Agriculture uses the vast majority of water in Colorado, but its cities depend upon Colorado River diversions. That just might be a problem. Some solutions?
by Allen Best
Let me give you a precise example of what we’re talking about. An infill housing development took shape a couple of years ago near the Arvada High School in metropolitan Denver.
My midnight walks—it’s safer to walk then—often take me up that hill above the baseball diamond where grass was planted next to a row of mini-mansions. Rarely, if ever, will anybody set foot on that basketball court-sized plot of grass save to mow it.
Why was the turf planted? Likely because that’s the way it was always done. What I know with greater certainty is that roughly 75% of the water for this municipality comes from tributaries of the Colorado River. And I also know that these water rights—Arvada gets water from Denver Water—are junior to the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Water did not begin flowing through the Moffat Tunnel until 1936.
Huffing up the hill past this ornamental turf, I ask myself, “Don’t they know that adding turf in metro Denver or, for that matter, Grand Junction, during this time of rapid climate change is deeply problematic? Doesn’t this qualify as either terribly ignorant or, just perhaps, arrogant?”
In Colorado, we’ve resumed our conversation about how we use water and, more broadly, the type of development we want to see. Gov. Jared Polis made housing a central portion of his state-of-the-state address in early January—and he cycled around again and again to frame it within an ecosystem of impacts and goals, including water. He mentioned water 24 times in his address:
“Let me be clear – housing policy is climate policy.
Housing policy is economic policy.
Housing policy is transportation policy.
Housing policy is water policy.”
On Jan. 26, in an address to the Colorado Water Congress, Polis made it a little more clear what he has in mind. He called for a “comprehensive approach to housing to preserve our water resources.” He cited multiple benefits for revised land-use policies: reduced traffic, saved money for consumers and – most important, he added, it “limits demand on water resources.”
Polis said the Colorado Water Conservation Board will lead a study on integrating land use and water demand.
This 21-member Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force is to include representatives from 8 water utilities, 2 conservation districts, 2 environmental NGOs, with the balance to come from areas of expertise and interests such as stormwater, equity, and urban planning.
Looming over the three-day Water Congress conference was the future of the Colorado River. Attorney General Phil Weiser and Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, both spoke from the same script. They said Colorado has kept within its limits as specified by the compact. The problems of the Colorado River are due very fundamentally to overuse by the lower-basin states, particularly California.
“Denial is not just a river in Egypt,” Weiser said.
Mitchell reported that Colorado and the three other upper-basin states in 2020 used altogether 3.5 million acre-feet compared to the 7.5 million acre-feet Colorado River Compact apportionment. The lower-basin states used on the order of 10 million acre-feet. The upper basin states live within what the climate delivers, she said, while the lower-basin states have lived beyond their means, steadily draining the federal reservoirs, both big and small. “They must do something, they must do it now,” Mitchell said.
On Jan. 30, an agreement was announced among six of the seven states – California was the hold-out. It didn’t impress many people.
“Let’s cut the crap,” Brad Udall, who has emerged in the last decade as one of the most insightful observers of the Colorado River, told The Denver Post. “We don’t have elevation to give away right now,” a reference to elevations of the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell.
Sounds simple enough. We wear the white hats. Yet Eric Kuhn, a former long-time manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said it’s not really that simple. He’s parsed the agreements at length in a book he co-authored called “Science Be Dammed,” a history of the Colorado River Compact, as well as various other papers and studies.
Kuhn said it’s not a given that Colorado municipal water providers—most of whom have water rights junior to the Colorado River Compact—will always be able to access the Colorado River and its tributaries. And having no water is not an option.
“Curtailment of those junior users is not acceptable at any time in the future,” said Kuhn.
But the only logical place for growing towns and cities to expand their water portfolios is from water users with senior appropriations, namely agriculture.
Kuhn and Jennifer Gimbel, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board from 2008 to 2013, in November completed a report commissioned by the Common Sense Institute. It’s called “Adapting Colorado’s Water Systems for a 21st Century Economy and Water Supply.”
When we spoke several days after the water conference, Gimbel reminded me that it was written for a business audience understanding that it needed to include the water community. “It was our opportunity to tell the business community ‘pay attention, because what happens with water is going to affect our economy one way or another.’”
This is from Big Pivots 67, a reader-supported e-journal covering climate change and the resulting energy and water transitions in Colorado.
Useful to this understanding is the Common Sense Institute’s mission statement:
“Common Sense Institute is a non-partisan research organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of Colorado’s economy. CSI is at the forefront of important discussions concerning the future of free enterprise in Colorado and aims to have an impact on the issues that matter most to Coloradans.”
