As director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, James Eklund has the unenviable task of overseeing the first comprehensive water plan in the state’s history. But in a place where water is scarce—and is a private property right that sometimes goes back generations—can a blueprint for how to use our most valuable resource actually work?
On summer mornings, young James Eklund would often wake before dawn. When daylight was just a suggestion on the horizon, the eight-year-old rode with the cattle from his family’s Flying Triangle Ranch to higher pastures in the mountains. Occasionally he would accompany his grandfather, Edwin Gunderson Jr., on the walk from the house to the irrigation ditch to bring water to the fields. He’d help his uncles fix fences, clean the ditch, and move cows on the Mesa County ranch near Collbran. These were the moments when Eklund first learned about water, the life-giving force, an inalienable right, and a critical ingredient to the business that sustained his family. He learned the water that flowed through the head gates from Plateau Creek was theirs to use because they had been in the area long before others upstream—ever since his great-great-grandfather arrived from Norway and homesteaded the land in 1888.
Gunderson believed ranchers were the original environmentalists. They cared for and made good use of the water, and no one should mess with that right—not the neighbors, not the town, and certainly not the state government. No one. To Gunderson, water was personal.
Three decades later, James Eklund, 39, resembles his grandfather—long-legged with a five o’clock shadow, neatly combed hair, and a pronounced brow—but he sits on the other side of the state, in a government office in Denver. His ranch-bred body seems restless, confined by these four white walls, despite the seventh-floor views that overlook south Denver, the giant cloudless sky, and, on a good day, the Rampart Range. But he has a mission, and it’s something he believes in—something that has made some of his family members anxious and that his grandfather would have looked upon with caution. Eklund is the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB),1 one of the state agencies that oversee water management and finance projects such as dams and stream-restoration programs, and he is in charge of overseeing Colorado’s first statewide water plan.
James Eklund and his father on Flying Triangle Ranch, circa 1980. —Courtesy of James Eklund
On a bright Friday morning in September, Eklund is dressed in a gray suit and a pink shirt to deliver his pitch to the men and women of the Public Affairs Council of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, across town from his office. He’s traveled around the state to give this stump speech—a slick, animated presentation studded with personal asides and jokes—dozens of times, and his argument boils down to this: If we keep doing things the way we’ve done them for the past 100 years, we will be in trouble. Colorado’s water supply is becoming more unpredictable and will likely diminish. We are at the tail end of the driest 14-year period since record-keeping began more than a century ago, and, looking at tree-ring studies, one of the worst 14-year periods in some 1,200 years. “We’ve seen drought,” Eklund says. “But what we have not seen is this sustained and systemic drought.” We also haven’t seen the flooding, like the torrents that swept through northern Colorado last year.
At the same time, the state is warming up. The average temperature has risen two degrees over the past three decades. And by 2050, it’s projected to rise another two-and-a-half to five degrees. It also means that more of our precipitation is falling in the form of rain, reducing the largest and most important reservoir in the state: the snowpack.
Colorado must contend not only with the vicissitudes of nature but also legal constraints. We are the biggest headwaters state in the nation, but two-thirds of our water flows right past our borders to supply nine states and Mexico, thanks to nine interstate compacts, two equitable apportionment decrees, and one international treaty. 2, 3
Meanwhile the population is projected to nearly double by 2050, and most of that growth will bloom on the Front Range, the drier side of the state. As a result, in the next 10 to 20 years, the lines of supply and demand will likely cross, and by 2050, the state forecasts a gap topping 500,000 acre-feet4 of water, leaving as many as 2.5 million people without sufficient water.
“We’re going to see that there’s just not enough water for the things everybody wants at the same time,” Eklund says. “Rather than pin our hopes on pipelines from the Mississippi River or icebergs being towed down from Alaska or these pie-in-the-sky schemes, we need to be solving our own problems with our own water.”
