State releases final draft of Colorado Water Plan | VailDaily.com

State releases final draft of Colorado Water Plan

Melanie Wong
mwong@vaildaily.com
The Eagle River flows through Edwards on Thursday evening. The state released the final draft of the Colorado Water Plan on Thursday.
Townsend Bessent | Townsend@vaildaily.com |

What does it say?

Some of the key points of the plan include:

• Calling for a stress on water conservation, especially in municipal use.

• Calling for more water storage, which means building more dams and reservoirs.

• Calling for the state to raise additional revenue to support the water plan in the amount of $100 million annually ($3 billion by 2050) starting in 2020.

• Regarding trans-mountain diversions, it provides a system for all the affected parties to discuss future projects.

• Proposes a way to let farmers and ranches sell or lease their water, but use the water again for themselves in the future. The solution is an alternative to the “buy-and-dry” method, where farms and ranches permanently discontinue producing agricultural goods because they have been purchased for water rights.

Source: Colorado Water Plan, www.coloradowaterplan.com.

EAGLE COUNTY — After two and a half years, many roundtable discussions and tens of thousands of public comments, the state of Colorado released the final draft of the Colorado Water Plan on Thursday. The plan outlines a strategy to provide water for the growing state in the face of future drought.

As stipulated by federal law and water compacts, Colorado keeps about one-third of the water that originates in the state — the rest goes downstream to nearly 20 other growing states. If nothing is done, then planners anticipate Colorado will be short by 182 billion gallons by 2050. In broad strokes, the nearly 480-page water plan acknowledges that shortfall and claims to have outlined strategies to close the gap between supply and demand by 2030.

In Eagle County, local authorities said they are generally happy with the direction of the plan, adding it is a big step in providing meaningful dialogue about the state’s water problems.

“It’s opened up the lines of communication between Eagle County, the Western Slope counties in general, and the Front Range,” said Holly Loff, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council. “It sets up a system on how we can talk about contentious issues like trans-mountain diversions. A lot of it is really common sense, but that’s where we have to start.” 

The plan calls for conservation of water, mostly in terms of municipal use, raising more money over the next 30 years to implement the plan, and emphasizes the importance of river-related recreation and watershed health. Some of the more controversial parts call for more water storage (i.e. dams and reservoirs) and a system to discuss the last-resort idea of trans-mountain diversions, or bringing Western Colorado water to the eastern part.

According to reports from the Associated Press, the effect of the water conservation proposals on individual households and communities is yet to be determined. The water plan is more of a suggestion, as it doesn’t include any regulations. Instead, it is up to local government, industries and other stakeholders to make the changes necessary to meet the goals.

What does it mean for THE County?

Local authorities said that there are some victories for mountain communities in the water plan. First, it ties land-use planning with water, something that wasn’t previously done. 

“It’s asking developers to think about actual water availability when they’re planning new subdivisions and projects. With the rapid growth in the state, the first drafts of this plan talked about ‘new supply,’ which means diversions,” said Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry. “There just wasn’t that understanding on the Front Range at that time, so it’s huge that this got in the final draft.”

Also, the plan recognizes the importance of stream health, river environments and recreation for the state. 

“There was an emphasis on the environment and the importance of a healthy river environment,” said Diane Johnson, of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. “Water recreation is a key part of our economy, and the plan addresses and values that.”

Johnson also pointed out one of the most obvious benefits of the plan and all the attention it has attracted — it has served to raise awareness.

“I think especially during the last drought, people could understand more that what they use in their home is directly connected to our river,” she said. “With so much more talk of conservation and healthy rivers, that’s a big bonus for awareness. We can use this to continue to help people make better choices in their water uses.”

WHAT ABOUT DIVERSIONS?

Of course, the plan has critics, too. Gary Wockner, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Colorado, called the plan a “missed opportunity.” He balked at the idea of diversions and new dams. He said he wanted to see more talk of growth control and working with farmers to lessen agricultural use, which makes up 85 percent of the state’s water use.

“To address that problem, we have to work with farmers. They have all the water,” Wockner said. “However, the governor’s executive order treated farming as a sacred cow, so (the plan) didn’t focus on that aspect nearly enough.”

The plan doesn’t say whether it endorses or opposes projects that would move water from Western Colorado to the more populous eastern portion, but it does set up a system for stakeholders to discuss the possibility in the future. According to The Associated Press, Gov. John Hickenlooper said such projects would be a last resort.

“Would we like to see no possibility of a trans-mountain diversion? Of course. But I don’t think many people really expected to see the old adage ‘Not one more drop’ incorporated into the plan. Although it doesn’t take water diversions off the table completely, it makes it clear that there has to be communication and compromise. It also raises the point that there has to be water available for these diversions and there isn’t — it’s all been allocated,” said Loff. “I think we’re just happy that now there’s a way to talk about these tough questions and work together. There’s a phrase that ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting,’ and it’s been true. Hopefully this is moving us past that.”

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and mwong@vaildaily.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.