Most have heard the saying “whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” Although this quote has been used as a mockery towards tensions of water in the west, the underlying meaning has persistently grown stronger over the last several decades.
From coverage regarding the dwindling Colorado River (the most over allocated river in the world), to the continuing drought in the Southwest, concern about water resources has become all the more prominent. Although most recent media attention has focused on issues centered on California’s drought, perhaps we should use this time to analyze our own water resources here in Colorado.
I think we can all agree Colorado is a fantastic place to live. With a strong economy, growing industry, and abundant recreational activities, it isn’t a surprise that our population is set to nearly double by 2050. Although many view growth in a positive light, expanding cities and industry require increasing water availability, creating a scarce resource in high demand.
Besides a burgeoning population, Colorado has several other challenges when managing water resources. For starters, 80- 90% of the population lives on the eastern side of the Continental Divide while 80% of the precipitation falls on the western side. To alleviate this problem, a total of 25 tunnels or trans-mountain diversions have been constructed to move water from the western slope to the metropolitan areas of the Front Range.
Additionally, Colorado is one of only 2 states in the U.S. that is a headwaters state, meaning most precipitation falling in Colorado flows out to neighboring states but very little flows in. Nine other states, and Mexico, have rights to, and rely on surface water originating in Colorado. Therefore, besides managing our own water security, we have a responsibility to ensure interstate compacts are met and water resources are available to downstream users.
In 2013, Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order to confront the issues of a growing population and the reality of a limited water resource. This directive required the development of a State Water Plan to address the projected 600,000 acre-foot shortfall in water availability by 2050 due primarily to population growth on the Front Range.
While securing water availability, Hickenlooper also desired the Colorado Water Plan to uphold several values during the planning process, including support of sustainable cities, viable agriculture and a robust recreation industry. Additionally, the plan is required to provide effective water infrastructure while promoting healthy watersheds and rivers. Reductions in state Projected municipal and industrial water demand in Colorado by 2050 depending on low, middle, or high rates of population growth. Figure taken from the Colorado Water Plan draft. Surface waters required to leave Colorado through interstate compacts, along with east and west slope populations and irrigated acres. An acre-foot is a volume measurement for the amount of water that could cover an acre of surface area to a depth of one foot. water supplies due to climate change are also addressed in the planning process.
The Water Plan focuses on three main avenues to meet the projected water demand by mid-century. The first avenue, and least controversial method, is through municipal and industrial conservation. Conservation goals in the Water Plan are set to reduce water usage by 400,000 acre-feet through land-use reform, demand reduction, technological innovation, and water reuse strategies with most of the conservation burden falling on Front Range municipalities.
Another option to meet future water demands is through infrastructure projects. The majority of these projects are additional trans-mountain diversions or projects aimed at increasing storage.
An example of such a project is the Northern Integrated Supply Project, a proposed plan to construct two new reservoirs to store excess water leaving the state during wet years. The project’s goal is to increase water supplies by 40,000 acre-feet each year for 15 participating Northern Front Range water providers by diverting water from the Poudre River during high flow events.
The final avenue highlighted in the Water Plan is transfers from agriculture, or what is often called, “buy and dry.” With more than 85% of Colorado’s water going towards agriculture, some of the water rights needed to meet municipal and industrial demand will need to be purchased from farmers. However, many basins hope to minimize this option as agriculture represents a major portion of the state’s economy with some Colorado counties being the most productive in the United States.
With 40 out of 50 states in the U.S. expected to have water shortages in the next 10 years, odds are most of us will have to become more cognizant about water resources and our personal water use regardless of where we live.
My challenge is for us all to be proactive in the conversation now, following the lead of the Water Plan, instead of waiting for our hand to be forced by population growth or the next drought. No one wants to end up in a situation like the one California is currently facing.
Whiskey should always be for drinking, but let’s see if our collective action and planning can prevent us from fighting over water.
To learn more about the State Water Plan or ways you can personally get involved in conservation efforts visit ColoradoWaterPlan.com or the Colorado Water Conservation Board website at cwcb.state.co.us.