Heidi Harper: What about water?

Community Agriculture Alliance

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The shimmering mantle of white that has covered the forests and fields of our valley for the past four months is quickly melting into a noisy trickle of muddy water. Spring is here, and the creeks and rivers are swelling with their annual runoff of melting snow. Water is abundant and easy to take for granted in this soggy time of year we like to call mud season. However, as spring dries into summer, it is important to remember water is our most valuable resource and it needs to be managed with care and foresight.

Water is one of our most basic human needs, but our system of managing water use is far from simple. We need clean water to drink, water to irrigate crops and pasture land, and water for homes and businesses. The Yampa River and its tributaries provide the water we need, but the supply is not limitless. The amount of water available each year depends on the amount of precipitation we receive in the form of snow and rain. The winter of 2005/2006 was generous, with the snow pack reaching 133 percent of average. The winter of 2006/2007 on the other hand, has only reached 67 percent of the average snow pack (data from NRCS SNOTEL measurements). Clearly, our water supply is at the mercy of Nature's whims but our demand keeps growing. As we look to Colorado's future, we need to consider the ever climbing number of residents and the possibilities of energy development that will have its own demands on the water system.

In 2004, the Colorado Water Conservation Board conducted a state wide water supply initiative to investigate our future water needs. They concluded that by 2030, we will need to somehow supply an additional 630,000 acre-feet of water among all of the different water users in the state. Just for perspective, an acre-foot of water is 325,000 gallons which is not easy to come by here in the arid west where we can only count on a small amount of precipitation to refill our rivers. As the discrepancy between supply and demand increases, we are obligated to find ways to balance our needs and the health of the water systems we depend on and search for sustainable solutions to carry us well into the future.

During the past several years, drought conditions throughout the state have delivered a sharp wake up call to Coloradoans. Experiencing water scarcity first hand has made us take a closer look at our consumption of this most precious resource and begin to develop better management plans at the watershed scale. As a result of the CWCB study, a collection of multidimensional task forces called Basin Roundtables has been created. These groups are made up of representatives from an array of water user groups. Our local roundtable is made up of folks from the Yampa and White River watersheds, and their job is to examine and discuss current and future water needs and look for ways to meet those needs.

Yampa and White River Roundtable members have agreed future water needs for energy development and non-consumptive uses have not been adequately addressed by the most recent studies. It is anticipated that energy development in northwest Colorado will increase dramatically during the next twenty years. Understanding water needs associated with energy development is critical to insuring adequate supplies. Likewise, water needs required to support the natural river process and the existing and future recreational demands need to be understood.

The more we come to understand the needs that will be demanded of our natural water supply, the better choices we can make to protect water quality and ensure sufficient quantity.

Due to the complexities of water law and the intricacies of natural systems, the process of determining how to manage our water will not happen overnight. The best thing each of us can do as citizens is to stay informed about water policy decisions and conserve water as much as possible at the personal level. Water is indeed a precious commodity. By conserving water today and planning for all aspects of future water needs, we can look forward to a more sustainable water supply to provide for our unique quality of life in the Yampa Valley.

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