By Allen Best
BERTHOUD, Colo. – Russ George spoke with the pride of a new father, and in a sense he was. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, of which George is a member, had just heard comments on the statewide water plan.
Several speakers called for improvements. Conservation goals could be more ambitious. The effect of transmountain diversions on Colorado’s ability to comply with the Colorado River Compact could be spelled out better. Assessments of streams need to be planned to serve as baselines.
But most speakers stressed that by and large they were happy with the document, at least in its draft form, that was assembled in response to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s executive order of May 2013.
Board members themselves had relatively few comments. George, a former state legislator and state department head, then spoke. “What we have in front of us today is exactly what was conceived in 2003,” he said.
Colorado was trying to catch it breath after the severe drought of 2002 that had at least one municipal water manager wondering about the need to start rationing water for indoor use. A giant up-slope storm in March 2003 took the edge off Front Range communities. But snowpack in the Colorado River Basin, the source of 80 percent of Colorado’s water, weren’t much better for the next couple of years.
In September 2004, at a conference in Grand Junction, George laid out a vision of roundtables representing major river basin of the state, to begin dialogue about the state’s water future. A former water lawyer from the Western Slope, he was then the director of the Department of Natural Resources. In his remarks in Berthoud, he did not attempt to take personal credit for the idea.
In 2005, the Legislature approved the idea in H.B. 1177. And, as George recalled in his comments on Wednesday, basin roundtables have been meeting every since, sometimes several times a month. The state has been knitted together in ways it had not been, he said, and the dialogue has yielded the plan.
“We have done what we were asked to do,” he said, and moments later moved to accept the draft plan, with the intention of submitting it to Hickenlooper by Dec. 10, the governor’s deadline. The CWCB, Colorado’s leading water policy-making board, approved the motion without dissent or further comment.
Have water arguments ended in Colorado? Hardly. The issue of new transmountain diversions remains volatile.
“Western Colorado has no more water to give,” declared Mike Samson, a Garfield County commissioner. Additional diversions will mean “the quality of life will suffer greatly,” he added.
Information in state planning about effects on recreation and the environment “needs to catch up” with other parts of the planning process, said Kathy Chandler-Henry, an Eagle County commissioner.
Drew Beckwith, with Western Resource Advocates, cautiously criticized the draft plan as having conservation goals that really reflect nothing more than gains already being made.
He did, however, concede the possibility of “small” additional transmountain diversions but rejected any possibility of “large” transmountain diversions.
And what is small and large, he was asked.
“Small” would be 20,000 acre-feet of annual diversions, but 75,000 acre-feet would definitely be large—perhaps scooping up the last of Colorado’s allocation of the Colorado River, he responded.
The issue of new transmountain diversions has been sensitive. For many months, Eastern Slope representatives at the Interbasin Compact Committee, a kind of supergroup of the various basin roundtables, insisted upon calling transmountain diversions “new supply.”
At another meeting of the IBCC in February, there was a comical moment when an understanding of Colorado’s limits on water was acknowledged. One member urged secrecy for the time being, so as not to upset the grassroots constituents who apparently want to believe in endless additional amounts of water.
And, of course, the discussions have become an alphabet soup. One easy example: TMD. (Transmountain diversions).
Assuming that Hickenlooper stays the course with his directive, it’s now up to the staff of the Colorado Water Conservation Board to fill in the gaps in this alphabet soup and polish what it already has. The talking is far from over. Hickenlooper’s deadline for the final production is December 2015.