Water supply: Quenching Colorado's thirst

Posted: Oct 24, 2014

Every winter in Colorado we watch our snowpack levels closely because they tell us how much water we’ll have in reserve for use on our farms and in our homes when the weather warms.

Last week’s snowpack update showed that, due to a relatively dry January, supplies in all major river basins in the state had been seriously depleted. Basins in southwest Colorado are the worst off, having stockpiled only one-quarter the amount they receive in seasons with normal precipitation.

While those levels could easily be bolstered by snowfall over the next few months, it’s unlikely that we’ll do much better than break even. And, if it doesn’t snow like crazy and stay cold, reservoirs levels will be low come spring, leaving us wondering if our water needs will be met.

Water and growth in Colorado have been the subjects of a few interesting studies released recently: “Colorado’s Water Supply Future/State Water Supply Initiative 2010,” produced by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), and the “Cost of New Water on the Front Range” which came out of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Natural Resources Law Center.

Both studies deal with ensuring an adequate water supply for a growing population and both look at options for meeting future demand. By 2050, the CWCB expects Colorado’s population to almost double, totaling 8 to 10 million people (which is not difficult to imagine given that, in the past decade, Colorado was the ninth-fastest-growing state in the U.S.; it grew nearly 17 percent).

Doug Kenney, the lead author of the second study and director of the Western Water Policy Program, expects we’ll have 1.7 million new residents by 2020. While most of those people will settle on the Front Range, the Western Slope is expected to grow faster than any other region in the state. Its population will more than double by 2050.

It’s no revelation, then, that statewide water consumption will also double during that time. Compare the current average water supply to the projected population growth and, even if all new water storage projects presently on the table are built, Colorado River Basin users alone will be short over 100,000 acre-feet of water per year. That’s 32.6 billion gallons of water, or more than twice the amount of water the entire state currently uses per year.

Where the studies drastically diverge is how to address our growing thirst. In an abundance of bar graphs and pie charts, the CWCB suggests a number of somewhat nebulous solutions involving inter-basin and trans-basin transfers (when water is moved from one river basin to another) and agricultural transfers (a popular stop-gap technique used today in which farmers sell their water rights to urban areas).

The huge future demand is also “forcing authorities to consider building new water storage and pipeline projects,” says the study. It calls for massive new construction including a 442-mile-long pipeline from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Front Range (similar to the proposed Regional Watershed Supply Project, a 500-mile pipe from western Wyoming to Fort Collins and other Front Range cities).

Despite the agency’s name, conserving water represents only a sliver of a portion of one of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s bar graphs.

In contrast, while the CU study makes no hard and fast recommendations, it concludes that utility-sponsored water conservation programs are the least expensive new water supply strategy for Colorado’s Front Range. Conservation efforts result in an additional one acre-foot of water (326,000 gallons) for an average of $5,200, compared to $16,200 per acre-foot for new supply projects and $14,000 per acre-foot for major water transfers.

Kenney has taken some heat from water utilities for this conclusion. On one hand that’s odd, since the report compiled statistics solely from the utilities themselves, and from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. There are no Greenpeace activists feeding Kenney numbers.

On the other hand, it makes sense that they’d be ticked off, considering how water utilities make money. The more water people use, the more the utilities benefit. The more revenue spent on building and expanding water storage capacity, the more the utilities benefit.

But it’s foolish to imagine that building new dams and reservoirs, and hundreds of miles of pipelines, could become a reality. As the Denver Post reported earlier this week, Colorado’s dams are in trouble (there are over 1,900 dams statewide). Operators have been seriously limiting the amount of water kept in reservoirs to prevent blow-outs. In the last couple of years, in order to address budget shortfalls, water project funds have been cut by $120 million. If we can’t afford to keep our current water storage system in working order, should we seriously consider building new ones? Do we really want more dams damaging aquatic life, and impacting aesthetics and recreation?

Even if we could afford it, cost is only one consideration in meeting future water demands. Why else might we pursue conservation as an important adaptation strategy? Because we need our farmers. Colorado has 36,500 farms. We grow millet, potatoes, cabbage, onions, pinto beans, peaches, apples, cantaloupe, and produce more than one billion eggs per year. There are 2.6 million head of cattle here, and 36,000 bee colonies producing 2.7 million pounds of honey every year. Agriculture contributes over $7 billion to the Colorado state economy annually. More than 105,000 jobs in Colorado are related to agribusiness.

Despite this bounty, since Colorado law allows water rights to be bought, sold and transferred, it’s a common practice for cities to buy farmers’ water. According to Kenney, the Colorado-Big Thompson project along the northern Front Range saw agricultural ownership of water shares dropped from 85 to 47 percent from 1957 to 1998 as growing Front Range cities bought agricultural water. If farmers make more by selling water allocations than by farming, then we’re not going to have many farmers in the future.

Conservation doesn’t have to be a scary. We don’t need to start issuing summons for lengthy showers. We could start with the simple fact that roughly half of municipal water deliveries in the summer are for landscape irrigation, specifically the very-thirsty Kentucky blue grass. We could plant native and drought-resistant plants instead. Inside our homes, there are plenty of opportunities to improve efficiency; a leaky toilet, for example, can waste 36,500 gallons of water per year.

Conservation can’t entirely address the needs of a booming population. But the conclusions drawn by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which practically side-step conservation altogether, are problematic. It’s troubling that their report will be used as a statewide planning tool.

Growth is going to happen and, going forward, we need to take a careful look at changing the incentive structure for water utilities and at revising outdated water rights laws, and take a critical look at our own water use and abuse.

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