Colorado is the last state in the West, aside from Arizona, to develop a comprehensive water plan, but it is not for lack of effort. In the 1970s, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources partially drafted a plan—which was ignored. The reason, as many longtime Coloradans will tell you, is that we don’t need a water plan. Colorado has a time-tested system for managing water, a precious and relatively scarce resource across the arid West: the Doctrine of Prior Appropriations,5 a set of laws that allow those first in line the first rights to use water. It also establishes water as a private property right and puts the power in the hands of individuals—which is why no one in the Centennial State wants a bureaucrat with a fancy title and a rubber stamp telling them what to do with their property.
The problem, Eklund says, is the current system acts too slowly for the speed at which these unprecedented challenges may unfold, and the solutions, when implemented without an overarching strategy, can result in ugly consequences. One “fix” has been dubbed “buy-and-dry” by water managers (see “High & Dry,” page 108). As towns and cities grow, their water utilities and developers purchase water rights from farmers and ranchers in other parts of the state. In turn, farmers move away or retire and fields dry up, causing green landscapes to atrophy into dusty wastelands and communities to wither.
Another solution is to build new dams, reservoirs, and pipelines to catch more water from rivers and cart it to where it is needed. These projects, however, are often controversial because they can have grave environmental consequences—drying up rivers, killing riparian areas and fish, and decimating recreational opportunities.
A third option is promoting conservation measures, which can free up supplies of water, but it takes time and money to convince people to do things like rip out their lawns in favor of xeriscaping. (And municipalities say that their energies are better focused elsewhere.) Water-recycling and reuse technologies are emerging, but they’re nascent, expensive, and often ill-understood by the public, which doesn’t want to drink recycled toilet water, even if it’s purer than Dasani.
A year and a half ago, Governor John Hickenlooper issued an executive order to address the issue. He believed that if Colorado wanted a future that included both readily available water in our taps and the things we cherish as Coloradans, like healthy trout streams, white water, and locally grown food, we would need a statewide strategy to guide local decision-making. In May 2013, he directed the CWCB to oversee the first state water plan. But instead of assembling a dozen academics in a room, the order calls for something different, something no other state has done: tackling the issue using a grassroots approach that asks representative committees in each of the state’s eight river basins, plus the Denver metropolitan area, to assemble comprehensive reports on their needs, their gaps, and proposed solutions.
Using these and other resources, the CWCB is putting together a first draft, which it will deliver to the governor’s desk by December 10. (The administration says the post-election deadline was intended to depoliticize the plan.) A final draft is slated for no later than December 2015. The idea is to foster human collaboration and innovation on a scale never seen before in Colorado, while not disrupting the current system of private property rights. The hope is to use the power of thousands of minds to create a road map to solve the defining problem of both the state’s history and the state’s future.
The reason Coloradans have fought over water for so long is, quite simply, because water matters to everyone and everything. Beyond the laws, court-case decisions, opinions, and politics that can make understanding the landscape of water mind-bogglingly complicated—and occasionally soporific—there is one truth that pretty much everyone can agree on: It’s personal.
And yet, most of us don’t often think about how personal water is. It is the current running through every aspect of our lives. It’s used not only to quench our thirsts and wash our dishes and cleanse our bodies and grow the food we eat (86 percent of the state’s water is used for agriculture), but it’s also integral to fabricating the cotton shirts we wear and the steel beams that hold up our buildings and extracting the energy that allows us to keep the lights on at night. Without adequate water, the state will have trouble attracting tourists, new residents, and employers. Even more fundamentally, without water, we can’t sustain the landscapes—orchards, pastures, peaks, forests, trout streams—that have come to define our collective identity. And the thing about water: We cannot make more of it. All of the water that ever was or will be is here on the planet right now.
For James Eklund, water is personal, too. It’s what fed the Palisade peaches (see “Fruits Of Their Labor,” page 96) he grew up eating and what sustained the cattle he grew up wrangling. It’s what fills the streams he loves to fish and blankets the slopes he loves to ski. It’s also what stocks the community pool where he swims and feeds the grass fields where he plays catch with his wife and three young children.
