Colorado's Water Plan Lays Foundation, But Is It Strong Enough?

Jul 30, 2015

Colorado's statewide water plan has been criticized for failing to make tough decisions about the state's biggest water issues: how new growth uses water, a new transmountain diversion from the Western Slope, and how to balance urban needs for water with a desire to preserve agriculture, which uses the majority of the state's water.

In response, those involved with the plan say that's not the point. The plan, by gathering input from across the state, is bringing together people with very different perspectives on water. By getting them to discuss the biggest issues around water in the state, it lays the foundation for better water management.

"It's kind of like building a house," said James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and head of the water plan process.

"You have to have the right tools and this plan sets out our tools, and where we are lacking, and how we can make them stronger. And really it's a blueprint for how we want to build Colorado moving forward."

On the other side, some of those watching the plan call it less a blueprint and more of a list. Susan Greene, a longtime water reporter and editor of The Colorado Independent, published an in-depth article on the plan where she interviewed Brookings Institution water expert Pat Mulroy. According to Greene, Mulroy was not impressed with Colorado's plan.

"Essentially she was just saying this is more of a values statement, or almost an encyclopedia or compendium of the water issues Colorado faces than a plan," Greene said.

Others quoted in the article had similar criticisms.

The Water Board's Eklund dismissed this critique, essentially saying Mulroy is stuck in the past, where, as the saying goes, "whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting." That's not Colorado's way, or the way of the future, he insisted.

"Up here, collaboration and cooperation are our motto, and that's our drive," said Eklund.

At some point, however, the state will have to make tough decisions about water. Will the water for the 3 million additional residents pouring into the state by 2040 come from Eastern Slope agriculture? From a new transmountain diversion using Colorado River water? Will the legislature place limits on how new growth uses water?

According to Eklund, the latter option isn't likely. While he lauded Denver Water's progress on reducing consumption among its urban residents, he also said the state will never tell localities how to use their water.

"The short answer is no, we don't need legislation," he said. "We are a local control state in Colorado."

Eklund believes municipalities, left to their own devices, will "do the right thing."

Others involved in the water planning process say that growth and reducing water use with that new growth is the real issue. Jim Pokrandt, with the Colorado River District, said he is glad the state water plan at least talks about land use, growth, and landscaping as an important component of water use.

Development in Colorado Springs. The state is projected to add nearly 3 million people by 2040.
Credit David Shankbone

"How can we grow more smartly is the million dollar question that we need to start dealing with tomorrow," said Pokrandt.

Pokrandt believes Colorado has to "start controlling how we are going to grow and be as efficient from a water use perspective as possible. Because if we don't, you are either going to come to the [Colorado] River or you are going to gut ag," he said.

If that control over growth and water use is not mandated however, there's little certainty it will happen.

Reagan Waskom, the director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, said the state has been criticized in the past for failing to link land use and water use.

"If we grow smart, grow effectively, we benefit ourselves not just from a water point of view but from transportation, efficiency, sprawl there are a lot of benefits."

Yet despite that, Waskom noted that legislative efforts to link planning and water have met with significant resistance.

"We are here in the West, and we are independent and our cities and towns and municipalities have a certain amount of autonomy," Waskom said.

The Colorado Independent's Susan Greene said many in the water world will be watching for the final draft of the state's plan, to see if it makes strong recommendations on any of the major issues. The other unknown is how much Gov. John Hickenlooper gets involved in pushing through any of the plan's recommendations.

"The question is, will he become more involved in this and hone this into a really specific plan, or won't he?" wondered Greene.