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The water paradox

Ken Neubecker

Colorado is facing a lot of water questions these days. Do we need more reservoirs to store water? Is there even any water left in the rivers that is ours to store? What about the fish? And what about California? Besides our local water providers and conservation districts, the State has a division known as the Colorado Water Conservation Board. These folks look after the amount of water in our rivers and lakes and they have been pretty busy lately.A little over a year ago the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) began a process known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI (pronounced swasie). SWSI’s stated objective is to “help Colorado maintain an adequate water supply for its citizens and the environment.” It provides a “forum to develop a common understanding of existing water supplies and future water supply needs and demands throughout Colorado, and possible means of meeting those needs.” This sounds like a good idea, especially during a serious drought. Of course, I hope the water folks that I send a check to each month know what our supplies and future needs might be. “SWSI is not intended to take the place of local water planning initiatives.” Colorado is well served by an assortment of water districts, authorities, boards, divisions, ditch companies and providers all over the state. Some wonder why the CWCB is now jumping into the supply game.The SWSI team spent the past year researching what water supplies exist, what water projects and expansions are planned and what the anticipated needs might be in 2030. The research is coming up with a figure for needed water that the SWSI folks call the “Gap”. This is the difference between what water we think we will have available and what water we will need in 2030. The implication is that the State of Colorado will be there to fill the Gap with any projects that our local water suppliers have neglected, for both the environment and us citizens.The research prepared by the SWSI team seems to show a Gap, although it is a rather small Gap. In Mesa and Garfield Counties SWSI has identified a shortage in their supplies by 13,296 acre-feet in the year 2030. Eagle, Pitkin, Summit and Grand Counties will have exactly the amount of water they need, no more, no less. Since these numbers do not include any environmental needs it better snow a whole lot more in the next few years…I have trouble with some of SWSI’s assumptions, however. One is that agricultural irrigation use will not decrease, not one drop. This doesn’t mean lawn sprinklers. It means hayfields and orchards. I expect that in the next 25 years we will see perhaps a few more developments and golf courses replacing the old hayfields. Golf courses and developments, while very visible in water use, actually divert less water. Far less. And I don’t think many new hayfields are being planned at the moment. So what happens to all that unused irrigation water? Overall, the projected “demands” seem to be overstated.Another misused bit of data lies in how SWSI projects the M&I need for the future. They make the assumption that historical use by individuals and development will continue as it always has. They assume that old subdivisions will continue to be inefficient and wasteful. M&I water use will increase by 2030 simply from growth, but based on current trends in conservation, refitting old systems and efficient construction methods, it is not likely to increase nearly as much as the SWSI numbers suggest. With increased conservation efforts, efficiency and technology, M & I individual water use may drop even more. Let’s hope so.Another shortcoming of the process is that SWSI only looks at the supply and demands within the individual River Basins. Trans-basin diversions, basin depletions, are ignored. Plans to enlarge the diversions from Windy Gap, Dillon and the Moffat Collection System, up to 85,000 acre feet or more, are not included in the Colorado River supply data.Environmental impacts were originally seen only in terms of a project. “Tell us where we can build a dam to help the River environment” was the message heard at the first three Round Table meetings. Well, dams aren’t exactly the best thing you can do to help a river. Simply put, dams make lakes, not rivers.The Wolcott reservoirA new reservoir at Wolcott might be all that’s needed to “fill” the Gap for the lower Colorado River Basin in Colorado. This reservoir is listed by SWSI as a “short term process” in the Option Phasing picture. And it might be a good example of “Smart Storage” as well. It all depends on how all the cooperating partners on both sides of the divide operate it. Especially in light of future flows in the upper Colorado. If Eagle County, Denver, Aurora and Northeast Colorado are going to benefit, so should Grand and Summit Counties.SWSI began with a reasonable premise; how much water do we have, how much will we have, how much will we need and how will we get it? It’s not a bad idea to find this out, and from a statewide perspective. Hopefully we can meet all of our needs, including environmental, with a combination of conservation, system efficiency and improvements to existing water supply projects. The SWSI identified Gap of 13,000 acre feet for the Colorado Basin may simply be recovered through more efficient water transport and a conservation efforts. There may also be water supply for this Gap in Ruedi Reservoir. If we do need new reservoirs, they need to be “Smart” and cooperative. They also need to be looked at long and hard before we turn the first shovel of dirt.There also needs to be a lot more public involvement as well, something that has been lacking over the past year. The next Round Table meeting for the Colorado River Basin is scheduled currently for Aug. 25 at the Glenwood Springs Community Center and the draft report is due out in the fall. Hopefully there will be some time for public, and even Round Table participant’s comments before it is rushed to the Legislature. Information is also available at http://www.cwcb.state.co.us/, check it out. Dams and water needs are going to last far past 2030. Lets make sure we do it right this time. VTKen Neubecker writes about water and environmental issues for the Vail Trail. He can be reached at eagleriver@eagleranch.com.


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