Talk of state’s water flows from interim committee

The Colorado Statesman

Colorado faces the loss of hundreds of thousands of agricultural lands due to a statewide “buy and dry” problem, but water advocates hope that a new statewide water plan will slow those losses to a trickle.

Last week, the legislative Interim Water Resources Review Committee met in Gunnison to discuss how that plan is taking shape. The committee’s meeting was held during the 38th annual Water Workshop, a three-day meeting on water resources, held annually at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison. The 10-member water resources committee is chaired by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, and includes legislators for whom water has been a long-standing passion, such as Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling; 2014 gubernatorial candidate Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray; and Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins.

For their first meeting in 2013, the committee looked at the governor’s executive order, water issues affecting the Gunnison River and agricultural water conservation measures.

In May, Governor John Hickenlooper issued an executive order that directs the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to develop a statewide water plan. It’s been on Hickenlooper’s mind since his gubernatorial campaign in 2010. He’s hinted at a need for a statewide water plan several times, most recently in his 2013 State of the State address.

The state’s Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and nine Basin Roundtable groups have been discussing ways to address long-term water needs since their formation in 2005, under legislation passed that year. In January 2011, the CWCB issued a report on their findings, the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, which examined consumptive and non-consumptive water needs, water availability, and the state’s water gap. The statewide water plan “will stand on the shoulders” of that work, Hickenlooper said in his 2013 address.

In his May executive order, Hickenlooper said the state “deserves a plan for its water future use that aligns the state’s many and varied water efforts and streamlines the regulatory processes.”

As directed by the order, the CWCB will work with grassroots water groups, the IBCC and the Basin Roundtables to address critical issues raised in the order.

That includes the gap between water supply and demand, estimated to reach 500,000 acre feet by 2050 and which could worsen because of statewide drought conditions. Of greatest concern is the South Platte Basin, which runs from just south of the Denver metro area throughout most of northeastern Colorado. It incorporates the South Platte River and tributaries such as Cherry Creek, Clear Creek, the Big Thompson River and the Cache La Poudre River near Fort Collins. The order points to an unacceptable rate of “buy and dry,” or buying up agricultural water rights to serve urban water needs. The order estimates such use could result in a loss of up to 20 percent of irrigated water rights in the South Platte Basin.

In addition, statewide water policy should concurrently address issues of water quality and quantity, and the state also must continue to be vigilant in protecting its interstate water rights.

The statewide plan is due in December 2014, and should be enacted one year later, the order states.

The interim committee discussed the plan with Mike King, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, and former Commissioner of Agriculture John Stulp, now the governor’s water policy advisor.

The governor is “adamant” about a statewide water plan, King said. Reflecting the water workshop’s theme of “the new normal,” King said the new normal in water policy is that it will be a source of constant change, which may be uncomfortable since people are sometimes resistant to change. “If we don’t develop a vision for the future in water,” the agriculture “buy and dry” will accelerate at an unacceptable rate. He noted that 350,000 agricultural acres in the Front Range are already under contract for their water rights.

Even if the state were to stop future “buy and dry” purchases, Stulp said, “we’d still lose 20 percent of irrigated lands.” The plans developed by the IBCC and Basin Roundtables are being updated, he said, to address drought and flood issues and projected population increases. If preserving agriculture is a priority, the statewide plan needs to look at conservation and whether there are new supply waters available to the state.

The 2011 report notes that the state has about 16 million acre-feet of renewable river water, but that two-thirds of it leaves the state through water compacts with other states. The state also relies on non-renewable groundwater resources, but that raises concerns for sustainability and reliability, the report said.

In addition, the state’s population is expected to double between now and 2050, and that will be cause a near doubling in the amount of water use and need, the report said. That will drive the continuing problem of “buy and dry,” according to the report, with a potential loss of between 500,000 and 700,000 acre feet of agricultural land, resulting in economic and environmental damage.

Next month, IBCC should complete some of its work on what Stulp called “no regret” issues, such as “buy and dry” and projects on storage and conservation. That includes innovative or nontraditional storage, options for new water supplies, and a “high level of conservation for all water users,” Stulp said.

“To do nothing, is a de facto ‘dry up’” of agriculture in Colorado, he added.

While the executive order calls the CWCB, IBCC, roundtables and state agencies to work on the statewide plan, it leaves out one important stakeholder: the Colorado General Assembly. That did not go unnoticed by the interim committee.

“What are we to read into executive order, [with] not a single mention of state legislature” in the order, asked Fischer. “What is our role in the process?”

King was quick to allay those concerns. “It’s obvious we can’t do anything without you,” although it is not articulated in the order, he said. “Your role is however you define it. We will engage you individually and collectively, whatever you choose, and will come back with reports to the interim committee… This is an open invitation for you to participate, which can be more formalized.”

King also noted several pieces of legislation that are important to the statewide plan, including House Bill 13-1248, which allows the CWCB to authorize up to three pilot programs for temporary leasing of agricultural water rights in four water basins, including the South Platte. The bill was sponsored by the interim committee as part of its 2013 agenda.

King added that once the plan is completed in 16 months, if legislative tweaks are needed, that will be an opportunity to work with key members of the interim committee.

Sonnenberg, who was unable to attend last week’s meeting, told The Colorado Statesman that storage has to be the highest priority for a statewide plan. He noted that in a two-year period, more than one million acre-feet of water in the South Platte left the state, over and above what is required by interstate compacts and decrees. “We have to keep Colorado water in Colorado,” he said. And the reason that water left the state? Farmers weren’t using it in wet years, and there was no place to store the excess. More storage would relieve pressure on the “buy and dry” movement, he added.

The committee will decide on its 2014 legislation during its fall meetings, scheduled to begin in September. Draft recommendations are due October 11, and final decisions will be made at the committee’s October 31 meeting.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com