Hickenlooper accepts water plan, downplays diversions

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Journalism
FILE - In this April 14, 2013 file photo, hikers make their way along the banks of the Colorado River near Willow Beach, Ariz. Nearly 4.6 trillion gallons of water flows out of Colorado's mountains every year, most of it going to 18 downstream states and Mexico. Colorado unveils the final version of its first-ever plan to manage that water on Nov. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, file)

After accepting Colorado’s first-ever water plan at a news conference in Denver on Thursday, Gov. John Hickenlooper downplayed the prospect of future transmountain diversions of water from the Western Slope to the Front Range.

“What comes through loud and clear again and again in that water plan is that there ought to be ways to make sure that we have sufficient water to satisfy the growth along the Front Range without diverting the water across the mountains,” Hickenlooper said.

The need for more water from Western Slope rivers to meet growing population needs between Fort Collins and Pueblo has dominated much of the discussion among various river basin roundtables in Colorado over the past two years as the water plan was developed.

There are more than 25 such transmountain diversions in place today in Colorado, including in the headwaters of the Colorado, Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers, and as much as 600,000 acre-feet can be moved east in a given year.

But a number of Front Range water providers wants to leave the option for more Western Slope water to meet their increasing demands, as they see the continued “buy and dry” of ag lands in eastern Colorado as the otherwise “default solution.”

“There is nothing in here that is trying to take someone’s private property or saying they can’t do this or can’t do that,” Hickenlooper said about potential future diversions. “But what we are trying to do is create a system where that is the last possible use and, in most cases, if we are successful in going through with this water plan, will not be necessary. We’ve addressed storage, conservation, you go down the list of all the approaches here, our goal from the very beginning was trying to make sure that where the water is, the water stays, but within the realm of the legal system that we operate in.”

The governor’s remarks seemed to please representatives from American Rivers and Western Slope Resources on Thursday, as tweets from them noting the governor’s take on diversions were quickly sent out.

Differing views

Thursday’s news conference came during a break in a regular meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is charged with managing the state’s water supply and whose staff has worked hard on developing the water plan, which was due on the governor’s desk by Dec. 10.

At the water board meeting after the news conference, Joe Stibrich, the water resources policy manager of Aurora Water, and a member of the Metro Basin roundtable, offered to board members a different take on the future than the governor.

He said the Metro roundtable, one of nine regional water-supply groups that meet under the auspices of the water board, was seeking “balanced solutions” that include conservation while “preserving the ability to use Colorado’s entitlement under the Colorado River Compact to the benefit of the entire state.”

That’s a reference to being able to use more Western Slope water on the Front Range.

And Joe Frank, chairman of the South Platte River Basin roundtable, told the board that members of the South Platte and Metro roundtables wanted to see “a balanced program to investigate, preserve and develop Colorado River supply options.”

“We truly believe that we need to solve our issues not just as a basin, not just as a Metro and South Platte Basin but collectively as a state,” Frank said. “We take an “all-of-the-above approach, including storage, which we believe holds all of the other solutions together.”

Now go to work

While the publication of the Colorado Water Plan clearly did not end the conversation about the possibility of moving more water to the Front Range, the plan does list eight primary goals, or “measurable outcomes,” that give something for every water professional in Colorado to work on.

“Now we all share the responsibilities of implementation,” Hickenlooper told the crowd of more than 100 people gathered on Thursday at History Colorado for the release of the plan.

The top goal is eliminating a projected 560,000 acre-foot gap between water supply and demand, and doing so in large measure by setting a goal of “400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water conservation by 2050.”

The plan also calls for the development of 400,000 acre-feet of water storage, saying “Colorado must also develop additional storage to meet growing needs and face the changing climate.”

Another goal, relating to land use, is that “by 2025, 75 percent of Coloradans will live in communities that have incorporated water-saving actions into land-use planning.”

The plan also includes an environmental goal to “cover 80 percent of the locally prioritized lists of rivers with stream management plans, and 80 percent of critical watersheds with watershed protection plans, all by 2030.”

And it seeks to “investigate options to raise additional revenue in the amount of $100 million annually” in order to help pay for new water projects.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado. More at


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