Colorado agency releases blueprint for mapping state’s water future

A draft update to a statewide water plan projects significant supply shortfalls for both urban and agricultural users by 2050 in the face of climate change and more people.

The Colorado Water Plan is an update to a 2015 plan ordered by former Gov. John Hickenlooper. The plan has its roots in the summer of 2002, when the state was in drought and the 137,760-acre Hayman wildfire that erupted northwest of Colorado Springs was the largest on record.

Since then, Colorado’s climate has become warmer and drier and the state has experienced three wildfires bigger than Hayman. The draft water plan released last week by the Colorado Water Conservation Board includes a range of possible water futures, including one with a gap of 740,000 acre feet for municipal and industrial needs by 2050.

One acre foot of water is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough water to cover an acre of land 1 foot deep and roughly enough to supply two households annually.

Even with climate change and population growth, aggressive conservation measures and collaboration could close the municipal and industrial shortfall by about 300,000 acre feet, according to the plan.

Projections show farmers and ranchers could face a shortfall of 3.5 million acre feet of water by mid-century. On average, about 20% of the agriculture industry’s current demand for diversion of water for use isn’t met.

“We’re seeing it now. It’s warmer now. It’s going to be warmer. It has cascading impacts across the state,” said Russ Sands, the water supply planning section chief at the state conservation board.

Colorado’s average yearly temperature has increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 30 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The temperature is expected to warm by at least another 2.5 degrees by the middle of the century,

Colorado has had three of the top five driest years on record since 2000. Continued warm and drying will make parts of the state more arid, leading scientists to predict a 50% to 60% reduction in snow by 2080.

Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has experienced its driest period in 1,200 years. The Colorado River, fed by the state’s mountain snowpack, is one of several that start in Colorado and provide water to 20 states and Mexico.

Bigger populations are expected to continue to tax the region’s water supplies. The state demographer’s office forecasts that Colorado’s population of about 5.8 million will grow to 7.6 million by 2050.

Sands said the board’s objective with the updated water plan is to inform and educate the public about the challenges and risks in the face of climate change and population growth and the possible solutions and tools to deal with it. The draft plan includes such tools as public education, policy and regulatory changes, water storage, water efficiency and conservation, water-sharing agreements and stream and watershed restoration.

Kat Weismiller, the deputy chief of the water supply planning section, said the conservation board’s water plan grants were established in the wake of the 2015 document.

“We now have this as a tool to really let our stakeholders, people on the ground come in for grants to take action,” Weismiller said.

The grants have financed nearly $70 million in local projects. Sands said innovations and conservation measures and innovation are taking place at the local level because Colorado is a local-control state.

“The state doesn’t build projects. We help support them,” Sands said. “The water plan offers a blueprint or a bridge to action.”

Members of boards representing Colorado’s river basins have identified $20 billion-plus worth of projects. The legislature created nine roundtables to represent the state’s eight river basins and metro Denver. The roundtables and several state agencies were among the more than 1,200 stakeholders the board said it engaged while writing the draft.

The water conservation board is taking comments on the plan through Sept. 30. There is a Spanish version of the proposal.

Abby Burk was involved in the development of the 2015 water plan through her work as the Audubon Rockies’ Western Rivers Regional Program Manager.

“This is a very different plan. There’s far more of a bridge to action,” Burk said.

The plan discusses issues of water supply and conservation in terms of communities, agriculture, watersheds and resiliency, or the ability to adapt to conditions.  “Anyone can see themselves in any of those buckets of work and that to me is a real step forward in this draft update,” Burk said.

The board also made efforts to include more diverse stakeholders, she added.

Alex Funk, director of water resources for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said he is encouraged by the plan’s “whole of government approach.”

“We’ve got a number of state agencies beyond the water conservation board that are involved in various aspects of water resource challenges in the state. There’s been fits and starts to having the state agencies more coordinated on that, particularly on leveraging  funding,” said Funk, who previously was an agriculture water policy specialist with the state conservation board.

The first water plan didn’t really address the impacts of climate change on water supplies, Funk added. “A big focus of this update was to include climate change factors and how those are going to affect our water-supply demand gap.”

Funk, whose group represents hunters and anglers, said he appreciated the plan’s acknowledgement of the $19 billion annual economic contribution that water-related recreation makes to the state.

“But there aren’t a lot of details, action items, that identify how we address some of those changes facing the recreation industry in Colorado,” Funk said.

The outdoor recreation industry, particularly fishing guides, have been hit hard when hot weather results in river closures because of stress on the fish.

Funk said he also wants to see more emphasis on conservation and watershed restoration, what he called the low-hanging fruit, before turning to water-storage projects that could take several years to complete.

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