Will Agriculture Be the ‘Sacrificial Lamb’ of Water Plan?

By Gus Jarvis | Grand Junction

Ag Concerns Dominate Western Slope Discussion of Colorado Water Plan

As the arduous task of drafting the Colorado Water Plan moves into another year, the four basin roundtables on Colorado’s Western Slope are struggling to find a common voice.

With most of the state’s future growth and development projected to take place on the Front Range, how can the Western Slope’s four basin roundtables (of the state’s nine total) come together with common goals and needs to be a unified voice in the face of water uncertainty in the future?

Finding that common voice, as Colorado faces exponential growth on the Front Range along with ongoing drought conditions and increased water demand of downstream states, was a key theme to the Western Slope Roundtable meeting held on Thursday, Dec. 18 in Grand Junction. And like anything related to water in Colorado, finding common ground and agreement wasn’t easy to come by as agriculture and how it may be affected by the water plan became the focus of those in attendance.

For all nine of Colorado’s basin roundtables, the past year has been fraught with the task of intricately drafting each of their own Basin Implementation Plans that will makeup the entire Colorado Water Plan. The first draft of the plan, which includes Basin Implementation Plans as well as their lists of planned water projects for each of the river basins, was given to Gov. John Hickenlooper earlier this month by the deadline he imposed in his executive order to draft the plan. Over the next year, that plan will be reshaped, fought over and amended until its final version goes to Hickenlooper in December 2015.

Thursday’s meeting for the four Western Slope basin roundtables (including the Colorado Basin, Gunnison Basin, Southwest Basin and the Yampa, White and Green Basin) was a chance for roundtable members, as well as state legislators, local government officials, farmers, attorneys, and other diverse water users, to better understand the key points of each basin implementation plan and see if there are common themes the Western Slope basins can each build upon to become stronger as a whole, especially when it comes to future proposed transmountain diversions.

“What’s next?” Russell George, Colorado Water Conservation Boardmember representing the Colorado River Basin, said in his presentation on the challenging water future that lies ahead. “What are we going to do? What battle lines are going to be drawn?
“The point of this is trying to find the right way to make our point in western Colorado about our needs and our values.”

The growing uncertainty around water supplies in the Colorado River, highlighted by dwindling levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, add to the challenges presented in the Governor’s directive to the CWCB to draft the state’s first Water Plan.  As CWCB Member John McClow and Erin Kuhn reminded everyone at the meeting, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are essential to ensuring Colorado meets its water delivery obligations to downstream states.

If Lake Powell is unable to deliver water to downstream states, as spelled out in the 1922 Colorado River Compact, curtailment of water rights in Colorado could become a reality and any water rights filed after 1922 would be affected. How will that affect current agricultural practices and municipal uses across the state? “Those who have post compact rights are concerned with future curtailment,” Kuhn said. “Cities like Rifle or Denver might have a period of a year or more where they couldn’t use their rights.”

Water curtailment under the 1922 compact is just one of the many issues that make Colorado’s water future uncertain. As Kuhn pointed out, the future hydrology of the state, shaped by continued drought – or wetter conditions – due to global climate change, and water demand across the state, is likely to continue to change.

“As we grow and use more water, the risk goes up,” he said. “What are our strategies? Do we limit new consumptive uses? Use water banks? New storage?”

Kuhn said that as long as Lake Powell’s level remains above its minimum level for generating hydroelectricity, there’s some certainty for existing water users but, he asked, what steps can be taken to increase that level of certainty for existing users in the Colorado Water Plan? How can the plan lower risk?

Going into Thursday’s Western Slope basin roundtable meeting, it was anticipated that the most heated discussion would focus on the Interbasin Compact Committee’s draft conceptual agreement that sets the framework for negotiations on potential new trans-mountain diversion projects. The seven point conceptual agreement, which is in the current version of the draft Colorado Water Plan, starts off by stating that the Eastern Slope is not looking for firm yield from a new TMD project and would accept hydrologic risk for a new project.

While the conceptual agreement and its seven points have stirred controversy in several media outlets recently, it wasn’t a main point of contention at Thursday’s meeting and it didn’t spark much of a conversation. Rather, discussion focused mainly on whether the water plan will do enough to save the agriculture industry.

“If [the plan] downsizes consumptive use, that puts West Slope ag on the menu,” Kuhn said, “and we need to be aware of that and be candid in our discussion. What is the future of agriculture? How do we preserve it? How do we keep it from being the sacrificial lamb?”

Meeting participants generally agreed specific definitions of demand management, efficiency and conservation need to be pinpointed as they relate to agriculture. If the farmers must conserve water, where does that conserved water go? Can they lose their water rights if they don’t use them? What basins are willing to accept high, medium or low levels of conservation? How can the plan address the transfer of water from agriculture to municipal uses? These were the main sticking points of Thursday’s meeting.

“We need an ag plan,” Jim Pokrandt, chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, said. “That’s what all these comments are relating to. We don’t want bad planning to force agriculture out of business and I think that is the one issue I saw in other basin implementation plans.”

“I would encourage the roundtables to have the ag discussion about demand management, conservation and efficiency,” Colorado Basin Roundtable member Ken Ransford said. “From a political standpoint, if you don’t have this discussion, ag water is the low hanging fruit.”

If the task on Thursday was to find a common voice for the Western Slope basin roundtables as they move forward in modifying the draft Colorado Water Plan, they may have found it in their desire to preserve agriculture. How they achieve that remains to be seen.


About the Author

Gus Jarvis


Gus Jarvis is a journalist, writer, bloviator at large and co-editor of the San Juan Independent.