DENVER — Much fanfare and applause greeted the introduction of the first draft of Colorado’s first-ever statewide water plan at the Capitol on Wednesday, but Gov. John Hickenlooper, who commissioned it, and its author called it merely a first step toward protecting and conserving the state’s water from the shortfall looming on the horizon.
The meaty first-draft, written after months of stakeholder meetings in all of Colorado’s river basins, lays out general options for meeting what’s anticipated to be a 163-billion gallon water shortfall as the state’s population grows and water resources, due partly to climate change, diminish.
The options range from increasing conservation efforts and the re-use of treated waste water to more expensive and controversial options including trans-mountain diversions like dams, pipelines and reservoirs, which can have greater adverse environmental impacts.
“It really is an important first step in securing our water future,” said Hickenlooper, applying his consensus-focused governing approach to yet another seemingly intractable policy area and encouraging Coloradans to move past the old divisions on water that have split urbanites and farmers, Western Slope residents and the bulk of the state’s residents on the Front Range in order to protect a shared future.
“That’s our goal here to just keep working it and working it and try to avoid the big battles,” he said. “How can we recognize that the state’s going to grow but recognize how important agriculture is? We don’t want another acre to be dried up.”
Agriculture uses about 85 percent of Colorado water supplies while cities use about 7 percent, a growing share as some farmers sell water rights.
Colorado’s time-tested water management system is a set of laws that establishes water as a private property right, puts the power in the hands of individuals and allows those first in line the first rights to use water — a reason why there are more water lawyers here than in any other state.
“We’re not going tell people they can’t buy and sell water,” said James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the author of the draft presented Wednesday.
“We just want to give people more options.”
Environmental activists mostly support the objective of crafting a statewide water plan but want more specifics for restoring healthy flows in mountains and rivers.
“River water supports wildlife, recreation, all that we value as Coloradans,” said Abby Burke with the Audobon Society. “With dry rivers, our way of life and our economy stops.”