Vail Daily column: State’s water plan guides us forward
The final version of our long-awaited Colorado Water Plan was presented to the public on Nov. 19. The goal is to conserve and protect our water — our most precious natural resource. Using the plan, we can supply water for urban growth without removing it permanently from agriculture and without new transmountain diversions. The plan will also guide us through some very difficult water issues in this time of drought, wildfires and our burgeoning urban population. Moreover, we must comply with the nine interstate compacts that require water delivery from our state to millions of people in states from Kansas to Texas to Nevada, Arizona and California.
I have great hope for our children’s and grandchildren’s future in this semi-arid land because of both the process that produced the plan and the roadmap that the plan provides. Let’s discuss the process first.
The process: The Colorado Water Plan is the direct product of Gov. Hickenlooper’s May 2013 executive order tasking the Colorado Water Conservation Board with developing a water plan that considers the unique needs of all eight Colorado river basins. Our Eagle and Routt counties include two of these basins, the Colorado River and the Yampa-White-Green River Basins, with many tributaries such as the Elk, the Eagle and the Roaring Fork. I am proud to represent these critical headwaters areas. As a member of the Joint House/Senate Water Resources Review Committee, I have been involved since the summer of 2013 in our Colorado Water Plan process.
Developing this plan was the largest Colorado civic engagement process ever, with tens of thousands of hours of meetings, discussions and written comments from over 30,000 people. This structure for cooperation actually began in 2005 with House Bill 1177, which created the original basin roundtables. Years of study, deliberation and especially trust-building between the roundtables and the Inter-Basin Compact Committee provided the foundation for our water plan process. Our basin roundtables have been building partnerships and solving problems since 2006. We owe a huge thanks to everyone who took time to comment as well as the members of the roundtables, the Inter-Basin Compact Committee, other cooperative committees and to our watershed groups for their energy and effectiveness.
Beginning in June 2013 as a member of the Water Resources Review Committee, I participated in discussions and hearings in each basin. In 2014 and in 2015, our committee traveled to every basin listening to and learning from the people of each basin and watershed. I found the entire process to be extensive, collaborative and thorough, and I believe the resulting plan is a roadmap for successfully navigating the challenges ahead of us.
The Plan: Estimates are that by 2050 the gap between water demand and the actual water supply in Colorado will be 560,000 acre-feet per year. (One acre-foot of water would fill a football field to the depth of one foot.) The plan recommends reducing this water supply-demand gap in many ways, including, one, aggressive goals to conserve municipal water, two, alternative agricultural water transfer opportunities such as water banks, alternate crop types, and rotational fallowing and, three, reuse of our water in municipal, irrigation and industrial applications.
Of course, we must accomplish this gap-reduction while still fostering:
• A productive economy that supports vibrant and sustainable cities, viable and productive agriculture and robust skiing, recreation and tourism.
• Efficient and effective water infrastructure and planning that promote and reward smart land use.
• A strong environment that includes healthy watersheds, rivers and streams, and wildlife.
• Continued adherence to our water allocation system of prior appropriation.
Our Colorado prior appropriation system of water sharing emerged in the 1860s while we were still a territory to deal with the fact that this is a semi-arid land and that any economic development, from agriculture to municipal/industrial, needed a predictable water supply. Colorado water law, based on the doctrine of prior appropriation or “first in time, first in right,” has provided both predictability and equity. A water right is not an unlimited right, nor is it a right to the water itself, but rather to a court-decreed specific beneficial use of water. Our water law was designed to be fair and predictable, partly in an effort to ensure that powerful Eastern trusts could not just buy up water for speculation. Since it was enshrined in our 1876 Constitution, the doctrine of prior appropriation has proved flexible enough to change over time in response to newly recognized beneficial uses, such as in-stream flows to protect riparian habitat and recreational in-channel diversions for rafting and kayaking.
I believe that what unites us as Coloradans is more important than what divides us. We literally cannot live without water: our economies cannot flourish without adequate, clean, flowing water, and our quality of life as Coloradans depends on clean water and healthy riparian habitat. I believe that new transmountain diversions would be bad for Colorado’s entire economy, quality of life, and attractiveness to tourists and new businesses.
I am encouraged and hopeful that, together, we will implement our water plan in a way that benefits all of us and all our children. You can count on me to work hard and effectively on implementation, carefully listening to your needs and concerns.
To access the Colorado Water Plan, please visit: https://www.colorado.gov/ pacific/cowaterplan/colorados-water- plan-final-2015.
State House Representative Diane Mitsch Bush represents Eagle County and Routt County in the Colorado House of Representatives. She is vice-chair of the House Transportation and Energy Committee, and also serves on the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, Interim Water Resources Review Committee, and Interim Transportation Legislation Review Committee.