Get Big Pivots


Like hard rains amid the Dust Bowl, Colorado has lots of water almost everywhere now amid long-term drought. That’s exactly the time to talk about what do as hotter and drier inevitably return.


by Allen Best

The Colorado Water Conservation Board chose an awkward time to conduct a drought summit, launching the two-day event on the last day of May at History Colorado in downtown Denver.

It was the fourth wettest month in Denver since 1876, before Colorado was a state, and June got off to a soggy start, too. This followed one of the snowiest winters in decades in some parts of Colorado. The only part of Colorado still in drought is in the state’s southeastern corner.

The somewhat awkward timing was noted by Anne Castle, of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and Environment at the University of Colorado Law School. “It’s perfect time to hold a drought summit,” she said with intended irony.

Like others, though, she doesn’t expect this wetness to last. Most of Colorado, including cities and farms east of the Continental Divide, depends upon water from the Colorado River and its tributaries, and it should be news to exactly no one that those who depend upon the largesse of that river have a serious re-reckoning underway. Too slow in some places, according to at several speakers at the conference.

Unlike last year, though, the heat is off. That is good, said Castle. “We can make better decisions when we’re not right in the midst of a crisis, as long as we recognize that one winter does not solve our long-term problems.”

That problem is not necessarily drought, although Colorado and Southwestern states clearly have seen less precipitation in the last 20-plus years. Droughts come and go, and this one in the Colorado River Basin is the worst in at least 1,200 years. Something more is happening here, what scientists call aridification. In aridification, it can snow just as much, but warmer temperatures draw more of the precipitation into the atmosphere. At least one study found that up to 50% of the declined flows in the Colorado River could be attributed to the warming now underway.

Aridification doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as drought, noted Russ Sands, section chief for water supply planning at the CWCB.

Make no mistake, though. Climate change, a subject approached gingerly 20 years ago by state water officials, has become part of the conversation. Consider Greeley.

The once-smallish city located at the  confluence of the Poudre and South Platte Rivers has grown to a population of more than 110,000 residents. That is almost certainly just the beginning.

Sean Chambers, director of water and utility services for Greeley, said the city expects to need to expand its water portfolio, currently at 35,000 acre-feet, to 80,000 acre-feet by 2080. “That does not get Greeley to build-out; it’s only half-way there,” he said.

The city gets about 40% of its water from the Colorado River Basin.

Chambers said Greeley is starting to integrate the impacts of climate change into its planning, among them pressures on reservoirs, different times of runoff, and more watershed disruptions.

“All of these risks and challenges on the water system driven by climate change come on top of managing for growth and uncertainties around supply,” he said.

As for its planning, Greeley hopes to keep ahead of hard pressures. Last year, the city gained access to an aquifer to the north of the city that it plans to manage in conjunctive fashion. It can be drawn upon when needed but also used as a storage vessel.

“It’s really difficult to innovate when your back is against the wall,” he said during a panel discussion under a heading of “storage, conservation and innovations.”

Peter Mayer, a Boulder-based consultant who has worked for 30-plus years in water demand management, said conservation has worked very well in Colorado, especially in urban sectors. “That is my specialty. We started in the late 1980s and 1990s and have seen a gradual decline in per-capita use across the state.”

Mayer argued that this has allowed Colorado’s population to grow in a way that has been much less expensive “Because conserved water is much, much cheaper generally than (developing) new supply.”

Greg Fisher, who supervises conservation efforts for Denver Water, talked about the major water reductions in its service territory since 2000, which has allowed Denver to better keep water in its reservoirs. “Conservation really works,” he said.

But there can be tensions within water agencies between programs to reduce water use and the revenue needed to pay for the infrastructure that has been installed, as described  by representatives for both Colorado Springs and Durango.

“Your leaders say (conservation) is first, but in the process of setting rates, you tend to find out it’s second or third,” said Jarrod Biggs, from the City of Durango.

“Every councilor wants to make sure that they are saving the last drop and doing what is right for the community and regional partners. When talk gets to dollars and cents, conservation ends up being somewhat important, but it does kind of fall down that list, particularly if you have a very noisy political constituency.”

Castle, from the University of Colorado, who had a law practice for much of her career, pointed out the need for getting land use right, to produce urban landscapes that are less water-intensive. “It’s really the initial configuration of development that is the primary factor that influences future water demand,” she said. We have land-use plans, master plans, comprehensive plans, subdivision improvement agreements. That is where you can deal with and incentivize water conservation and incorporate that into any new development plans.”

Municipal use represents only 7% of total water consumption in Colorado, said Mayer, compared to 91% for agriculture. “What is the agriculture sector doing?” he asked. He suggested the answers can be found with better measuring.

Taylor Hawes, who directs the Colorado River program for The Nature Conservancy with 26 years of experience, talked about the need to pick up the pace.

“We have lost 20% of the Colorado River supply since 2002,” she said. The pace of change must accelerate to correspond with the need. “The longer we wait, the harder it gets.”

Allen Best
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