Vail Daily column: Water plan, one year later | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Water plan, one year later

Bart Miller
Valley Voices

Water is the lifeblood of Colorado but is under pressure like never before. Demands for water to support population growth, agriculture and businesses are increasing while available water supplies are not. Climate change is also having a growing impact in an already water-scarce region, and experts predict that Colorado's population will double by 2050. Not surprisingly, water scarcity was found to be one of the top concerns among state residents in the latest State of the Rockies Project Poll while 77 percent of Coloradans support more conservation and water reuse as opposed to only 15 percent who support diverting water from rivers and streams. The good news is that we've had a sound first year implementing the state's new Water Plan and now we need our representatives at the state legislature to help.

One year ago, Colorado's Water Plan established key goals for ensuring enough water for vibrant cities, viable agriculture and healthy rivers that sustain wildlife, recreation and local economies. For mountain communities like Aspen and Vail, the plan contains a number of provisions to safeguard West Slope interests every bit as much as those of the Front Range.

Thanks to a collaborative process, we're off to a good start. The Colorado Water Conservation Board recently approved a new budget of $25 million annually over the next few years for implementation. This budget includes funding for municipal water conservation to help reach our state goal of saving 400,000 acre-feet of water by 2050, which would reduce water use by approximately 1 percent per year. The budget advances cost-effective measures, like fixing leaky infrastructure and increasing water reuse technologies, that help communities make more efficient use of existing water supplies. Also included: $5 million annually for critical stream management and watershed restoration plans — essential for both healthy ecosystems and our thriving recreational economy.

The plan's criteria "checklist" for evaluating what water projects receive state funds also started to gain steam by being embedded in the grant process for local river basin roundtables. The simple, common-sense checklist evaluates whether projects have community support, prevent environmental degradation, are technically feasible and meet real water needs. Local community support, in particular, is important to ensure protection of West Slope resources.

We've run a good first lap, but there are miles to go before we achieve goals for meeting new water demands and protecting Colorado's rivers. In the coming year, we'll need development of alternative agricultural water agreements that increase the flexibility of water management, keep agriculture alive and decrease "buy and dry" scenarios where cities buy up water rights that never return to agricultural producers. We need urban water conservation embedded into land use decisions so that new commercial and residential development can be water-smart from the start and thus reduce pressure to divert water from the West Slope to the Front Range. We need funds so local stakeholders can assess the health of their streams and develop stream management plans to address problems.

Most immediately, we need the legislature to approve the $25 million plan budget that was developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. These common-sense proposals have the support of the vast majority of Coloradans and are worthy of strong, bipartisan support. Ultimately, the Water Plan's success over the long term will require collaboration and trust among diverse stakeholders to ensure we help all of our local economies that rely upon Colorado's rivers. Please join us in asking our representatives to help by putting the Water Plan and our communities first.

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Bart Miller leads Western Resource Advocates' program protecting healthy rivers; improving water efficiency; and drawing the connection between water, energy and climate change. Before joining Western Resource Advocates in 2000, Miller spent four years as legal staff in the Solicitor's Office in Washington, D.C., advising on natural resource issues for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Miller is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Colorado School of Law.

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