But over the years, Eklund’s thinking on water has changed, and the way in which it changed is exactly how he believes the thinking must change statewide. When Eklund was a kid, his grandfather taught him that if you weren’t for the Doctrine of Prior Appropriations, you were against ranchers like him and the culture of rugged individualism that supports water as a private property right. “I grew up thinking, Either you’re for us or you’re against us—that’s how my grandfather was raised,” Eklund says. “And it’s just not true.”
Eklund studied political science at Stanford University, but his thoughts on water began to crystallize when, after law school at the University of Denver, he worked at a commercial litigation firm in the city.
At the time, Eklund was disillusioned with his job. Growing up as the son of civic-minded schoolteachers, he had devoured history books and biographies of civil rights leaders. In college he envisioned himself working somewhere like the Southern Poverty Law Center, moving the needle on issues of inequality. He wasn’t sure he was cut out to toil away simply for a handsome paycheck, so in 2002, he decided to volunteer for Ken Salazar’s re-election campaign for state attorney general. Eklund wound up working as his driver, steering Salazar to events all over the state. At the time, cellphones weren’t in widespread use; hour after hour, Salazar, a charismatic Coloradan, chatted with Eklund.
“He was the real deal,” Eklund says. “He talked about ranching and farming and Colorado’s water picture in a more articulate way than I’d ever heard any Democrat talk about it before.” He began to wonder if it wasn’t, as his grandfather had believed, that you were for the prior appropriations system or you favored a government takeover. Salazar believed there might be another way: You could use the free-market system to provide water and protections for the environment as well as recreational and municipal interests. (Salazar served as state attorney general between 1999 and 2004, as U.S. senator from 2005 to 2009, and as U.S. secretary of the interior from 2009 to 2013.) Eklund realized that his views aligned with Salazar’s—after all, there were already plenty of farmers and ranchers who donated or sold their private consumptive water rights as instream flows,6 which keep rivers robust and healthy. Perhaps, Eklund thought, we are all, more or less, on the same team—we just don’t know it.
This idea, of course, prompts a lot of Coloradans to roll their eyes, partly because the populace is so used to a climate of competition when it comes to water. But like many other conflicts around the world, it took a while to get here. And in order to understand how we got to this state of affairs, it’s important to understand how it all began.
Because it is scarce and unpredictable, water has always been a contentious issue7 in Colorado. We live in a state of beautiful and inconvenient extremes, with topography spanning canyons and mesas, 14,000-foot peaks, and high, dry prairies. Rainfall ranges from seven inches annually in the San Luis Valley to 60 inches per year in the mountains, and drought and floods can hit different parts of the state in the same year.
In the 19th century, settlers from the East were astonished to find rivers here that would rage with spring snowmelt, then capriciously change course and all but vanish in the late summer. They quickly found a way to harness this critical resource by digging ditches that carried water as far as 20 miles from streams to fields. As the gold rush boomed in the 1860s, farmers used irrigation to transform valleys along the Front Range from golden, semiarid grasslands to seas of green. By the late 1860s, the value of Colorado’s produce nearly equaled that of the gold and silver streaming out of the mountains. Without these ditches and water-catchment systems, urban centers like Denver would never have thrived.
Early residents had begun to fight over water, and who had the right to use it, by the 1870s. A grassroots system emerged, giving priority to those who had arrived first.
In the first half of the 20th century, dam and reservoir construction flourished. Along with canals, this created a complex web by which water still travels from where it is available to where (and when) humans need it most. These engineering marvels allowed Denver to prosper, but they’re also what contributed to a conundrum that hasn’t been resolved to this day: Because more than two-thirds of Colorado’s water lies on the Western Slope and the population on the Eastern Slope consumes 70 percent of the state’s water, some 12 major transmountain diversions ship water from western rivers via canals and tunnels through the mountains to Denver, other Front Range cities, and agricultural sites. If you fill up a glass of water from a Denver tap, half of it came from the other side of the Continental Divide, and Western Slope residents are not particularly happy about the prospect of losing more of their water as cities east of the Continental Divide grow.
