Last May, Gov. John Hickenlooper directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board to hand him a draft plan for managing the state’s water no later than Dec. 10, 2014.
That’s a hefty order considering the plan has been in the works for at least a decade and the state is riffed with disagreement, especially between the Front Range – which is the most populous – and the Western Slope, which has most of the water. Progress is being made, however.
As the CWCB nears its deadline, Trout Unlimited, a non-profit conservation organization, is currently working to unite the Western Slope to ensure the region has a strong voice at the bargaining table. The group is asking governments to sign onto the Our Colorado River project, which outlines five “core values” that various stakeholders might agree upon.
“We’re trying to show unity and resolve on matters that have sometimes been points of contention between the agriculture and recreation communities,” said TU’s Colorado River Basin Outreach Coordinator Richard Van Gytenbeek. “By agreeing to these core values, we can provide a united focus on a common platform as we move toward the Colorado Water Plan, which is due in 2014.”
Gytenbeek said he has asked seven counties to sign the plan since this spring, including Eagle County on Oct. 15.
“I’ve also asked Routt, Summit, Gunnison, Garfield and Mesa counties,” he said. “Garfield and Mesa counties are the only ones that seem to be waffling.”
Our Colorado River project’s five core values are:
Cooperation, Not Conflict – Work together to ensure the Colorado River is able to meet our diverse needs, from agriculture to recreation and tourism. Cooperation is the key to sustaining our economy and way of life.
Protect Our Quality of Life – Maintain our open spaces through a vigorous agricultural sector and ensure that our rivers and streams are flowing and healthy.
Modernize Irrigation – Upgrade our aging irrigation infrastructure systems to make them more productive, economical and habitat-friendly.
Innovative management – Explore new ways to meet our water supply needs through innovative conservation and management practices.
Keep Our Rivers at Home – Leave water in its home basins and oppose new, large-scale, river-damaging trans-basin diversions from the Colorado River to the Front Range.
“I’m starting with communities at the top of the watershed and working my way down,” Gytenbeek said. “So far, there’s been a lot of support, but some people I’ve asked to sign the agreement are uncomfortable with the anti-trans-basin value and the broad, general nature of the agreement’s wording.”
Gytenbeek said the wording is general because that’s what it takes to find some common ground to start with and move forward from there. He said the primary disagreement among Western Slope water users is between agriculturalists and the recreation and tourism communities.
“The lesson we’ve learned is that it is much better to cooperate and listen to the agriculture community – they’re trying to grow our food, after all – and we’ve had multiple successes by working with them,” he said. “I think the ag community has been alienated and villianized a bit over the years. They’re not bad guys and they are very cooperative when you get down to it.”
Gytenbeek said one notable signature on the agreement is from the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, which represents a significant agriculture community.
“Our board moved to support it for the main reason that it aligns with our goals,” said Frank Kugel, general manager of the district.
It was a narrow decision by the board, though.
“The ag sector is a key component to our area,” Kugel said. “We recognize our agricultural diversions aren’t as efficient as they could be and we are certainly supportive of keeping our waters at home – there is not enough water in the Gunnison River basin for our current uses, let alone diversions to other places – but there were concerns among the board members about supporting stream health and agricultural diversions at the same time.”
Commissioner Sara Fisher was absent from the Oct. 15 Eagle County commissioner hearing, so Commissioners Jill Ryan and Kathy Chandler-Henry decided to wait to sign the Our Colorado River agreement.
“It seems to support our master plan, which now includes the upper Colorado River, and the work being done by the Eagle River Watershed Council,” Ryan said. “I would feel comfortable signing onto it.”
Gytenbeek said he grew up in Avon when the area was mostly a trailer park surrounded by open land.
“I’m amazed to see the growth that has taken place here, and the rivers seem to be in pretty good shape,” he said. “We need to keep a balance and preserve our classic western landscapes, though, because that’s why people come here. If we don’t manage our water well, we stand to lose a lot.”