Water in the West: Will Front Range growth trump river health?
The Colorado Basin Implementation Plan, which is still being drafted, outlines six themes for protecting the Western Slope environment, as well as water quality, agriculture and our recreation-based economies.
Editor’s note: This is the final part in a four-part series about water in the West as it relates to Colorado’s Water Plan.
Climate change might not be the end all, be all in the state’s water discussion, but Brad Udall knows it needs to at least be a part of it.
“The proper way to deal with climate change is to get out of the scientific battles and deal with it as a risk,” said Udall, who is the director and principal investigator of the University of Colorado-National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Western Water Assessment.
While Colorado isn’t dealing with what Udall says is the biggest climate change impact, sea level rise, it is dealing with impacts of the overall water cycle. The effects range from drought — currently an unprecedented 14-year drought in the West — low levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, supply-demand gaps, power losses and threats to conservation.
As the atmosphere warms, it holds more moisture, resulting in water cycle changes. Udall said the effects are already appearing as more rain and less snow, earlier runoff, higher water temperatures and more intense rain.
The higher water temperatures are something that water conservation folks throughout the Western Slope are concerned about. At a recent Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting, Holly Loff, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, introduced to the group a recent assessment of the Upper Colorado River. The study shows that elevated water temperatures are occurring in the Upper Colorado that are above the known thermal tolerance of trout.
Loff said more transmountain diversions out of the basin to the Front Range would only further affect aquatic life, which goes beyond just fish and bugs.
“It impacts everything that uses the riparian area, which is every creature,” Loff said. “Temperature, that is huge. When you take the water out (of the streams for diversions), the water that’s left heats up more. Water temperatures rise, and it completely changes the fish that want to be in that water. Our fishermen are going to see that.”
Loff said she isn’t so quick to join in on the finger-pointing to the Front Range. The Front Range has cut back on water wasteful blue grass lawns, for example and is doing a great job in terms of per capital water use.
“Per capita water use compared to ours — they’re actually doing much better than we are,” she said. “We are all going to have to make some changes.”
In the Roaring Fork Valley, Aspen Valley Land Trust Executive Director Martha Cochran said impacts on wildlife are always considered under new development proposals, but water usage and efficiency aren’t.
“It needs to be incorporated at a basic level,” she said, adding that she thinks local governments would be receptive to changing land use codes.
She points out that agriculture efficiencies could be another starting point for improving water supplies, but the use it or lose it concept is really what guides these discussions and decisions.
Use it or lose it is when a water user isn’t diverting the maximum amount of water that their right allows loses some of their rights the next time they go to court to transfer those rights.
“Sprinkling systems for agriculture are more efficient and use less water. They’re easier to control, you can direct them better (and) they’re more specific about how and when,” Cochran said. “And that’s a good thing, but it’s not if it means you lose your water rights because you’re not using all the water you traditionally used.”
As the state crafts Colorado’s Water Plan and finger-pointing remains a part of the process, there is proof that East and West Slope entities can work together. Just last year, the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement was signed between Denver Water and Western Slope water providers and municipalities. The agreement is a long-term partnership that aims to achieve better environmental health in the Colorado River Basin, as well as high quality recreational use.
The agreement, which included 43 parties from Grand Junction to Denver, states that future water projects on the Colorado River will be accomplished through cooperation, not confrontation. It’s debatable whether that will happen since there’s already a lot of finger-pointing happening during the draft stages of Colorado’s Water Plan process.
James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and head of the development of Colorado’s Water Plan, believes it can happen, but he admits it won’t be easy.
“The idea is to take that paradigm shift that occurred with the Cooperative Agreement and exploit that and replicate and scale that up to the entire state,” he said. “Doing that is going to require some work.”
But sentiments like Loff’s that are 100 percent against more transmountain diversion projects are widespread on this side of the Continental Divide, and it’s going to take more than some conversations and a few handshakes to find some middle ground.
“The biggest thing for us, and the entire basin, is that we want to make it perfectly clear that having another transmountain diversion over to the Front Range is really going to damage our recreation-based economy,” she said. “And that it’s going to have more impacts on the environment and on agriculture. They need to understand that we’re not saying we don’t want to share the water; it’s just that there isn’t any more water to share. We have obligations through the Compact, so more water leaving our basin — that water doesn’t ever come back.”
The Colorado Basin, which includes Garfield, Eagle, Summit, Grand, Pitkin and Mesa Counties, echoes that exact argument in the Basin Implementation Plan draft, and some stakeholders worry that message remains to be clearly stated at the state level.
So that will be part of the process in the coming months as each of the nine basins drafting implementation plans polish up their drafts before sending them off to the state. Two of the Front Range basins, Metro and South Platte, are combining theirs into one document, for a total of eight plans being rolled into Colorado’s Water Plan.
It’s like a community development plan that lays out a vision and direction, but it will require execution, said Jim Pokrandt, communications and education director for the Colorado River District.
“Hopefully it will address how we can get down the path of efficiency and the land use discussion,” he said. “It’s a very painful discussion, but not as painful as the need to start digging a new transmountain diversion tomorrow.”
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-777-3125.