In some other states, water issues—such as transferring, changing, or disputing the amount of water a person or entity can take from a river—are settled centrally by a state-run permitting system. Here, however, water is a private property right,8 and disputes are settled in a system of seven regional water courts, the only such system in the nation. One consequence is a lot of litigation (though 95 percent of cases are settled out of court) and the highest number of water lawyers per capita in the country. It’s also a system that has been able to flex and adapt as the issues around water have changed. But because decisions are made on a piecemeal basis, no overarching vision for the state guides them.
The scarcity of water has resulted in tension among varied groups, from environmentalists fighting municipalities over the construction of big dams to ranchers fighting other ranchers over the nitty-gritty of their water usage. It also means that if you don’t have a water right, you’re left out of the conversation. For many years, what happened to water in this state was decided by a select few, who are known as water buffaloes.9
In 2002, however, that began to change—and those changes set the groundwork for what the governor, Eklund, and the CWCB are now trying to do. During that year, a crippling drought struck the state, causing massive crop die-offs, wildfires, and water shortages. It was so bad that wells ran dry on ranches near Colorado Springs and residents were forced to haul water in jugs and tanks to their homes. Water providers realized that if they didn’t start changing the way in which water was managed, they would be facing a very real disaster scenario like those that have played out in other states such as California and Nevada.
Three years after the ’02 drought, the state Legislature enacted a bill, the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, that set up committees in regions across the state, now known as basin roundtables,10 in order to identify water needs11 and propose ways to fulfill them. The act also established the first Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC),12 a representative forum charged with developing guidelines for water negotiations between basins.
These measures were groundbreaking because they set up a system in which people with different opinions13 could come together to discuss water. It may sound self-evident, but when antagonizing parties actually get to know each other, face-to-face, things change. Over the past nine years, water managers across the state have noticed a shift from the old adage that once summed up the discussion on water—“whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting”—into a climate that is at least slightly more congenial.
“I can tell you that over the past nine years, the relationships have improved incredibly,” says Michelle Pierce, chair of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable. “There are still some folks out there who are reluctant and skeptical on both sides, but I would say the majority of the people involved, we have a deeper understanding—and empathy, even—for one another’s challenges. And that creates a willingness to sit down and really try to figure it out.”
Already solutions have emerged that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. One is the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement. Made among more than 40 partners, and signed in 2013, the agreement prevents Western Slope parties from opposing permits Denver Water might need for expanding a reservoir system. In turn, Denver Water will fund programs designed to
enhance rivers and recreational opportunities in the mountains, among other measures.
“What it represents is this new paradigm, where you look for a win-win situation rather than a bare-knuckles fight,” says Jim Pokrandt, chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. “It reflects the reality of modern-day Colorado. A lot of Denver’s customers are also enjoying the benefits of the Western Slope.”
In the coming years, Coloradans are going to need to make difficult decisions, and that is what the water plan aims to prepare us to do. It is designed to be a visionary, not regulatory, document, and the first in a series of steps. Do we want vibrant cities and a booming economy? Do we want healthy rivers and fish? Do we want a thriving agricultural community and local food? Do we want to keep our reputation for world-class skiing, rafting, fishing, and hiking? And which, if any, is the most important to us? The plan will also systematically outline options we have for solving the gap between supply and demand, hopefully without compromising too much on those collective values, and create guidelines by which basins can negotiate agreements more efficiently, rather than dive into protracted legal fights.
Will one document actually be able to do all that? It depends whom you ask. One Colorado water lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of discussing the plan, says many within the water industry don’t understand the utility of what the CWCB is doing. “We already knew there was going to be a shortage,” he says. “We already knew what the possible solutions are. What could this document tell us that we don’t already know?”
Among people who work in the water industry, there’s also the belief that because it is not a binding regulatory document, it will have only the power of suggestion, rendering it practically irrelevant. Some water industry professionals say they don’t understand how the water plan will fit into the maze of other planning documents, and they criticize the urgent timeline. And many people on the Western Slope are deeply concerned that the state water plan will advocate for more big transmountain diversions that will suck western rivers dry, which could impact the environment and stunt economic development in their communities. Other Coloradans simply don’t support the idea of intervention by the state government on any issue.
