Nearing bottom of its water barrel, Colorado changes the conversation
by Allen Best
In 1893, after reviewing census records of settlement in the West three years prior, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the frontier closed. In Colorado, the new State Water Plan says much the same thing about the water frontier.
After almost 150 years of yoking its rivers with dams, canals and other water infrastructures, the state is substantially out of raw water to develop. If Colorado doesn’t have an empty water bucket, it can at see the bottom.
This might seem odd, given that Colorado is located at the crest of the continent. No state has a higher mean elevation than Colorado, 6,800 feet. Snowmelt from the silvery peaks make it the mother lode of rivers: the Arkansas, the Rio Grande, and the Platte, among others, plus the namesake Colorado, all of them slashing down through canyons of black gneiss and red sandstone toward gentle plains and scorching deserts.
Interstate compacts mandate two-thirds be allowed to flow downstream to Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico, and also Nevada, Arizona and California. Of what Colorado can legally keep, farmers claim the vast majority, about 85 percent, with the balance going to cities and industry.
But the compelling water statistic is told in acre-feet. One is needed every year for two single-family households. Of the 13.7 million acre-feet that originate in Colorado, only an estimated 150,000 acre-feet remain for development. Even that figure is suspect, because it assumes the climate of the 20th century. That’s a risky assumption, given what we now know about the impact of warming temperatures in the Southwest.
Still, the old ways die hard. One idea calls for Colorado to develop that final share of the Colorado River by building a $5 billion pipeline to divert water 400 miles from the state’s northwest corner to the rapidly growing cities at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
This latter idea provokes Colorado’s traditional antagonisms about transmountain diversions. Some 80 percent of water originates west of the Continental Divide, such as near the resorts of Aspen and Vail, while 89 percent of residents live east of the divide, mostly in the Front Range urban corridor. The imbalance is addressed—and created—by the 25 tunnels, canals and ditches that altogether export 450,000 to 600,000 acre-feet per year from the Pacific Ocean side of the mountains eastward to the Great Plains.
While the state plan does envision new reservoirs, to store flood waters, it also emphasizes a new frontier of sharing. For decades, Colorado’s cities have been tapping agriculture water. Many farmers have been only too happy to sell their farms – and water, too, a practice called buy and dry. But Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, at the plan’s adoption in late November, made it clear that this is unacceptable. “It’s in the self-interest of everyone in this state that we don’t dry up the state’s agricultural counties,” he said in introducing the new state plan. But Colorado needs to figure out ways to keep farms even as Colorado’s current population, 5.3 million, to expand to 9 or 10 million by mid-century. The new plan doesn’t spell out how this water can be shared. Innovation—technological and legal—will be needed.
Another new frontier of water will be conservation. The plan identifies a goal of wringing 400,00 acre-feet per year of savings without sacrificing uses. That’s about as much as the natural flow of the South Platte River. Just talking about limiting the length of showers misses the point, said Hickenlooper. Conservation is a broader and deeper ambition. Many argue for a new cultural norm about what constitutes an aesthetically pleasing urban and suburban landscape.
Denver has been leading the way. Just a few decades ago the city’s water agency was reviled as both gluttonous and imperious, prompting a bumper sticker that said: “Damn the Denver Water Board.” But in recent years, it has been leading the way in conservation, with a 20 percent per capita reduction in water consumption in the last decade. “And we can do more,” says Jim Lochhead, the agency’s chief executive, without sacrificing quality of life.
Colorado’s new ambitions should be viewed within the context of the seven states of the Southwest that share the Colorado River. Surpluses during the 1990s dissolved as drought left bathtub rings on the river’s two giant reservoirs, Mead and Powell. Now, even after good snow years in the headwaters, water levels in Mead continue to fall, now to 35 percent of capacity, the lowest since the 1930s, soon after Hoover Dam was completed in 1935.
Some predict even further declines as temperatures rise and population demands increase. Calculating the odds, Las Vegas bet on a new tunnel, its third into Mead, the city’s major source of water. The new tunnel, which was completed in September at a cost of $817 million, bores to the very bottom of the reservoir—just in case the reservoir empties altogether.
Water laws and infrastructure in Colorado and other Western states were created to share abundance. “Today that pendulum has swung to how ‘do you manage shortages for all?’ That’s a big difference,” says Russell George, a former state legislator in Colorado who is credited by many as the father of his state’s new plan. “So what we have to do now is sort of reinvent the total decision-making methodology based on scarcity.”
That’s a different conversation from the past, when the major argument was always that prosperity depended upon developing water and other natural resources. But with the water barrel empty, it’s time for a new conversation. In Colorado, the conversation has already begun.
Allen Best writes about energy and water issues from a base in Colorado.