Governor emphasizes avoiding trans-mountain diversion
By Alissa Johnson
Last week, Colorado adopted a comprehensive, $20 billion water plan—the state’s first, designed to close the gap between projected water demand and supply. The plan made headlines across the state, in part because Governor Hickenlooper emphasized its potential to avoid the diversion of more water across mountains. That has big implications for the Western Slope, where water supplies are also expected to decline.
“The final version of the Colorado Water Plan adds more clarity as far as the position on trans-mountain diversions,” said local water expert Frank Kugel. As general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, Kugel said the plan makes it clear that, “The Front Range interests—if they pursue trans-mountain diversion—understand there’s not a firm supply. They would accept the risk of any project development that the water may not be there when they need it.”
In addition, Governor Hickenlooper made it clear that diverting more water across the mountains will be a last resort.
According to the Denver Post, Hickenlooper stated that if water conservation is ramped up, water is incorporated into land-use planning and reservoir construction is done right, “the diversion of more water across the mountains won’t be necessary.”
That would be no small feat. As the Colorado Water Plan outlines, Colorado’s population is projected to grow from more than 5 million people today to nearly double that in 2050.
And while 80 percent to 90 percent of the state’s population lives east of the Continental Divide, 80 percent of the state’s water falls to the west. Currently, 24 tunnels and ditches divert 500,000 acre-feet of water from the Western Slope to the Eastern Slope.
Across the state, the projected municipal and industrial water gap is projected to be as much as 560,000 acre-feet by 2050. The Colorado Water Plan sets an ambitious goal of reducing that gap to zero acre-feet by 2030, focusing on measures like conservation, land use planning, agriculture and storage.
Kugel says that’s a good thing for the Western Slope.
“The other aspects of the water plan that are favorable for our basin are that there are other proposals [besides trans-mountain diversion] for meeting the gap between supply and demand,” he said.
They include reuse projects for the Front Range, limits to the permanent drying up of agricultural lands, opportunities to lease water rights and temporary fallowing of farmlands.
“The plan is a step in the right direction as far as providing for the future of Western Slope water. We certainly need to remain vigilant to guarantee that the protections laid out in the plan are followed through, but there has been a great deal of good work done to solve future water problems,” Kugel continued.
The plan also outlines projects for the local water basin, including about 130 projects to deal with decreasing water supplies. According to Kugel, climate change studies project that on a local level, warmer temperatures will lead to increased evaporation and transpiration and in turn a 10 percent to 20 percent reduction in water supplies by the middle of the century.
Droughts and shortages experienced in 2002 and 2012 could become more commonplace. In 2002, diversions on the East River and the Slate River completely dried up.
The projects outlined in the water plan will look at water consumption and shortages as well as environmental and recreation concerns. Stream management plans for Ohio Creek and the East River are already under way. While the projected population growth on the Front Range makes its water problems most noticeable, Kugel says that meeting water demand is a statewide issue.
“The shortages are state-wide. In the coming decades there are more acute projects for the Front Range because of growth… making conservation and other methods and efficiency efforts more important there. But as citizens of Colorado we all have obligations to maximize the use of water.”
More information on the Colorado Water Plan is available at www. coloradowaterplan.com, including an executive summary.