Kayakers on a dry river bed

Kayakers try out the chalk drawing of a dry river bed.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS • How will Colorado address its water gap in the future?

That’s been the question the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and the state water plan, unveiled in 2015, have been attempting to address.

One of the key underlying assumptions of the water plan -- just how big that water gap is for the future -- came from prior work on the statewide water supply initiative, SWSI, that has been updated several times in the past decade or so.

After the water plan was rolled out, the next job of the CWCB -- a division of the state Department of Natural Resources -- was to update SWSI. That was originally expected to come out in 2017 and then pushed back to 2018; it finally surfaced on July 18 of this year.

The changes didn’t stop there, said Greg Johnson, chief of the water planning section at the CWCB, who spoke Wednesday at the Colorado Water Congress' summer conference in Steamboat Springs.

Johnson told the conference that the update, for the first time, includes climate change. It also pulled together five different scenarios for calculating the water gap.

Previously, according to CWCB director Becky Mitchell, the water supply updates looked only at the gap projected for municipal and industrial water use through 2050. This update also incorporates environmental and agricultural water gaps projected out to 2050.

“This puts ag, municipal and industrial, and environmental [water gaps] on equal footing,” Mitchell said Wednesday.

The five scenarios, as explained by Johnson, incorporate climate change and population growth. The population projections have decreased since the last SWSI update in 2010, based on new data from the state demographer.

The scenarios:

  • Business as usual: Colorado population at about 9 million by 2050, slow economic growth overall. This scenario basically models the state’s water situation during the latter part of the 20th century.
  • Weak economy: a decline in the world and state economy, lower than expected population growth, and greenhouse gas emissions do not grow as much as expected.
  • Cooperative growth: “environmental stewardship becomes the norm,” according to the update. “Broad alliances form to provide for more integrated and efficient planning and development. Population growth is consistent with current forecasts. Mass transportation planning concentrates more development in urban centers and in mountain resort communities, thereby slowing the loss of agricultural land and reducing the strain on natural resources compared to traditional development. Coloradans embrace water and energy conservation. New water-saving technologies emerge. Eco-tourism thrives.” The environment experiences moderate climate warming, which increases water demand.
  • Adaptive innovation: Under this scenario, a much warmer climate causes major environmental problems, both globally and in Colorado. This also assumes higher population growth, a strong economy, more dominance by renewable and clean energy, and more aggressive adoption of conservation measures.
  • Hot growth: This assumes even more climate warmth, population growth and economic growth tied to relaxing regulation in order to stimulate business development. It also assumes families moving to rural parts of the state, higher food prices and, in terms of climate, more extreme floods and drought.

Matt Lindburg of Brown and Caldwell, the project manager for the consulting team that did the actual data collection and analysis, said gaps are defined within each of the state’s nine major river basins.

Statewide, the analysis shows the gap in agricultural water will be between 10.5 million acre-feet of water and 13.6 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, or the water that would supply two families of four for a year.)

Crop demand will drive 5.5 million to 6.2 million acre-feet of water, and that’s based on just under 30 million acres of irrigated land. However, by 2050, Lindburg said, that also takes into account a reduction of about 300,000 to 400,000 irrigated acres due to urbanization, where irrigated land will become urbanized as municipal footprints expand.

Lindburg noted that there’s already a gap in agricultural water demand and that’s expected to increase. Agricultural water gaps are projected to be less in the adaptive innovation scenario than in the “hot growth” scenario, despite similar climate changes, he added.

The municipal and industrial gap is projected at 245,000 to 754,000 acre-feet of water, with the difference based on population growth and warmer climate conditions.

Among the state’s major river basins, the South Platte, which includes most of the Front Range, has the largest gap in projected water demand, based on its high population and least available water flow.

For agriculture, the Arkansas, Rio Grande and South Platte river basins have the most irrigated acreage and the least available supply, Lindburg said.

So what’s next?

Each of the major river basins has something known as a basin roundtable, a collection of water managers and other stakeholders who develop long-term plans and come up with locally driven projects to address water needs. Work done by the basin roundtables on implementation plans formed the backdrop for the projects to be addressed by the water plan.

It now falls to the basin roundtables to update their implementation plans and projects, according to Russ Sands of the CWCB.

The next question after that: how to pay for it. 

The water plan's price tag was initially estimated at $20 billion. Most of that will be paid for by water providers as they develop water projects. But the state's obligation is expected to be $3 billion, at around $100 million per year beginning in 2020. 

The water plan's funding at the state capitol has averaged $10 million per year for the past three years or so, especially given that severance tax funds -- which have historically funded water projects -- have been on the decline due to drops in oil and gas prices and production.

So far, the biggest plan for funding the water plan is from Proposition DD, a November 2019 ballot measure that estimates it could provide up to $26 million per year from tax receipts on sports betting, what a new fact sheet describes as a "down payment."

Tim Wohlgenant, who heads "For the Love of Colorado," said a committee of some of the state's heavy hitters in business and water are looking at funding needs, including healthy rivers, watershed health, water quality, conservation and efficiency, productive agriculture, infrastructure, and compact obligations (those are the legal agreements that require Colorado to send its water to 17 downstream states and Mexico). 

Among those needs, compact obligations are likely to receive more initial funding than the other needs, Wohlgenant said, because it represents "an existential threat to the rest." That will require a $100 million pot, he explained. 

Wohlgenant also released results of a study, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, that showed people may be supportive of a tax increase to fund the water plan, which he said represents "a drop in the bucket" when compared to other funding needs such as transportation. That's despite voter disapproval of tax increase measures, most recently in 2018. 

The polling showed people do care about water, Wohlgenant explained: "It's not the top priority, but it's there."

That translates into support for increased taxes for water quality and supply, at about 71% in favor. However, the question did not come in the form of a proposed ballot question, he noted. And people's perceptions of the state's water problems vary depending on whether the state is in drought or not. In drought years, like 2012, 70% of Coloradans believed the state's water supply was inadequate. By 2017, that had dropped to 48%.

"This is the cheapest big problem we can solve," Wohlgenant said.

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