Peter Shelton

Colorado Water: Waiting for the Call

Posted in How the West was Lost, Watch columns by pshelton on October 15, 2010

When it comes to water, there are three kinds of people.

The first kind turn on the faucet and think nothing of it. Hose down the driveway. Soak the lawn. Have too much fun in the shower.

The second kind are a little more aware. They may be gardeners who put in a drip system, fisherman who like their rivers full and healthy, skiers who get the connection between snow and the water supply later in the year.

The third kind are the people who spoke at an Uncompahgre Valley Water Forum in Montrose a couple of weeks ago, people – water managers, water engineers, water professionals – who have built their lives around a finite resource, and the competition surrounding its use.

Mike Berry controls the valves to a lot of the drinking water in the Uncompahgre Valley. He’s the general manager of the Tri-County Water Conservation District. He’s a numbers guy.

“We’re a local government entity, not a utility,” Berry told the crowd at the Holiday Inn Express conference room. TCW has a 15-member, state court-appointed board, and taxes property at 1.502 mils, generating $1.3 million annually. “We were born in 1957 to sponsor the Dallas Creek Project. Congress authorized us in 1968. 1978 was the groundbreaking for the [Ridgway] dam. In 1990 the reservoir was full, and Tri-County took over.

“The lake receives 100,000 acre-feet of water every year. [An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, about the amount of water two families of four use in a year.] We exchange a 28,000 AF ‘pool’ of water in the reservoir one-for-one for Gunnison canal water, which goes into our distribution system.

“The distribution system currently has 7500 taps, 610 miles of pipeline, 43 pumps and 21 tanks over a service area of 350 square miles. We sell 800 million gallons of water per year.”

He didn’t say that Tri-County Water, this un-elected, pseudo governmental body, has with its pumps and pipelines made development possible in many places, like the Beaton Creek Valley, where I live, and Pleasant Valley west of Ridgway, where well water is just about impossible, and in many other previously undeveloped or sparsely developed areas of the Uncompahgre watershed.

“We’re water rich,” he said. But he did talk about limits. We’re using only about half of the water available in the reservoir. But the population of the three downstream counties, Ouray, Montrose and Delta, is expected to double to about 150,000 by 2035.

“And climate change, if that means hotter and dryer, can’t be a good thing on a water supply,” Berry said. But, he concluded, “Unlike Las Vegas, or anywhere south and west of us, I don’t think many people here go to sleep worrying about their water.”

Maybe they should, said State Senator Bruce Whitehead, himself a water engineer for 25 years with the Colorado Division of Water Resources. Whitehead wanted to talk about a bigger, more complex picture, the Colorado River Compact, and how increasing demand might change a lot of things.

This year for the first time Colorado River water consumed (by agriculture, industry, and by 30 million people in seven states) exceeded the annual flow. The Southwest has been in a protracted drought – 11 years and counting. Lake Mead has shrunk to 40 percent capacity, an all-time low.

Bad news, yes, for Nevada and California. But how does this affect Colorado, at the top of the water chain? Colorado’s share of the compact is 3.88 million acre-feet of water. We have, Whitehead said, perhaps half a million AF unused now. That’s enough to supply at least a couple million more people in the state.

But here’s the problem: Colorado is linked to the water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. If the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada cannot get their allocated water from the reservoirs, the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico are obligated to curtail use until the Lower Basin allocation is met. This was the deal struck in 1922.

This is the potential “call” on Colorado’s water. This, Whitehead said, is the dreaded “compact curtailment.”

What it means is that the state of Colorado, and all of its counties and municipalities, all of its competing water users, now have to think very carefully about water decisions.

How much should go to support urban growth, whether on the Front Range or on the Western Slope? How much to energy development – oil shale could be the biggest water guzzler ever. How much to agriculture? How much to in-stream flows for recreation and ecosystem concerns, including endangered species? (Whitehead mentioned the dilemma faced by water users in the Lower San Miguel River Basin, where allocations for future development would mean less water for fish.)

“We’re wrestling with it on a state level,” Whitehead said. “How much risk are we willing to take? How much new development do we allow without threatening existing rights by hastening a curtailment?”

It’s a competition that comes down to local decision-making, said Lynn Padgett, a Ouray County commissioner, a wetlands consultant by profession, and the last speaker of the night. “How do we combine good science with good decision-making?” She had an illustration from the day before.

“Yesterday we were asked to approve a new subdivision in Ouray County.” It would add another big water user. “Should we require xeriscaping as a condition of approval? But that is one of the ‘R’ words, along with regulation. In the end, we didn’t even have board support for ‘encouraging’ best practices, for saying in a plat note that water conservation, or low-water landscaping, is ‘encouraged.’

“It would be great if we could say that. But we can’t.” Politics and private property rights, for now at least, won’t allow it. We need, she said, to integrate the hard facts about water into our land use and planning codes. “But it’s overly optimistic,” she concluded, “to think that sound science and data are the answers.”

What is the answer when human nature and scarcity collide?

“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I have no answers.”


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