The report cites the need for demand-mitigation measures such as removing non-functional turf in new development. They cite the examples of Sterling Ranch, a tiny project in Douglas County where the developers, because they had little water, were forced to figure out how to minimize water use. They also cite Aurora, which last year adopted regulations that dramatically ratchet down water for new development.
They say this must become more common as Colorado’s population grows.
“Lacking statewide or regional standards, home developers are free to choose cities with less strict conservation standards,” they wrote. “Regional approaches are needed.”
They suggest regional conservancy and conservation districts might be a vehicle in lieu of statewide standards. They also cite WISE, the project in metro Denver and several of its suburban water providers, particularly those on the south side.
The report, if broad-ranging and data-rich, also has a vagueness to it on this point. Gimbel says that lack of specificity was intentional. “The idea of demand-management measures in the report was left vague for a reason,” she says. “We purposefully did not develop it more, to allow discussion already taking place to maybe morph into broad action.”
“We have to do more with less,” said Kuhn. He cited projected population growth of 1.6 to 1.8 million new residents by 2050, most along the Front Range, but also the probability that the warming climate will make less water available, particularly from the Colorado River.
At several times during their Water Congress presentation, Gimbel and Kuhn acknowledged that state-wide standards would be an uphill struggle. In Colorado, towns, cities, and counties have traditionally called their own shots on land use and other development questions.
This is starting to shift, though. It is clear in Colorado’s agenda on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But even here, there’s a balancing act. Legislators—with the consent of Polis—have told the investor-owned utilities they must meet carbon reduction goals. They have delivered the same mandate to Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which operates in ways that somewhat resemble those of Xcel.
But legislators left alone the municipal providers and the independent electrical cooperatives, instead choosing to persuade. It always helps, though, when the market is marching at a fast pace in the same direction.
In what I see as a direct parallel, the state recently has started to apply pressure to local jurisdictions to get ready for electrification in their building codes. There’s some wiggle room for local jurisdictions, but it’s not the free-for-all of yesteryear. Climate change forces a more urgent focus on issues we would have faced anyway but for other reasons.
Colorado has been having this water conversation for a while. In 2014, Ellen Roberts, then a state senator from Durango, and Don Coram, then a state representative from Montrose, introduced a conservation bill called “Limit Use of Ag Water for Lawn Irrigation.”
Local governments didn’t want the state stepping in. And there was pushback from the ag sector. “If it’s water intensive, are you going to tell us that we can’t grow that?” one agriculture sector representative responded.
In the end, the bill became a study bill, the idea directed to an interim committee for further study. That, notes Roberts, is where bills commonly get sent to die. In this case, though, the conversation continued—and that was what she had intended all along.
“My concern was that if we waited for that to happen naturally, it might never happen or it would be so slow that it would have no meaningful impact,” she says.
If the proposal was watered down, so to speak, even some legislators from the Western Slope who might not vote for it were “appreciative that somebody was willing to walk the plank on the topic.” In Durango itself, support ranged from those on the far left to those on the far right of the political spectrum.
The same issues that Roberts encountered are still very much alive.
Aurora, if lately a shining light for advocates of demand-management policies, harbors skepticism of mandates. “Aurora must retain control of what our city looks like,” says Greg Baker, the city’s spokesman. Guidelines could be acceptable—and smaller water municipalities could very well use help in delivering incentives.
This said, Aurora is open to discussion “and it needs to be a proportional discussion,” says Baker. “We don’t want to tell agriculture how to use their water, but they account for 85% of water use in this state.”
On Jan. 31, in a legislative forum sponsored by Empower our Future, a Boulder County energy-focused organization, I asked State Sen. Fenberg, the Senate president, if the legislative broad brushes to advance the Polis land-use agenda could be described. He didn’t deliver specifics, but he did a good job of describing the dynamics of what he called a “third-rail issue.”
“It will come down to what things should stay at the local level and I think the vast majority will remain at the local level.” That said, he continued, the question remains of how we go about this in ways to advance Colorado’s other goals.
More issues have become statewide in nature. More state funding has been advanced for funding to expand housing. Water use is associated with housing, so the state has a connected interest, he suggested.
“Because of that, I think people have started asking more questions. If it is a state problem, shouldn’t the state be more involved in either solving the problem or stopping the problem from getting worse?”
It will be, he concluded, a “tough conversation.” Laws governing water move slowly, and speakers at the Water Congress repeatedly said it is wise to move cautiously. Can the rapidly changing water story in the Colorado River Basin and the changing climate that is producing the crisis abide caution?
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