Colorado Unveils First Statewide Water Plan

Published February 1, 2016

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) is pushing the state legislature to provide funding for the state’s first comprehensive water plan, which was first announced in November 2015.

Officials from the Colorado Water Conservation Board say Hickenlooper’s plan is necessary to address the growing threat of water shortages as the state continues to grow rapidly. Colorado’s current population of five million is expected to double by the year 2050.

The water conservation plan was shaped by a collaborative effort between the Interbasin Compact Committee and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), groups composed of city and business leaders and representatives from environmental organizations.

“Today we turn a new page on Colorado’s long and adversarial history on water,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “Colorado’s Water Plan shows us how we can move forward together to ensure we continue to enjoy sufficient supplies for our vibrant cities, productive farms, and incomparable environment.”

Amy Oliver Cooke, executive vice president and director of the Energy Policy Center, applauded the state government for bringing Coloradans together to address their future water needs.

“Most people acknowledge current water availability can’t sustain our growing population,” said Cooke. “The problem comes with how to solve that.

“There is an unreasonable element on the left side of the political spectrum that simply believes Coloradans must consume less water,” Cooke said. “They oppose any type of water storage.”

Making more water available is essential, Cooke says.

“While everyone agrees we shouldn’t waste water, the conservation-only crowd is dangerously naïve,” Cooke said. “The success of the plan will depend on how much influence the unreasonable eco-left has on solving our future water needs.”

Decades of Negotiations

Discussions about how to satisfy Colorado’s future water challenges began in 2005, but it wasn’t until the spring 2013 Hickenlooper directed CWCB to develop the state’s water plan.

The plan included input from water providers, agricultural organizations, environmental groups, the General Assembly, local governments, and the business community, resulting in a nearly 500-page document and more than 30,000 public comments.

Colorado state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) says the Colorado Water Plan is a good start, but he says the state has a long way to go because parts of the plan are controversial and show limited understanding of agricultural water needs.

“It is my assertion there needs to be a full-fledged effort by the governor and executive branch to implement the major portions of the plan, [including] storage; streamlining the permitting process; and conservation, especially in urban areas,” said Sonnenberg. “For example, [in 2015], nearly two million acre-feet of water flowed into Nebraska via the South Platte River over and above our compact obligations. If we could have stored even a portion of that water, we could have met the conservation stretch goal of 400,000 acre-feet, as well as the 400,000 acre-feet storage goal for use in future dry years.” 

The water plan includes a statewide conservation goal of 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water by 2050. It also aims to reduce a projected shortfall for municipal and industrial water use from 560,000 acre-feet in 2050 to zero in 2030.

The plan also would establish a framework for negotiating future projects involving inter-basin water transfers. 

Funding Search

With the plan now approved, state officials must address how to fund it. A draft report estimated the total cost to implement the plan over its lifetime is $20 billion. Although Colorado officials estimate most of the costs will be paid for by regional water utilities, the state will remain responsible for providing between $3 billion and $6 billion in funding.

The water plan outlines several avenues the state can take to fund the gap, including tax increases, such as a mill levy, sales tax increase, or additional fees charged for the removal of minerals. A portion of state severance taxes already goes to the Water Project Loan Program, providing between $50 million and $60 million annually for water projects.

Concerns Over Interference from Federal Government

One factor that could drive up the cost of the project are the potential regulatory barriers raised by environmental groups focused solely on conservation.

“The bottom line is Colorado’s ability to supply residents with adequate water will depend … on whether the eco-left will thwart much-needed water storage,” Cooke said.

Sonnenberg sees the permitting process, not funding, as the main hurdle to successful implementation of the plan.

“The Army Corp of Engineers, as well as the [Environmental Protection Agency] and wildlife agencies, create a permitting process nightmare,” said Sonnenberg. “Once you meet one agency’s needs, it goes to another agency which changes the requirements, and then any plan for new water projects goes back to the original agency and others until everybody has approved.

“It will be interesting to see if [Hickenlooper] will step up to implement sections of the water plan other than the conservation piece he seems to push,” said Sonnenberg.

“For example, the Water Resources Review Committee, a bipartisan committee that works on water issues, drafted two bills to help with the water plan’s emphasis on streamlining the permitting process in Colorado,” Sonnenberg said. “[Despite] unanimous support from the committee to move forward on finalizing the bills, the executive branch successfully lobbied to kill both bills.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.