Planning ahead for possibility that Colorado's water supply won't meet its needs in 2050

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Contribute your comments about the future of Colorado’s water supply on the local and state level:

• Yampa/White/Green Roundtable: watercomments@gma...

• State of Colorado: www.coloradowaterplan.com

Upcoming meetings

• Feb. 19 in Craig at the American Legion Hall, 1055 Moffat County Road 7.

• Feb. 24 in Meeker at the Rio Blanco Fairgrounds, 4-H Building meeting room, 779 Sulphur Creek Road.

After this series of meetings, public input also will be welcome at the Basin Roundtable meetings held at the American Legion Hall in Craig, on March 12, May 14 and June 18. All meetings begin at 6 p.m.

— Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called on the different regions of the state last spring to come together and develop a comprehensive statewide water plan by December 2015.

The intent is to increase the certainty of future water supplies and reduce the risk of shortages while providing for the needs of various water consumers, from municipalities to agriculture, the environment and industry, including the energy sector.

If December 2015 sounds like it’s in the distant future, consider that the first deadline for the combined Yampa, White and Green river basins to produce their initial draft is July. A final draft plan is due by December, allowing another full year before the final plan must be on the governor’s desk. So the work is underway, and the clock is ticking on a plan that will affect future generations of Coloradans.

“The deadlines are a little disconcerting for us,” Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger told an audience of about 100 people Thursday night in Steamboat Springs. “We’ve been in the process for eight years. We’ve plotted out sections of rivers and streams and what characteristics they have. But the train is going down the track pretty fast here.”

When Monger uses the pronoun “we,” he is referring to government leaders and citizens serving on the Yampa, White and Green River Basin Roundtable. He also is a member of the roundtable and recently filled a seat on the board of directors of the Colorado River District.

Steamboat Springs attorney Tom Sharp previously was on that board.

This week’s meeting was one of several more to come seeking public input about the complex challenge of how to provide enough water in an era of declining precipitation and reservoir levels across the semi-arid West even as population projections are on the rise.

Jay Gallagher, manager of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District in Steamboat, told Thursday night’s audience at the Steamboat Springs Community Center that the local roundtable is one of nine created by the state Legislature in 2005 when it passed the Water for the 21st Century Act.

The urgency a decade ago was due to an awareness that Colorado’s population was projected to double from 5 million to somewhere between 8 and 9 million within three or four decades, Gallagher said.

Now, he added, it’s urgent that people who depend on the water carried in the Yampa, White and Green rivers to participate in the process of striking a balance among competing needs for water here.

“It’s important that you participate in this process right here in the basin because this is your future and your children’s future,” Gallagher said.

He also serves on the board of directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the agency that creates water policy in the state.

The nine roundtables, each representing a major watershed in the state — including the Arkansas, Gunnison, Colorado, North Platte, Rio Grande, South Platte, Southwest (La Plata, San Juan and others), Yampa/White/Green and metro Denver — were tasked with making a bottoms-up assessment of the water needs of their basins and existing supplies.

“That has resulted in an understanding of gaps between (existing) supplies and future demands,” Gallagher said. “This is unique because it hasn’t been undertaken at the state level.”

This time, the study is being done by people who understand what makes their basin work.

Gallagher said it’s not unlikely that basins will identify what he called “low regret water projects” that will boost available water supply in the future as Colorado learns to do more with less water.

It’s also likely that a variety of basins will be covetous of unappropriated water in the Yampa River Basin.

“The real questions is how we would cover a shortfall if we don’t have enough water supply,” even with new water projects and processes in place, Gallagher said.

He observed that in recent years, Colorado’s urban corridor has addressed shortfalls by purchasing water transfers from agricultural rights holders. The resulting reduction in ag land under production is sure to become a topic of discussion between now and December 2015, he said.

“We’re seeing that thousands and thousands of once-irrigated acres are now dried up,” Gallagher said. “This is not politically, nor is it financially feasible for the state to endure. If this is our plan, then we are going to lose a substantial portion of our economy.”

Kevin McBride, district manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, gave the audience a history of water policy on the Colorado River Basin, describing Major John Wesley Powell’s historic first trip in 1869 down the Green River to its confluence with the Yampa and then all the way through Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon on the Colorado.

McBride described how Powell, after assessing how dry the climate was in the lower reaches of the Colorado, urged that state boundaries be organized around watersheds, rather than political lines, to simplify water policy in the future.

At an irrigation conference in 1883, Powell cautioned: “Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation about water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”

And that is the the challenge that faces Colorado together with Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California and parts of New Mexico and Arizona in the next few years.

“We have a burden and the necessity to develop the water,” Monger said. “Not only are we a highly at-risk (basin) because we are probably the least populated, but we’re the last to settle. We’re the last in appropriations. We have very few pre (1922) compact rights versus a lot of the other areas” of Colorado.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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