Water Your Plans? A Primer on the Colorado Water Plan

By Jennifer Berman

There are numerous demands on Colorado’s water supply. Colorado has a population of 5 million people, and some forecasts project that number will almost double by 2050. Additionally, Colorado’s rivers serve the water needs of 18 downstream states and the United Mexican States.

Whiskey Water ImageGiven Colorado’s unique water challenges that include extensive population growth, downstream state users, drought, wildfires, and the geographic divide between water supply and water demand1, collaboration is imperative to meet Colorado’s future water needs. Recognizing that need for collaboration among competing water users such as agricultural users, municipal and industrial users, tourism and recreational interests, and environmental interests, Governor Hickenlooper, in May 2013, issued Executive Order D2013-005 directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to create a Colorado Water Plan (CWP) to develop strategies for meeting Colorado’s competing water demands. The CWP will also focus on maintaining what Representative Randy Fischer, Chair of the interim Water Resources Review Committee (WRRC), describes as our “healthy watersheds and environment, robust recreation and tourism economies, vibrant and sustainable cities and viable and productive agriculture.”

The governor’s Executive Order directs the CWCB to develop a CWP that specifically addresses:

  • The gap between our water supply and water demand, which is estimated by some forecasts to exceed 500,000 acre-feet of water by 20502;
  • The impacts of agricultural “buy and dry”, which is the transfer of ownership of all of the water rights associated with an agricultural water use to a water user who uses the water for non-agricultural purposes3. One study estimates that Colorado might lose 500,000 to 700,000 acres of currently irrigated farmland by 2050 due to “buy and dry.”
  • Water quantity and quality issues conjunctively;
  • Colorado’s drought conditions; and
  • The nine interstate water compacts and two equitable apportionment decrees that require Colorado to deliver almost 10 million acre-feet of water per year to surrounding states. Failure to adhere to these water-sharing charters is costly; in 2005, Colorado paid Kansas $34 million for a breach of the Arkansas River Compact.

The CWCB, in consultation with the Water Quality Control Division and other state agencies engaging in waterDry Basin protection or administration, began working on the CWP shortly after the Governor issued the Executive Order. The CWCB released the initial draft sections of the CWB in March and additional draft sections in July. The CWCB has encouraged public comment on the draft CWP and has received more than 1,100 comments so far.

The CWCB also called upon the state’s nine basin roundtables, which are local groups formed in each of Colorado’s main water basins for the purpose of developing local water policy and planning, to develop basin implementation plans (BIPs)4 to be incorporated into the CWP. The BIPs, for which drafts were submitted to the CWCB in July, identify the specific water needs and challenges faced in each water basin and propose projects and methods for addressing the basin’s specific needs and challenges.

The General Assembly has played a role in the CWP as well. Last session, it passed Senate Bill 14-115 authorizing the WRRC to hold public hearings in each of the geographic regions associated with a water basin to collect public feedback on the “scope, fundamental approach, and basic elements” of the CWP. This past summer the WRRC conducted nine such hearings throughout Colorado that, in the aggregate, were attended by more than 500 people. The WRRC provided the CWCB with summaries of the public comments it received for consideration in developing the CWP.

The CWCB will deliver a full draft of the CWP to the governor this December. From there, the basin roundtables will submit their final BIPs in April 2015, and the CWCB will accept public comments on the full draft of the CWP until May 2015. The WRRC will conduct another round of public hearings during the 2015 interim and will provide the CWCB with summaries of the public comments it received and its own comments on the full draft of the CWP. The CWCB will then release a second full draft of the CWP in July 2015 on which the public may comment until September 2015. The CWCB will submit the final version of the CWP to the governor in December 2015.

Through the CWCB’s online form for submitting feedback and the WRRC’s 2015 public hearings, there is still time to review and comment on the CWP.

1. Approximately 70 percent of Colorado’s surface water is located west of the Continental Divide, but 70 percent of the state’s water demand lies east of the Continental Divide.

2. An acre-foot of water is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land one foot deep. Often, it is described as the approximate amount of water that two households would use in one year.

3. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, water is a transferable property right separate from land ownership.

4. Examples of the basin roundtables’ basin implementation plans include the Colorado Basin Implementation Plan and the South Platte Basin Implementation Plan.