How’s that water plan working out?
Colorado water planning. It’s complicated.
We’re dealing with a minimum of 21 state and federal agencies, boards and commissions, and their subdivisions. Not to mention every political subdivision on Colorado. And then there are all those folks downstream on five major rivers who want “their share” of Colorado’s water inventory. Finally there are nearly 100 years of really complex case and contract law that is anything but cast in concrete.
Last week we made the case that Colorado water problems are still mounting, given the last 15 years of substandard precipitation, the incredible growth the state has experienced over that time and the increased demand downstream. The snowy, wet year just past, not with standing, Colorado arrived on the edge of water non sustainability sometime in the past. Four and a half years ago the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) delivered the Colorado Water Plan (CWP) to the Governor’s office and the task of reversing or at least stabilizing the state’s declining water resources began in earnest.
The plan is a big deal and very important. But if you walk down the street and ask folks about it, not too many even know there is a plan, much less that it could affect there lives.
What exactly is the plan?
It is 567 pages of words, pictures, and graphs. It is a gorgeous publication, beautifully designed and reproduced. Reading it will numb the senses. Pedantic it is—to a fault. Everything that has ever happened, is happening, or might happen with regard to Colorado water is covered. It falls somewhere between a Supreme Court brief and the True Grit screenplay. There is little understatement at play here. If you have the time and fortitude, you can go to https://www.fortheloveofcolorado.org/ and download your very own PDF copy.
“This plan is a road map that leads to a productive economy, vibrant and sustainable cities, productive agriculture, a strong environment, and a robust recreation industry. It sets forth the measurable objectives, goals, and actions by which Colorado will address its projected future water needs and measure its progress—all built on our shared values,” says the second paragraph of the document.
The plan is, in fewer words, to alter the way we use water in Colorado.
Sounds expensive, doesn’t it?
The task of implementing the plan, which is actually an amalgamation of many plans, is going to require serious capital input. The estimated fiscal requirement for bringing all the goals and objectives of the plan to fruition could run $70 million to $100 million according to Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, located in Glenwood Springs. Others have pushed the number closer to a billion. And, that is just to get it started. Filling the funding gap efforts (raising the money) is under the guidance of the Keystone Group (a Chicago management firm) funded by a partnership between the Gates Family and Walton Foundations. A wide range of funding alternatives are being explored, the largest share of which require ballot initiative — otherwise known as taxes.
One of the sources already identified is the product of Colorado House Bill 19-1327, known commonly as the Sports Betting Tax Referendum. The referendum was passed and signed this past legislative session and will be voted on in the 2020 General Election. It legalizes sports betting in Colorado and taxes each betting transaction. The wager could add more than $6 million to the state’s coffers. Most of the net proceeds of the tax go to the Colorado Water plan’s implementation.
Then there is the Water plan Grant Program.
“I think the Water Plan Grant Program is a significant step forward in implementing the plan,” says John McClow, one of the plan’s authors and the General Counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. He is referring to the CWCB making $10 million (general tax fund) in grants per year available for three years beginning this fiscal year. “The purpose of the Water Plan Grant funding is to make progress on the critical actions identified in the Colorado’s Water Plan (CWP) and its Measurable Objectives,” according to the plan managers.
Goals and objectives
While the plan doesn’t single out preserving the state’s agriculture per se, it does lean heavily in that direction. In fact, the survey responses and comments from “more than 30,000 Colorado residents” demands that it does. According to the 1,950 Coloradans who responded to initial plan surveys, “having enough water available to farms and ranches” polled second right behind the “quality of water in the respondent’s home.” The amount of water available to cities and towns was third. Every other category was a distant finisher.
Agriculture adds about $40 billion to the Colorado economy every year. Montrose County is worth $115 million, with Mesa bringing in $85 million and Delta accruing about $57 million. Farm and ranch payrolls are closing in on $200 million. The results of the water plan are important to just about everyone in the state. The threat to agriculture is most likely to come from within the state, rather than more demand in other states.
The Gunnison River District’s McClow offers a sober thought.
“In my opinion, the greatest risk to agricultural water rights is within Colorado, as the great cities of the Front Range continue to grow. Transbasin diversions are probably no longer feasible, but that does not modify the risk. The ag-urban tension is rising lately as we begin to discuss “demand management” in the context of drought contingency planning,” McClow observed.
The simple answer to what the plan does (and does not) do about matters such as McClow outlines, is that it is weighted heavily in the direction of conservation, water quality, and storage in order to meet demands. While it may expose currently unused sources, it does not identify new sources of water. That is because there are none. Coloradans will have to keep as much of their H2O booty as they can and make sure it is clean and usable. And, then they must use it wisely. Praying for more snow and rain wouldn’t hurt.
