Nonconsumptive recreational and environmental values must be factored into the economic equation
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Equitable water policies in Colorado must weigh the economic benefits of nonconsumptive water uses in headwaters counties, a recent report from the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments concludes, pointing out that transmountain diversions are 100 percent consumptive from the standpoint of the basins of origin.
The report, released in January at a Denver water conference, takes a fresh look at the critical importance to the economy of water in West Slope rivers, and why Colorado leaders may want to take careful thought before making future transmountain diversion policy decisions. Visit the NWCCOG website for the full 95-page report.
“This report makes an important contribution to the on-going dialogue about adverse economic impacts associated with losing water by focusing attention on Eagle, Grand, Gunnison, Pitkin, Routt and Summit counties,” said Jean Coley Townsend, the author of the report. “This has never been done before. The report provides an important counterbalance to earlier studies that show economic impacts of losing water from the Eastern Plains.”
Balancing the supply and demand of water could be the State’s most pressing issue. The report does not take issue with Front Range municipal or Eastern Plains agricultural water users — all parties have important and worthy concerns and points of view — but is meant as a thorough review of water as an economic driver of headwaters economic development.
The report provides a balance to the existing solid body of work that measures the potential economic effects of less water on the Front Range and the Eastern Plains and the loss of agriculture in those parts of the state.
“If we … are going to solve our Statewide water supply shortage challenges there must first be statewide mutual respect and true understanding of each other’s water supply challenges,” said Zach Margolis, Town of Silverthorne Utility Manager. “The report is a remarkable compilation of the West Slope’s water obligations and limitations as well as the statewide economic value of water in the headwater counties of Colorado.”
All six headwaters counties offer world class recreation venues that attract national and international visitors and require minimal consumptive water.
Over a 25-year period, the estimated average transmountain diversion from the six counties was 511,700 acre-feet per year. These diversions have reduced streamflows significantly in numerous waterways.
Economic consequences of unmitigated transmountain water diversions include impairment of “Gold Medal” fishing status, reduced kayaking and rafting, loss of the scenic beauty associated with healthy water corridors that contribute to residential property values, and numerous other impacts to the environment.
The report reinforces that some headwaters counties are already compromised from historic diversions.
“The economies of the headwaters counties are directly linked with the rest of the State,” said Grand County Commissioner James Newberry, who chairs the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Water Quality/Quantity Committee and is also vice chair of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “We provide the world-caliber recreation venues that attract high-skilled workers and their employers to the Front Range and that attract high-expenditure visitors. Further reductions in our water supply could cause us to lose our “world-caliber” status. This would have a ripple effect throughout the State.”
Additionally, the report points out that the oft-used adage, “the West slope has 10percent of the population and 80 percent of the water”, can be misleading because nearly all West Slope water is legally and physically spoken for. Experts cannot agree how much, if any, is available to be diverted to the Front Range after pending projects are approved.
“Water is an important economic force behind Colorado’s economy. When many people think of Colorado, they think of world class flyfishing, white water rafting, skiing, wildlife and water flowing in our streams,” said Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs. “I hope that as a state, we can work in a cooperative manner, and take into consideration the variety of impacts that moving water from the West Slope or from East Slope agriculture have on local economies, and we should work to appropriately mitigate those impacts.”