Gov. Jared Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser got knee-deep in their goals and aspirations for Colorado to serve population growth and still keep a lush environment in speeches to the Colorado Water Congress in Westminster Thursday morning.
In separate speeches before hundreds of water managers and public officials, Polis and Weiser said science, technology and collaboration are key to addressing the impact of climate change in a state that juggles fast urban growth and where the economy depends on agriculture and tourism, which are fueled by water.
The governor called it a "bread and butter" economic issue.
"Whether you live on the Eastern Plains, Front Range or Western Slope, Southern Colorado, we all need water to survive and to thrive," Polis said. "It's really about the success of our industries, the success of our urban areas, the success of agriculture. Water is something core to our identity."
Last year, his administration put $10 million into the statewide water plan, which was developed as a long-range vision of Gov. John Hickenlooper's administration. Polis said he hoped to put another $10 million in this year, on top of whatever comes in from the new 10% tax on sports betting, authorized by voters who approved Proposition DD last November.
"I look forward to continuing to advocate for funding for the state water plan," Polis said. "... We can't keep saying, 'It's nice to have.' It's something that needs to be prioritized and delivered, because we can't accomplish any of our plans for future growth, our conservation goals, our economic prosperity goals for ag and other industries without successful implementation of this multi-stakeholder water plan."
He said he would oppose "any and all" trans-mountain water diversions from the Western Slope to the Front Range, without intra-basin agreements. They pose "an almost existential threat" to rivers and the state's agriculture industry. He also pledged to limit "buy and dry" deals, where urban water providers buy up the water that otherwise would go to farms, which provide the backbone of rural Colorado.
"Our administration is really focused on the future of the ag industry in Colorado, making sure that ag isn't just a storied part of our legacy but is a vibrant and growing part of Colorado's future," the governor said.
Weiser reviewed deals and innovations across the state that give him hope that the state can work out the water deficit it faces as it grows and the climate provides less snow and shallower rivers.
Doing nothing means a water deficit from 300,000 to 560,000 acre feet a year by 2050. An acre-foot of water broadly is described as the amount used by two average households.
"We know one thing: We can't deficit finance it," he said of spending resources the government doesn't yet have.
"You either have it or you don't, and with the change in climate ... we have less natural snowpack and decreased yields from other sources. This means we need innovation."
That certainly means re-use of water, citing efforts in Colorado Springs, Weiser said. Denver has been recycling water for outdoor use since the drought of the early 2000s. He spoke about how Aurora found and diverted 1,400 acre feet of water before it could flow through an abandoned gold mine, rendering it useless and dangerous, near Alma, as another example.
"This is the kind of innovation that can be beneficial to all parties," Weiser said.
Like Polis, the attorney general said, "buy and dry" is not an option.
"We've got to make sure we protect local rural economies, protect our local food security and also our identity as an agricultural state," Weiser said.