It comes in layers
The CWP comes in on top of about 153 water and watershed plans that existed at its implementation in 2015. At least another 41 have been added since. Among those are Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) for the seven identified basins in the state. One of those plans is very much related to Montrose and Delta counties. The Gunnison BIP was completed back in April 2015. Water from the Gunnison River is, at its terminus, one of the major contributors to the greater Colorado River Basin. Prior to that, it provides a major supplement to the Uncompahgre River and Montrose/Delta County complex. The Gunnison Tunnel delivers to the Uncompahgre Valley, 1,000 cubic feet of water every second or just short of 2,000 acre feet per day from March to the end of September. Without that supplement much of the ag community would simply disappear.
According to the Gunnison BIP, the river currently has an agricultural irrigation need shortage of 128,000 acre feet, the plan intends to reduce that to a shortfall of 116,000 by 2050. A good portion of that reduction will come from some land going out of production and crop changes to those using less water. An example of this is the switch to hemp farming in the Montrose/Delta valley. According to Steve Anderson at the Uncompahgre Waters Users Association, hemp reduces the water need considerably over crops like corn, hay and other row crops.
In arriving at its projection, the Gunnison plan takes into account history that includes the worst drought years and other low water scenarios.
“Although the study focused on extreme drought years such as 1977 and 2002 where severe shortages are clearly highlighted ... the impacts highlighted by the study are applicable to some degree in areas of the Basin each year,” the Gunnison plan authors explain.
The Lower Uncompahgre (Ridgway Dam to the Gunnison confluence) suffers the smallest shortage at present. The Montrose/Olathe/Delta area needs about 173,000 acre feet of basin water to irrigate around 88,000 acres. The consumptive use (CU) irrigation (actual water on crops) is 169,700 acre feet, making the shortage two percent, meaning the farmers involved got by on less water than they needed. Other Gunnison tributary basins show shortfalls from seven to 32 percent.
Boots on the ground (and in the water)
The Gunnison BIP enumerates 100 projects that are either complete, underway or proposed, aimed at meeting the water development and conservation the plan seeks to affect. One of the projects is aimed at upping the efficiency of the delivery systems. The Uncompahgre Waters Users are executing a plan to repair and line some of the primary canals in the system.
The system at this point is mostly made up of dirt or unlined canals. While percolation through the heavy adobe soils is less than in other systems, it does allow for water loss through the canal beds and ditch banks. Over the 300 miles of the system that amounts to a lot of water. Also cutting the profuse vegetation that exists on the canal banks and stream bed would make the system more efficient. Everyone of those plants sucks up water.
Another plan on the Gunnison Basin project list is one implemented in 2013 as the (upper) Uncompahgre Watershed Plan (UWP). This plan is a product of the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership. According to its annual report the partnership operates on about $80,000 a year with two thirds of the funding coming from grants, like those offered by the CWP. The rest comes from donors and partners. The heavy lifting for the UWP group is done by three part time contractors and dozens of active, passionate volunteers.
The partnership’s goals and objectives are pretty much mirrored in the CWP and the Gunnison Basin plan. While preserving the water flow, they are keenly interested in the ecology of the Uncompahgre and its feeder streams. The stated goals include, (1) Improve water quality (2) Improve riverine ecosystem function (3) Improve seasonal low flows (4) Improve recreational opportunities (5) Maintain a stable stakeholder group. (The word “stakeholder” appears many times in all the water planning documents. It generally refers to water users. Sometimes it references to others, like political subdivisions — cities, counties, etc.).
The Ouray/Ridgeway-based group does not specifically address agriculture use in their goals, although downstream users like those in the Montrose and Delta areas would certain benefit from their work.
The community of Ridgway has a project listed in the Gunnison BIP. This $2 million effort proposes to protect and improve raw water quality, reduce seepage and evaporation losses, and more efficiently transport the town’s water from the diversion on Beaver Creek to Lake Otonowanda.
Removing the roadblocks
If the Colorado Water Plan does nothing more, reaching one goal would open the floodgates (pardon the pun) to more improvement in the Colorado water future. That goal would be streamlining the permit process for the projects it spawns. There are storage projects, for example, that could be in place or at least under construction now, but for the cumbersome, expensive and sloth-like system by which permits are issued at all levels of government.
As important as the issue is, a word search for the term “permit process” finds that the CWP assigns only one paragraph in 567 pages to the matter:
State agencies with permitting authority will work with local governments and stakeholders to determine how Colorado will express support for or rejection of a project at the appropriate time during the review process in order to encourage the completion of the federal permit process in a timely manner.
We started this discussion with the issue of complexity and the shear number of entities, layers of regulation and management that have a finger in the pie or a tongue in the trough. If Colorado farmers and ranchers, residents and visitors are going to streamline their way of life, and we are asking taxpayers to capitalize the changes, is it not reasonable to ask those who regulate to do the same, for the love of Colorado?
Michael A. Cox is a Montrose-based content provider. He may be reached email@example.com