“James is stuck in the middle right now,” says Nicole Seltzer, executive director for the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.14 “We don’t like the way things are, but we don’t want the uncertainty of change. He’s in this delicate balance of reassuring people, Don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you that you can’t sell your water right, but he also has to be an agent for change. It’s a really hard balance.”
Eklund, however, says he doesn’t feel stuck, because he believes people can change the way they think about water, just as he did. That conviction is why he has spent the past 18 months traveling across the state in a government-issued Chevy Impala to meet people in small towns and cities, on front porches and in backyards. And it’s his disarming earnestness that begins to budge their mindsets. He’s the sort of man who rides his bicycle to work wearing a suit and tie and who, on a work retreat, convinces all 46 members of his staff to produce goofy skits for a team-building exercise. His optimism can make him appear a bit naive, but it may also be a survival mechanism. “If you look at these issues with skepticism,” he says, “they’ll crater under their own weight. Don’t make any mistake: If we don’t do this, don’t think that everybody’s just going to go home. There will be somebody who does this for you if you don’t do it yourself. This will be taken care of by the federal government or by the downstream states on these compacts.”15
Eklund’s right: Colorado must continually adjust its practices to meet the stipulations of its interstate compacts, which guarantee water to other states. The federal government could swoop in and impose changes to water management practices if locals aren’t organized well enough to fulfill the obligations set up by federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. “Just let us know which state you think is going to be a better steward of our water than the state of Colorado,” Eklund says, “because that’s where we’re headed if we don’t do this.”
When James Eklund gets excited—which is often—he can find himself talking for a long time, forgetting what got him started and even what time it is. And there are many things about the water plan that animate him. In the best-case scenario, he believes it could be a sort of solution clearinghouse, spurring innovation and the cross-pollination of clever ideas. In the end, the state can provide the road map and incentives, but the way that such a huge, complex problem is actually solved is through thousands of localized solutions at every level of society, not just in the water industry. Already, these ideas are budding across the state.
Instead of permanently selling their land or water to municipalities, farmers and ranchers are experimenting with leasing water to preserve the viability of their land. In some areas, they’re also improving the efficiency of irrigation equipment16 and setting up critical conservation areas with funding from the Farm Bill and implementing cover crops and rotational grazing techniques that drastically reduce water use. Land-use planners in Winter Park, Aspen, and Snowmass are limiting development based on water supply.
Conservation, from low-flow household fixtures to limits on lawn watering, could be hugely beneficial. Already, Denver Water has helped consumers reduce total water consumption by more than 20 percent since 2002 levels. And a bill passed this year requires that all plumbing fixtures sold in the state of Colorado meet current efficiency standards by 2016 (cities and counties with stricter standards will be exempt from the law). The CWCB’s technical work suggests that conservation measures could squeeze an additional 460,000 acre-feet of water from the state system. People are coming up with solutions. The question is: Which ideas will be prioritized—and how will they merge into one strategy? And who will pay for it?
“Nobody knows how they’re going to mesh all of the basin implementation plans,” says Stephanie Scott, outreach coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit devoted to conserving cold-water fisheries and their watersheds. “Are they staying true to what the basins are asking for? After the first draft of the water plan is released, it’s really going to bring out some emotions in people.”
More than 13,000 comments on the plan have streamed into the CWCB (rough chapters were posted online starting in January 2014), and after the first draft is released, the CWCB will take more public input.17 This is why Eklund believes this water plan has a chance at success: Because water is so personal and Coloradans value individualism, the solutions must come from the people if there’s any hope they will be adopted.
“What the water plan offers and has, to its credit, done, is get people more involved,” says Bart Miller, water program director for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental law and policy nonprofit. “It’s a resource that everyone in the state cares about, from the people who go rafting on the Colorado River through Glenwood Springs to the people who go angling for trout on the Gunnison. And state residents and businesses—anyone, really—can weigh in.”
What truly energizes Eklund, however, is an idealistic notion that reflects his faith in human beings and their capacities for change and understanding: What if this experiment in engaging regular citizens in state planning could become a model for solving other entrenched problems in human systems?
