State officials seeking commitment on updated water body

Boaters float on the Yampa River. According to the state’s updated water plan, summer recreation flow needs may not be met in the future due to lower peak flows fueled by climate change.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

State officials are hoping dire weather forecasts and water shortages will convince Coloradans to get involved in planning for sharing a dwindling resource.

Colorado Water Conservation Board staff released the second draft of the Colorado Water Plan on Thursday, which is now open for public comment.. The first version of the plan was implemented in 2015.

The words of the late water expert and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs set the tone on page 1 of the document: The 21st century is no longer about developing a resource, it’s now an era of limits and learning to share a developed resource. .



“I think we can educate and engage and inspire and be an example and I think that’s the benefit,” said CWCB CEO Becky Mitchell. “I think when we have the opportunity to lead, the Coloradans do.”

The updated plan sets out four interconnected areas for action: vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds, and resilient planning. Although municipalities and industry are not currently experiencing a gap, the plan predicts a deficit of 240,000 to 740,000 acre-feet for cities and industries by 2050. According to the plan, approximately 20% of the agricultural diversion demand is currently unmet statewide, and this gap could reach a deficit of 3.5 million acre-feet by 2050 under the “warm growth” scenario which would see temperatures rise by 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit.



Meeting these supply-demand gaps will require hundreds of water projects across Colorado’s eight river basins and cost $20 billion. These projects, many of which benefit more than one water use sector, are presented in each Roundtable’s Basin Implementation Plan.

Context of climate change

The 239-page document is set against the backdrop of climate change, which plays a larger role in this water plan than in the 2015 version. The first water plan did not include climate change projections future in its analyses. Three of the five planning scenarios now include assumptions of hotter and drier conditions in the coming years.

According to the plan, Colorado had three of the five driest years on record since 2000 and saw a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature. The state could experience an additional 2.5 to 5 degrees of warming by 2050. Most projections show less spring snowfall and more frequent heat waves, droughts and wildfires, which have all impact water.

Environmental and recreational water needs could suffer the worst impacts since these uses generally have the lowest water rights.

“Peak runoff may move up to a month earlier, which could result in drier conditions in the summer months and impact storage, irrigation and flow,” the plan says. “Reduced peak flows in the basin create risks to riparian/wetland plants and fish habitat. Instream flows and recreational diversions in the channel may not be met if June to August flows decline due to climate change.

A boater floats on the Roaring Fork River near Carbondale. According to the updated state water body, spring runoff could arrive a month earlier than normal due to warmer and drier conditions.
Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Old tensions and tendencies

The new plan addressed a tension over the foreground: Front Range water providers would like the option to develop new cross-mountain diversions in the future, while West Rim stakeholders say not to turn to the Colorado River Basin for more water for thirsty cities. The Colorado Frontal Range currently withdraws about 500,000 acre-feet of water per year from headwaters in the Colorado River Basin across the Continental Divide.

The plan paused before a detailed analysis of transmountain diversions due to ongoing litigation and permitting processes, but promised that state staff would facilitate discussions on transmountain diversions before the next update of the plan.

“Our promise to the people of West Slope was that when we could break through those legal barriers, we would honestly look into having a better conversation,” said Russ Sands, senior program manager for the supply planning section in CWCB water. “I think we owe it to our stakeholders to try to focus on analytics.”

The plan says Colorado will continue the slow but steady transformation of moving water from agriculture — by far the largest user of water — to cities, with nearly 14,000 acres of irrigated land set to be urbanized. , a third of which in the Grand Valley. Stakeholders estimate that the loss of irrigated land to “buy and dry” is even greater, between 33,000 and 76,000 acres, which is three times higher than the 2015 Water Plan estimate.

But this could be facilitated by innovative and flexible agreements between water users that allow the temporary transfer of water from one use to another. Formerly known as Alternative Transfer Methods, state authorities have renamed them Collaborative Water Sharing Agreements, which allow water to be shared but prevent the permanent withdrawal of water from the land.

Fairness and commitment

State officials have also made an effort to be more inclusive this time around, and in March 2021 they convened a Water Equity Task Force to help shape a set of guiding principles. around equity, diversity and inclusion to illuminate the water plan. Abby Burk, Western Rivers Regional Program Manager at Audubon Rockies, was a member of the equity working group.

“People are engaging and leaning into the space other than the sole owners of water rights,” she said. “We are all supported by water every day. How can we expand this decision-making to include more voices? How can we open our arms and encourage more people to step into this space?”

The 2015 water feature garnered more than 30,000 comments, and state officials hope Coloradons will get even more involved this time around. The plan outlines three levels of engagement citizens can make and encourages Coloradans to promote water conservation, join water-focused stakeholder groups, and coordinate with local leaders to advance water conservation. water policy.

And there’s a small bright spot that shows the potential for change when citizens get involved: the plan says Coloradans have reduced their water usage per person from 172 to 164 gallons per day, a 5% reduction in demand since 2008, mainly due to conservation efforts.

Sands said the harsh conditions can open people’s minds and make them more willing to come to the table to talk.

“I think we’re actually going to see more collaboration than ever,” he said.

The Colorado Water Plan update is open for public comment through September 30, and CWCB staff will also host four online listening sessions. The plan is expected to be finalized by the CWCB in January 2023.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in conjunction with Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift publications. For more go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.


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