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Colorado Water’s Murky Future Discussed at Issues Summit

Grace Hood

A resource that most of us take for granted—water—was front-and-center at a regional issues summit in Loveland Wednesday.

Colorado’s population is expected to jump from 5.1 to 7.2 million over the next 18 years, and experts say the current infrastructure just isn’t equipped to meet the anticipated demand.

So where’s our future water going to come from? And how will it change our day-to-day lives?

Those questions were posed to a panel of experts including Northern Water General Manager Eric Wilkerson.

“With the water we have in agriculture in Weld and Larimer counties, we have plenty of water to sustain any population that you’d want to have in this area. It’s a question of how much agriculture do you want to dry up?”

This problem doesn't have easy solutions. Part of it could come from lowering Front Range water use by 10 or 20 percent. However reusing and recycling water more could present other problems according to Andrew Jones, an attorney who specializes in water issues.

“When we talk about conserving, we have to introduce that concept into the discussion that we may also be reducing flows in the river and changing the river regime,” he says.

Along with thirsty cities, hydraulic fracturing is also competing for water, which is part of the natural gas extraction process. Fort Collins Poudre River Sustainability Director John Stokes says just how this will decrease future water supplies isn’t known.

“Is it significant in terms of the totality of the water supply in the state? No. But is it significant at the local level?” he says. “Yes, potentially it is.”

Ultimately, Northern Water’s Eric Wilkinson says the region needs to become more protective of its water supply, particularly when it comes to Denver Metro expansion. And that could come from creating a so called “water bank,” which could buy water rights from retiring farmers, preserving and leasing them back to agriculture and northern cities.

“Think about that, the water bank could then protect the supplies in this area for agriculture, the amenity that everyone moves here for,” he says.

That won’t happen anytime soon. But the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance’s Sandra Hagen Solin says regional water issues will come up during the annual legislative session—including the controversial Northern Integrated Supply Project.

“We will be pursuing a resolution from the legislature in support of NISP in order encourage its forward progress more swiftly given the dynamics at play,” she says.

The long-term storage project will likely take years to fully realize due to feasibility studies and public criticism. The painfully slow process gets at something well-known by those who study water: big changes don’t happen in year increments. It happens over decades.

You can follow Grace Hood on Twitter: @GraceHood

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