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Paul Nitze: Fighting the right fight on water

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Massive early winter storms petered out in January and February, but we are still sitting on a healthy snowpack this year. Recent back-to-back storms that criss-crossed the state have assured we will finish the season with above-average snowpack. This should ease the minds of Colorado’s water managers for a time, but the respite will be brief.

We are a state that has always had water on the brain, and the tension between growth and water supply is on a perpetual one-way ratchet. Every year we see new or modified proposals to bring more water to the Front Range, sometimes from the Western Slope, sometimes from elsewhere. The proposal du jour, backed by a Colorado businessman named Aaron Million, is to build a 560-mile pipeline to draw water from the Green River system in Wyoming down to the Front Range and points farther south. We’re told that would supply a cool 250,000 acre feet of water per year to the Denver metro region.

The Army Corps of Engineers has just begun an environmental impact statement on that project, and even if approved, it’s years away from completion. As controversy about that project builds up steam, water warriors are already duking it out over Nestle’s plans to build a plant near Buena Vista that would drain 65 million gallons per year from the Arkansas River. Bottled water would then be shipped by truck to Denver for distribution.

One resident who showed up for a recent hearing claimed the project would “drain the blood” of Chaffee County and said Nestle could care less about ecological impacts on the Arkansas. The opposition seems to be having an effect, because Nestle has already signaled it may abandon the project, or move it elsewhere in the state. Whether they achieve victory or not, those who take the fight to projects like Nestle’s are in danger of winning the battle but losing the war.

Our attitude toward our water problems is schizophrenic. Someone comes up with a plan to divert water away from an existing use, battle lines are drawn, and the project either gets killed or pushed through despite opposition. Meanwhile, the real dangers to our water supply only continue to build largely unabated.

I’m not talking about macro-environmental factors like climate change. We can and must do our part to check carbon emissions, because higher temperatures are turning our rivers into creeks, but that is a global drama. I’m talking about the continuing battle over the Colorado River Compact, that 87-year-old chestnut of a treaty, and the battle between oil shale, farming, and urban development.

Flows on the Colorado will at best remain steady over the next two decades, and are likely to drop at least a bit. Despite a landmark agreement in 2007 between the Colorado River basin states to manage water usage during low-flow years, politicians from Arizona and Nevada are already making noise about renegotiating the compact to use unappropriated flows for themselves. If Front Range citizens think they have a dry future, they should talk to the citizens of Phoenix or Las Vegas.

With powerful political forces arrayed against Colorado, our first job will be to protect the water rights we do have under the compact. Those, by the way, do not provide nearly as much water for future development as some politicians might have us believe. Even a million additional people in the Front Range could send us over the edge on water supply. What once was a notion that we have a century of future development left in our water supply has been trimmed to a roughly a decade of growth (perhaps a bit more, given our economic straights).

Our next job is to ensure that we’re using our supply in a reasonably intelligent way. That means striking a balance between the Western Slope and perpetually insatiable Front Range. More importantly, it means putting the kibosh on crazy notions like letting oil companies develop oil shale projects via 7.2 million acre feet of water rights.

Exxon Mobil, Shell, and a half-dozen other oil companies have quietly purchased the rights to a massive amount of water. If they diverted all of that water to oil shale, Front Range taps would run at a drip. The rights accumulated by oil shale prospectors typically have priority over municipal water rights because of our state’s prior appropriation doctrine.

Inevitably, those companies will neither attempt nor be allowed to exercise all of those rights. Most still need to be perfected in court. But it begs the question, are we a state that is going to divert our water to industrial use or to farming and cities?

Colorado, and more specifically the Denver metroplex, can continue to be one of the most attractive places in the country to settle down, but not if we don’t manage our water supply intelligently. As for farming, it will continue to be scaled down, as other users pay more for water than farmers can make using the same water themselves. But if current trends hold, farming will make little economic sense across large swaths of the state.

We can continue to go from battle to battle, picking the project of the moment to oppose on environmental grounds (or support, if you are in charge of securing water for your municipality). But to do so is myopic. Projects like the one recently proposed by Nestle on the Arkansas make good headlines but have only the slightest effect on our water future.


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