“The water plan tests a fundamental hypothesis, and that hypothesis is: If you put people from different walks of life—they’re all Coloradans, but they’re from different geographic areas, they’ve got different value sets, they practice different religions, they have different perspectives on politics—you put those people in the same room and give them the same facts, and they’re good facts, they’re not propaganda, that they will come to more agreement than disagreement,” Eklund says. “That’s the most exciting thing about the water plan because that transcends water. If you can do this with water, in the West, there is not an issue that is incapable of resolution, using this kind of theory.”
This fall, people in the water industry across the state waited anxiously as the water plan materialized in the Denver offices of the CWCB. Those in the recreation community worried the plan would relegate the outdoor industry, which is worth more than $9.5 billion in Colorado, to the margins. Environmentalists worried the plan would overlook the power of conservation measures and pave the way to fast-track dams and pipelines. Farmers and ranchers were concerned that more irrigated farmland could fall out of production or that a water plan might infringe upon their individual rights to buy and sell water on Colorado’s robust market. Western Slope basins feared the plan would advocate for more transmountain diversions to feed Eastern Slope cities. And many wondered whether the document would be simply a useful exercise in public education or if real-life results would actually come from it.
Despite the critics and the uncertainty—not least, the then-unknown outcome of the November election—James Eklund had a sunny outlook. And on an unseasonably balmy Thursday afternoon in October, he did something he doesn’t get to do very often. After a ribbon-cutting at a reservoir and before meeting with a young rancher, he drove north out of Durango, past sprawling green ranches and red-rock cliffs, past the bare slopes of Durango Mountain Resort, and onto a rugged dirt road encased in golden aspens. He arrived, eight miles later, at the top of the Hermosa Creek Trail, which contains about 20 miles of double- and singletrack beloved by hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. In this sort of job, it’s easy to get mired in stacks of paperwork and webs of jargon and minefields of acronyms. But that day, Eklund came to see a real place at the center of a local movement that, in some ways, exemplifies the sort of collaboration he hopes to inspire.
The people who came together to write the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act18 are all local, but they have different values, religions, and perspectives on politics. Nevertheless, over the past six years, snowmobilers, hunters, mountain bikers, conservationists, the city of Durango, and the Southwest Water Conservation District crafted this proposed legislation to establish a wilderness area and a special management area (see “The Unprotected”). The bill, currently in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, would protect habitat for a rare species of native cutthroat, preserve access to trails that sustain local tourism businesses, and prevent future mining activity to preserve one of the region’s cleanest streams and a source of drinking water for the community. No party got exactly what it wanted, but it was an agreement everyone could get behind.
The casual visitor, however, might not know any of that. She would simply see what Eklund saw that evening in October: a spectacular glacial valley ringing with the sound of a healthy stream, slopes carpeted with glowing aspens, distant peaks dusted with the year’s first snowfall, and the hardiest of the white wildflowers persisting through the turn of the season. This, Eklund knows, is the real deal. This is the sort of landscape where he learned to camp and fish. It’s the sort of landscape people envision when they think of Colorado. It’s also the kind of place that reminds Eklund of who he is and where he came from, and of all the reasons why he perseveres in a task that, depending whom you ask, is impossible, or critical, or both.
1. The CWCB was founded in 1937 to foster irrigation, protect Colorado’s interests in interstate water negotiations, and develop infrastructure such as dams and reservoirs with the help of federal dollars. There are now nearly 2,000 reservoirs throughout the state. For years, Eklund says, the informal state water plan was for municipalities to buy water rights from farmers.
2. Delph Carpenter, a Greeley-based irrigation lawyer, conceived of the idea of interstate compacts as an alternative to settling interstate water disputes through the U.S. Supreme Court. He helped negotiate the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which is still seen as a very good deal for Colorado and became a model for future compacts. In that agreement, the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins each get 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually.
3. Colorado also has two American Indian tribes, the Southern Utes and the Ute Mountain Utes, with special tribal reserved water rights. These rights could have a significant effect on the way water is distributed in the Colorado River Basin, but it’s unclear exactly how they will factor into the changing system in the coming decades.
