Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper seeks statewide water plan

Water pours down the Blue River in the high runoff of July 2011. Bob Berwyn photo.

Governor says state must figure out a way to address impending shortages

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Colorado water experts will try to figure out how to manage the state’s most precious resource in an era when all signs points to increasing shortages and the potential for growing conflicts within the state and the region over its allocation.

Under an executive order issued this week by Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Colorado Water Conservation Board will lead the effort to address the growing gap between supply and demand. Especially worrisome is the gap in the South Platte Basin, the state’s most populous and at the same time, the most productive agricultural basin.

Hickenlooper acknowledged that the recurring drought could hasten the impacts of the gap between supply and demand, noting that the past two decades have been Colorado’s warmest on record, dating back to the 1890s. Read the order here.

“Colorado deserves a plan for its water future use that aligns the state’s many and varied water efforts and streamlines the regulatory processes,” Hickenlooper said. “We started this effort more than two years ago and are pleased to see another major step forward. We look forward to continuing to tap Colorado’s collaborative and innovative spirit to address our water challenges.”

The Governor’s emphasis on conservation was welcomed by recreation and environmental stakeholders, who said that’s the direction supported by a majority of state residents.

“The people of Colorado agree that we don’t have to sacrifice Colorado’s rivers and tourism and recreation economy to solve our state’s water problems,” said Craig Mackey an outdoor industry leader and co-director of Protect the Flows. “Let’s capitalize on bi-partisan, statewide agreements that focus on becoming more efficient with our precious water resources.”

The order emphasizes developing a plan that favors conservation, innovation and collaboration, building on a theme Hickenlooper developed in his State of the Address in January, when he said that “Every discussion about water should start with conservation.”

The plan should address both water quality and quantity, and can’t lose sight of interstate water issues either, according to a release from the Governor’s office.

Specifically, the order says the plan must consider urban economies, productive agriculture, a robust tourism and skiing economy and a strong environment with healthy watersheds, rivers, streams and wildlife.

“This water plan recognizes Colorado’s recreation and tourism economy as a vital and sustainable economic engine,” said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company.”

The CWCB effort will build on the work of a grassroots water planning process that’s been under way for several years via Basin Roundtable discussions and an Interbasin Compact Committee. Hickenlooper requested a draft report by December 2014, with a final version due a year later.

The plan should ” support agriculture in rural Colorado and align state policy to the state’s water values,” which could be tricky business, considering that different stakeholders in various parts of the state have very different ideas about water values — In Colorado, one person’s alfalfa field is another person’s trout stream and another person’s snowmaking system.

Specifically, Hickenlooper’s executive order directs the CWCB to work with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources as well as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the Colorado Energy Office, and other relevant state agencies as needed. Each of these agencies is directed to cooperate with the CWCB as needed on the Colorado Water Plan.

“Throughout our state’s history, other water plans have been created by federal agencies or for the purpose of obtaining federal dollars,” the order says. “We embark on Colorado’s first water plan written by Coloradans, for Coloradans. Nevertheless, our past and current data and studies will aid in developing a plan for the future.”

The single most important thing could be getting past the supply mentality and accepting that there is only a finite amount of water, said Ken Neubecker, long-time Colorado River advocate and director of the Western Rivers Institute.

While he’s cautiously optimistic that a state water plan could help address some of the pressing challenges, Neubecker said there’s still a fair amount of paranoia among some stakeholders — despite recent trans-divide water agreements that have helped build trust.

“Some will be wondering what the state is up to, and what kind of local authority are they going to be usurping,” he said. “If it comes from the state level, it will be a package that will be suspect on delivery. It’s gotta come from the roundtables and the Interbasin Compact Committee,” he said.

Neubecker, who has participated in the long-running basin roundtable sessions, said there’s still some work to be done in that area, too.

The roundtables were set up to engage each other, but they haven’t done that as much as Russ George would have hoped,” he said, adding that the roundtables have skirted around some of the “meat” of the issues.

Getting the key players from the various basins to talk with each other will be crucial for finding statewide consensus, he said.



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