GUEST COMMENTARY | Gunnison Basin Contributes to State Water Plan Debate

In July, the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable completed a “Gunnison Basin Water Plan,” finishing a year of concentrated hard work. This basin plan went to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, along with eight other plans from other Colorado basin roundtables; and by the end of the year, a single consolidated Colorado Water Plan will emerge to shepherd the use of the state’s water resources out to 2050.

Exactly what this consolidated Colorado Water Plan will look like is not yet known. So fear fills the knowledge gap: metropolitan water users (~80 percent of the population) fear that the Plan will impose draconian conservation measures; East Slope farmers fear that it will either outright redirect their water to the cities or will hatch complex “water-sharing” schemes that will slowly erode their property in water; West Slope inhabitants fear that it will direct more water from our side of the mountains to Front Range cities.

Realistically, the Plan will probably fulfill all of those fears to some extent. The planning was initiated when Colorado’s water leaders realized that, by mid-century, Colorado will probably have another three to five million people, all needing water from a supply that is already stressed by people pressures. Most of the new people will congregate in Colorado’s Front Range cities.

How do we equitably distribute an already stressed but essential resource among maybe twice as many people – most of them concentrated in one water-short area? And since most of that resource is already being used to produce food – also something urban dwellers need – how do we share out the water without diminishing the food supply?

Complicating matters, all nine basins, except for Colorado’s small part of the North Platte River, have discovered that they themselves are likely to be short of water for their own anticipated population growth. But the four West Slope basins (Yampa-White, Colorado, Gunnison and San Juan-Dolores) and the Rio Grande basin found that through a combination of small water projects, conservation programs, and “willing seller” agricultural transfers, they should be able to resolve their communities’ projected shortages from within their own basins.

The two East Slope “natural” basins (South Platte and Arkansas) and the Metropolitan “Sink” (the non-basin encompassing Denver and its first and second ring of South Platte suburbs) found that they would need to find “new supply” from outside their basins. The annual metropolitan shortfall by mid-century is estimated at 200,000-600,000 acre-feet, depending on actual growth and the extent of conservation programs. An acre-foot of water serves roughly two homes (with yards) for a year under current usage.

All of the “natural” basins have also quantified agricultural shortages – the difference between the water available and the “ideal” amount of water that would maximize the productivity of their land; these shortages added up to two million acre-feet statewide. Some of that shortage could be reduced through irrigation infrastructure repair and efficiency and more small storage.

None of the eight natural basins has discovered a big pool of unused water to resolve the metropolitan gap. That will have to be addressed in the state plan.

Where will the “new” metro water come from? There is a tendency in the state’s rural areas to sing the old song: “It’s your misfortune and none of our own.” But that requires forgetting what we learned in 2006 when a December blizzard shut down the Front Range – and suddenly our supermarkets were out of food. Like it or not, we hinterlanders need the Front Range as much as the Front Range needs hinterland water.

It is unlikely that there will be a significant transmountain diversion from the Upper Gunnison Basin, especially since water rights were quantified for the Black Canyon National Park and downstream flow targets were set for recovering endangered fish. Still, every gallon of water that goes to the Front Range from any West Slope stream decreases our local options under the terms of the Colorado River Compact, which prevents us from holding onto water relied upon by downstream states.

The Gunnison Basin Water Plan addresses the statewide issue by stressing, first, the absence of any significant pool of water not already being used to the max within the basin; and second, the high risk and high cost of very junior transmountain diversions that would only get water in above-average water years.

The core of each basin plan is the list of projects for meeting its own needs and goals; the Gunnison Basin plan lists over 100. These will require some projects for physically moving water around, but the harder work will be moving our minds around to figure out how a twice as many people can reasonably and equitably share out an already mostly developed resource.

To see the Gunnison Basin Water Plan (or any other basin’s), go to www.coloradowaterplan.com, and click on “Community” in the top menu. There are tracks on that website for submitting your own input on the planning process – but you may also send it directly to Gunnison Basin Plan Chair Frank Kugel, fkugel@ugrwcd.org, or give this correspondent a call at 641-4340.

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Category: Community, Guest Commentary

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