Guest Column: A Colorado Water Plan for the future
By now, we all recognize that our arid state depends on what little water Mother Nature provides and on the wise management of this increasingly scarce resource. As state leaders plot a new course through the Colorado state water plan, we see a few bright spots and some real causes for concern, particularly for Western Slope communities and the state’s vibrant recreational economy.
First, the good news: A conceptual agreement among all seven Colorado river basins is looking good, and it will effectively make any potential construction of major new trans-mountain diversions more rooted in reality. That’s the only sane course of action, because we know the Western Slope and our downstream neighbors do not have another drop of water to spare for Front Range cities. Those cities can and should get more serious about conservation and water recycling. We’re hopeful that this conceptual agreement will hold for the final water plan, to be released in later this year.
Now for the challenges. We all know that Colorado depends on the recreation economy. For the Colorado River basin alone, it’s a $9 billion per year economic engine for our state. That means any water planning should include whatever it takes to keep our rivers at healthy flows. We have the knowledge and data about the amount of water that needs to stay in rivers. Those data aren’t currently integrated into the state plan, and they should be.
Beyond that, it’s way past time for a more visionary approach to water management. For centuries, we’ve been pumping water out of rivers, hitting shortages and only then waking up to the reality of water conservation. That’s so 19th century!
The new state plan is a major opportunity to set a new strategy in play: one that prioritizes innovative conservation at every level and in every sector. We’re already in shortage and we’re going to be for the indefinite future. We cannot dam or pipe our way out of this one, unless you believe we can afford to pump water from the Missouri River!
The challenge for Colorado is to deal with reality and start aggressively pursuing the most cost-effective and least environmentally destructive water solutions. These solutions are within reach. But implementing them will require pushing back on Front Range water hogs that continue to turn our beautiful high plains into Kentucky Bluegrass and super-thirsty residential developments.
But that time has passed. Just one example of the ingenious alternatives already available: the American Society of Golf Course Architects spoke recently to the Western Governors Association on using recycled water rather than municipal water for irrigation. That kind of innovation can reduce demands from our rivers and is a no-brainer, as are incentives, turf-grass replacement programs and data-driven approaches to preserving healthy flows on our rivers. Getting from here to there will require political will and investment, which is what we must demand of our state leaders.
Visionary thinking can be the centerpiece of the state water plan; we have nine months to help Gov. John Hicklenlooper and the Colorado State Water Conservation Board see it that way, too.
Nathan Fey is Colorado Stewardship Director of American Whitewater and a sixth generation Coloradan.
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