Colorado faces an estimated water deficit of 560,000 acre-feet by 2050, due in part to an expected population increase. But it has a long-term plan to address that looming shortage.
The Colorado Water Plan – the first-ever statewide water strategy in Colorado – was ordered up by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013 and finalized at the end of 2015. This May, the state legislature allocated a first slug of dedicated funding to meet objectives in the plan.
The goal is to bring water demand into balance with supply while maintaining existing urban and agricultural values and also improving stream health throughout the state.
To learn more about the plan, Water Deeply recently spoke with Bart Miller, Healthy Rivers Program director at Western Resource Advocates in Boulder. Miller has followed the plan closely, both during its drafting and as implementation begins.
Water Deeply: Why this plan? What’s the conflict behind it?
Bart Miller: The state of Colorado has seen and will continue to see a lot of growth – and in the last 15 years a lot of drought. So those two combined create what the plan describes as a gap in supply and demand looking out just a few decades ahead. The plan also recognizes some troubling trends in Colorado. Some of that is related to what we often refer to as “buy and dry”: cities buying up agricultural lands to get their water, and completely retiring the (farm) use on those lands.
Also, there has been some conflict between east versus west. The Front Range has harvested water from the west side of Colorado such that today there is over 500,000 acre-feet collected from the Western Front and delivered to the Front Range.
The executive order that called for the Water Plan back in 2013 was really, for the first time, describing broadly the water values the state has. Despite a history where water has been diverted for agriculture, cities and mining, the Water Plan points out there are a range of values, including viable communities, viable agriculture, viable recreation and smart land use. Those are the values the state has that cities and state agencies embrace. So I think it was an effort to get all those out on the table as co-equal partners in the state’s future water needs.
Water Deeply: Does the plan lay out a particular budget or investment scheme?
Miller: Not quite. It leaves most of the financial questions unresolved. It sets out objectives for all those different values that I mentioned. It tries to put a price tag on the funding gap to make all these things happen by 2050. The plan recognizes much of that funding will come from existing sources, in that cities, if building a water project, will be able to raise that funding and apply it to the customers they serve.
But there are some items that have been underfunded or even unfunded over the course of the past few decades. A need for new funding is things like stream health.
Water Deeply: Is there anything binding in the plan? Does it set any hard deadlines?
Miller: I’d say no. It’s largely a planning document. It suggests that different objectives could be met through a series of actions. It suggests legislation that might be helpful, as well as executive or administration actions by the state agencies in collaboration with others. It notes some things, like urban water conservation, are really going to happen through water utilities and their planning process. So the short answer is no.
But there is a pretty wide suite of recommendations, many of which are starting to be implemented. But it’s really just taking the first steps toward implementation.
Water Deeply: Is this a good plan, in your opinion?
Miller: I think yes. It’s a good planning document. It has good objectives, it recognizes a wide range of values. It doesn’t clearly spell out how we’ll get from here to 2030 or even 2050. So it’s in need of more milestones. We’ve got broad objectives for urban conservation, land-use planning, stream health and building new water storage. But it doesn’t have much in the way of measurement points, ways to check in.
And then there’s the price tag. It does spell out a need for some new sources of funding. The good news is, this year the state legislature passed a bill in May that allocates a lot of money to the state Water Conservation Board – $20 million or so – toward implementing the water plan. A project bill is passed by the legislature every year. This year is the first time they included a large boost in funding. They took an existing revolving loan account, and there’s a large enough balance in it that they felt comfortable spending part of it down, which will not be reimbursed. A lot of it will be for grants.
Water Deeply: The plan calls for 400,000 acre-feet of water savings by 2050. Is that ambitious enough?
Miller: That’s a significant number for Colorado. As a point of reference, the water project that serves the Denver metro area serves about 1.3 million customers, and their annual use is about 250,000 acre-feet. So in rough terms, 400,000 acre-feet is enough to meet the needs of over 2 million people, and probably even more. In a state like Colorado, where you’ve only got 5 million residents today, that’s a good goal and a pretty big goal, and a pretty important part of the puzzle.
Water Deeply: Even so, the plan projects a 560,000 acre-foot gap in water needs by 2050, right?
Miller: The plan did both supply and demand projections in various parts of the state. It saw there could be a shortage, yes. But interestingly, a lot of the objectives in the plan will greatly reduce that gap. For example, urban conservation. If cities continue on the track they’ve been on the last 15 years, which is reducing water use per capita by about 1 percent per year, that’s going to save a large chunk of the 400,000 acre-feet, through urban conservation. So at some level, I would de-emphasize the importance of that gap, because there are several approaches that will make that gap shrink or disappear.
Water Deeply: The plan also calls for 400,000 acre-feet of new water storage. Do we know what those projects will be?
Miller: Some of them, yes. At least a couple of those fairly large water projects are already in progress. The proponents in one case are Denver Water, and in another case a northern Colorado group of cities working together under a group called Northern Water. They both have had projects proposed for 15 years or more, and they are in the process of getting environmental reviews done.
Those two projects combined would point toward well over half of that 400,000 acre-foot goal. The rest of that 400,000 acre-foot – it’s an open question what projects will get built. And even these two are not done. They’re not built yet, and there may be delays or objections to those yet. The plan did not directly articulate which projects would be inside the 400,000 acre-foot goal.
Water Deeply: What do the watershed protection components of the plan involve?
Miller: One involves a state program – called Watershed Protection – that has been around a number of years. It does some things like sediment control and prescribed burns.
And there’s a new element tucked inside that same program that has additional funding called stream management planning. It focuses specifically on river health and streamflow. This is meant to be kind of an organic process where stakeholders inside a particular river basin identify stream reaches that are in trouble: they’re dry, or they may have temperature issues. And they try to identify what options there might be to help those streams. It’s meant to identify problems and lay out a suite of solutions.
There’s study from about five years ago that found Colorado River-based recreation and tourism generates in the neighborhood of about 80,000 jobs a year and adds about $9 billion a year to state’s economy. So there’s a growing recognition of the importance of rivers to the state.
Water Deeply: The plan also calls for identifying new funding sources for water projects. How will this work?
Miller: Yes, the plan is looking for options to raise an additional $100 million by 2020 and $3 billion by 2030. The plan estimated the unfunded piece of implementing the plan is $3 billion. All that’s still being discussed. There’s no firm plan yet for what the best mechanism for that is.
The plan recognizes there are important water values across the state that do need to be addressed to help communities meet their conservation goals. But I think the funding need is probably an underestimate, because the plan did not go into very great detail about the costs of remedying stream health.
Water Deeply: You mentioned there’s also a need to prioritize how funding is spent.
Miller: There are many objectives in the plan. And there are gaps – perceived and real funding gaps. But there’s not yet a real clear process for applying criteria on how public funds are spent.
So that’s an important next step, and I hope it will come to pass that those criteria are used. That, plus the long-term funding, will be really the proof of the truth in meeting our plan goals. The goals and objectives are great. We’ll hopefully find ourselves in a place where we’ve made good decisions two or three years from now.