4. An acre-foot is a measure of volume that equals the amount of water that would cover one acre of land at a depth of one foot, or 325,851 gallons.
5. The framers of the 1876 Colorado Constitution wanted to codify a system in which water belongs to the public (which is different from how things work on the East Coast). Known as the Colorado Doctrine—or the Doctrine of Prior Appropriations—this democratic system allows citizens and public agencies to obtain rights to divert water from a river for beneficial use and to build rights of way across others’ land. The result was that more land could be used for agriculture.
6. Instream flow and natural lake level water rights are tools that keep water in the rivers and lakes to protect entities such as fisheries, bird habitats, and riparian areas. These rights, administered by the CWCB, have protected environmental and recreational values on 8,500 miles of streams and 477 natural lakes in the state since 1973.
7. Some archaeologists believe that drought and conflict over water may have contributed to the exodus of the Ancestral Puebloans from the Southwest more than 700 years ago. Water was apparently limited even back then: Mesa Verde National Park protects the ruins of four “water-management features” dating to between 750 and 1100.
8. A water right allows a person or entity to divert a certain amount of surface or groundwater for beneficial use, a term intended to prevent hoarding for later resale and speculation. A water right is protected through a legal process in the state’s regional water courts, which are administered by the Colorado Division of Resources.
9. A colloquial term commonly used for those well-versed in water policy, proponents of water development, and those who have senior water rights, such as agricultural irrigators and older municipalities.
10. Each roundtable is composed of between 24 and 60 people, including representatives appointed from counties, municipalities, and water conservation districts as well as from agricultural, recreational, industrial, and environmental interest groups.
11. “Water needs” include consumptive uses, such as agricultural and municipal demands, and nonconsumptive uses, such as recreational and environmental uses that keep flows in rivers. Consumptive can be a misleading word, however. Although agriculture makes up 86 percent of the water use in Colorado, much of it—typically more than 50 percent—runs through fields and then trickles back into rivers.
12. The IBCC comprises 27 members, including two members from each of the nine basin roundtables, appointees from the state Senate and House agriculture committees, and the governor.
13. Groups representing environmental and recreational interests, however, say they are vastly outnumbered by water buffaloes on these panels.
14. In 2002, the Colorado State Assembly passed a bill that helped fund the CFWE, the only state-founded organization of its kind in the country. Today, it works independently to provide Coloradans with accurate, nonpartisan information about water issues through magazines, tours, radio shows, and training programs.
15. Because of prolonged drought, both Lake Powell and Lake Mead—the southwestern United States’ two primary reservoirs—are below half of their capacities. If either falls below the level at which it can generate power or supply water, millions of people could be without essential services. Another concern: As Lake Powell’s level drops, the pressure that sends flows downstream could diminish, slowing the delivery of water from upper basin states to lower basin states. If we don’t meet our obligations, a “call” on the interstate compact, which governs water uses on the Colorado River, would force curtailment of water uses all over Colorado and other basin states. Water managers say taking preventive measures through planning is critical to averting a major water crisis.
16. There have also been efforts in the Legislature to confront a problem known as “use it or lose it.” When it comes time to sell, change, or transfer a water right, the owner can only sell what he has historically used, not what he was allotted on paper. If a rancher doesn’t use his full allotment of water for 10 years, the difference could be deemed abandoned and reallocated. This system was intended to prevent speculation, but it has had the unintended effect of deterring efficiency improvements.
17. To comment on the draft plan or voice what you think Colorado’s priorities regarding water management should be, visit coloradowaterplan.com or email [email protected]
18. Democratic U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall introduced Bill 841 in the U.S. Senate in April 2013. Soon after, Republican U.S. Representative Scott Tipton introduced companion legislation. In September, however, the House Committee on Natural Resources altered the bill’s wording, inflaming its authors and especially environmental groups, who say it gutted the measure’s most important land protections. Locals are calling on Tipton to restore the original wording before proceeding.