By Caitlin Switzer
COLORADO–Colorado’s draft water plan is available for review, at least online, and if you have not read it now is the time. The draft plan, released Dec. 10, is the first official step taken in response to an executive order issued by Governor John Hickenlooper in May of 2013. The plan has been coordinated by Colorado’s Water Conservation Board (CWCB), which calls it the result of “nine years of unprecedented work, dialog and consensus building.”
In the beginning, however, the Western Slope was not part of the discussion–a glaring omission in the big picture, according to Colorado Senator Ellen Roberts (R-Dist. 6).
“We were left out at first,” Roberts told constituents at a legislative kickoff at Bridges of Montrose Dec. 2 “The Western Slope has 15 percent of the state’s population,” she said, “but eighty percent of the state’s water. So we want to be sure that when they develop the water plan, they think of us.”
So does Western Slope water advocate and Diversions Radio Talk Show Host (KUBC) Marc Catlin, a former manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).
Catlin believes that everyone who lives on the Western Slope should read and become familiar with the plan–however, he also points out that, in an area where many rural residents do not have access to high speed Internet, no paper copy of the draft plan has even been distributed locally.
“The water plan is the first shot that Colorado has ever taken at trying to draft something that benefits the whole state,” he said. “The state tends to look at shortages, and tell us, ‘you guys have so much.’ So folks here need to read it and know what’s in it so we don’t end up behind the curve.
“There is a certain way that public entities should come before the public,” he continued. “So I would like to see a paper copy; put it in the libraries, do whatever you’ve got to do. I am a paper person–I like to scribble notes in the margin while I read. So I have a call in to the CWCB asking what we can do to get some hard copies over here–not everybody can read 419 pages online.”
“This plan is very transparent, but you can’t get it and that worries me,” Catlin said.
Rural Colorado includes everyone from “the guy on the river” to the “guy growing sweet corn,” Catlin said, adding that for now, those who hold longtime water rights are being silent, while those who do not have them are speaking up.
“There is still work to be done,” he said. “The need for future trans-mountain diversions has been left in the plan, and there is some talk of ‘tweaking’ Prior Appropriations. But Prior Appropriations was designed for times of shortage, which is now–we should be hanging onto Prior Appropriations for all we’re worth. That talk of ‘tweaking’ scares me to death, just like the proposed Public Use Doctrine, which I am sure will be back.
“Everybody fears re-distribution of wealth,” Catlin said, “but you don’t even have to re-distribute wealth if you re-distribute our natural resources–because if you take our resources, our bank accounts are going to shrink anyway.”
The plan’s intro states that, “In addition to basin-wide participation, the draft Basin Implementation Plans build on data from the most comprehensive analysis of Colorado water ever undertaken through the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, updated in 2010.”
The draft recommends actions, including “water conservation, alternative methods of using agricultural water that will not result in the permanent dry-up of farmland, and more efficient and effective permitting of water projects.” And though many Western Slope residents fear the prospect of additional trans-mountain diversions, the plan promises to foster “collaborative solutions to responsibly address the looming gap between supply and demand.”
Colorado’s water values, as outlined by the plan, include: a productive economy that supports vibrant and sustainable cities, viable and productive agriculture and robust skiing, recreation, and tourism industries; efficient and effective water infrastructure promoting smart land use; and a strong environment that includes healthy watersheds, rivers and streams, and wildlife.
Over the past year, basin roundtables statewide, including the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable, developed draft Basin Implementation Plans (BIP) that examined their future water needs and provided strategies for addressing those needs. Among the water challenges the state faces are a growing gap between municipal water supply and demand that is expected to result in a statewide shortfall of 500,000 acre feet (the amount of water required to cover an acre, one foot deep) by the year 2050; a loss of irrigated ag lands caused by the purchase and permanent transfer of agricultural water rights; critical environmental concerns due to habitat loss; variable climatic conditions; an inefficient regulatory process; and increasing funding needs.
The draft Colorado Water Plan directly addresses the relationship between Front Range and Western Slope in a paragraph that states, “Water connects Colorado. While the vast majority of our precipitation falls west of the continental divide, the vast majority of our people reside to the east. Through a vast network of infrastructure, we move water from the west to the east in large quantities every year. Western slope ranchers finish their cattle on the eastern slope, have them slaughtered and distributed there. The eastern slope consumes western slope peaches and wine. The western slope offers world–class recreational opportunities, and Front Range families are the largest user of these recreational opportunities and own many of the second homes in western slope communities. The Front Range is the economic hub of Colorado, accounting for almost 75 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Water is one of our most critical, contentious, and shared resources, but because we are all connected, Colorado’s success depends on the ability of all regions to work collaboratively to solve challenges.”
Deadline for submission of the final plan to the Governor’s office is Dec. 10, 2015.