado River Water Availability, as well as a discussion on the challenges of assessing “non-consumptive” water needs, such as the water needed to provide recreational boating or fishing. The Water Resources Review Committee and IBCC continued their discussion on Tuesday, and the CWCB also had a chance to meet with the committee on Tuesday.
On Wednesday the CWCB held their regular monthly meeting in Mt. Crested Butte.
Western State College’s Colorado Water Workshop also started on Wednesday, with a focus on non-consumptive water needs. The workshop runs through Friday. For more information go to http://www.western.edu/academics/water.

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