Colorado facing a growing water shortage

More than a decade ago, Colorado learned that it faces a projected shortfall of more than 400,000 acre-feet of water by 2040. The amount, if stored and if conservation techniques were implemented simultaneously, would supply water to 2 million people.

But during the past 10 years, the state has continued to attract people — now, more than 2 million newcomers are expected to arrive by 2040. Meanwhile, Colorado is susceptible to drought cycles, with the last one occurring in 2012. This 2017-2018 winter season is certainly starting out exceptionally dry in the high country, which is of concern because the Front Range gets the majority of its water supply from mountain snowmelt. Water supply is a constant priority in Colorado.

Fortunately, the state has a water plan and hundreds of water agencies committed to meeting the challenge. Some are large, like Denver Water, Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities and Northern Water, and deliver thousands of acre-feet of water to millions of customers. But most agencies are smaller and support Colorado’s regional towns and cities, farms and ranches.

The state water plan and local agencies promote conservation, reuse, efficiency and storage. They balance urban, recreational and agricultural values with improving stream health. Water infrastructure is one investment that has not been left primarily to the state or even to local tax revenue. Water development is funded primarily by users through rates. Agencies are applying their revenues toward building some of the great water projects in the West. More than $4 billion in projects have been completed or are underway by the major agencies serving communities from the Wyoming border to Pueblo County. Northern Water and its municipal subdistrict have their Windy Gap (permitted) and NISP projects moving forward. Aurora Water completed its Prairie Water project, one of the most significant reuse projects in the country. Denver Water is starting its long-planned Gross Reservoir enlargement project (permitted), and Colorado Springs Utilities’ massive Southern Delivery System is under construction.

Although Colorado has identified its water needs and has a state plan, 2018 will be a year of political transition. Will a new governor and legislature keep water at the top of the agenda or allow it to drop until the next water crisis? Many local agencies need financial help that can’t be met through local ratepayers alone. The state water plan identified $3 billion in unmet needs. And, as California has demonstrated, conservation must be a well-articulated state goal with significant resources dedicated to public education. California cut statewide use by 25 percent during the last drought through massive education coordinated with local agencies. But, leadership, both local and from the state, is needed.

Gov. John Hickenlooper accelerated the work of former governors Bill Owens and Bill Ritter to help address the state’s projected water shortage, but he only has one year left in office. Fortunately, besides Hickenlooper’s advancement of the scientific base behind the need for new projects, his use of a state planning process that involved all eight water basins in cooperation and decision-making and his issuing of a completed state water plan in December 2015, he has also seen real progress during his term on projects. He helped facilitate approval of Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir and Northern Water’s Windy Gap projects. Still, much remains to be done.

■ How will pressing water issues fare through the upcoming political transition?

■ Will permitting of the water projects now underway continue to make progress?

■ Will the next wave of projects — many in rural and small towns — get permitted, funded and built?

■ Will the state initiate and fund a statewide conservation public education program?

■ Will the state continue its planning processes in order to lead a ballot issue funding effort? (The previous proposal, controversial in design and promotion, failed in 2003, but lessons were learned.)

The planning and development capabilities of Colorado’s water community have grown significantly, but the needs are growing faster still. Through the 2018 political transition, we must ensure that water remains a top priority and not become another state plan ignored in a government file.

Floyd Ciruli is the founder of Ciruli Associates, a research and consulting firm specializing in public policy and research. He is widely known as a pollster and political analyst for 9-KUSA TV, KOA Radio and The Denver Post. He is a member of the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame.

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