By Seth Mensing
The Crested Butte News
A recurring theme at this year’s workshop, hosted by Western State Colorado University, is what’s being called the “new normal.” Organizers held discussions on “What is the new normal?,” A New Normal for the Rio Grande Basin, A New Normal in Water Education and Outreach.
By definition, the terms drought or flood speak to something out of the ordinary. But what happens when a drought continues and water projections only continue to sink lower. By 2050, the population of Colorado is expected to double, while the amount of available water is expected to decrease by 10 percent to 20 percent.
And where most of the state’s population is squeezed along the Front Range, much of the state’s water falls on the opposite side of the Continental Divide. Through collaborative events like the Water Workshop, that divide, which is sometimes as much a figurative divide as it is a physical one, people can connect the issues with the very real people facing them.
During the workshop, water managers from the state’s nine basin roundtables—formed in 2005 to create a forum for people to talk about water—get together and talk about the challenges facing each.
Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District general manager Frank Kugel says, “The one thing that has been accomplished so far in the roundtable process is a much greater understanding of water uses and challenges in particular basins so we have a better understanding of what faces the Arkansas and the people in the South Platte Basin have a better understanding of what’s happening here in the Gunnison Basin.”
And when push comes to shove, as it sometimes does in water disputes, Kugel says things tend to go better when there’s a personal connection between the people on either side of the disagreement.
With concern over projected future water shortages on the rise, the workshop also brought seven members of the state’s Water Resources Review Committee that’s made up of five state senators and five representatives from around the state and chaired by Sen. Gail Schwartz. The committee held a public meeting on Thursday to hear some of the concerns first-hand and then took a tour of Morrow Point reservoir on Friday.
“I think the members of the Water Resources Review Committee that attended have a better understanding of a number of issues and should take back a fuller understanding of water needs and issues facing our basin and that we’re not flush with water by any means and that we’re facing future shortages,” Kugel says.
Kugel says between the water currently being used here in the valley and those uses reserved by farmers and municipalities downstream, all the way to the Colorado River Compact, there isn’t much extra water to accommodate massive population growth or any diversion plans.
Water diversion projects have a long history in Colorado, having taken place sporadically since the Grand Ditch opened in the 1890s. Only a decade later the Gunnison Tunnel opened to bring water to the Uncompahgre Valley. And for more than 30 years, the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project has diverted Western Slope water to serve the growing needs of southeastern part of the state, while the Colorado-Big Thompson Project fed northeastern Colorado.
But the big concern in the Gunnison Valley is over the next one. “When the Front Range is looking at the monstrous gap in supply and demand facing them, they still feel a new or expanded trans-mountain diversion plan is big part of the equation,” Kugel says. “We’re keeping a watchful eye on their other efforts in water conservation and development of existing projects that have been identified and asking them to look to convert some agricultural uses to municipal uses.
“Basically, we’re asking they exhaust all other options before they come to us. We feel we have compelling evidence that there is no extra water to send to the Front Range because of those downstream obligations,” Kugel continued. “Through the roundtables and things like the Water Workshop, each basin knows what the other basin is facing. And we have very substantial evidence that we’re not flush.”
The roundtable process, in addition to the Colorado Water Workshop, is helping to alleviate some conflicts, if so far it’s only by bringing them to the forefront of the discussion among the people representing Colorado’s river basins.
“It definitely was fun and the networking and sharing ideas and experiences. It is good to understand how other basins are approaching the Colorado Water Plan and impending gap between supply and demand,” Kugel says.
It was also a good time to reflect on some of the high points in water management over the last half-century. Part of the Workshop’s focus was on the 40th anniversary of the state’s Instream Flow Program that provides a water right to aquatic wildlife. In 1980, the program guaranteed 23 cubic feet per second in the Slate River throughout the summer months to provide for fish and riparian habitat.
“We looked back at 40 years of the state’s Instream Flow Program that is protecting the aquatic health and riparian environment and that’s been a success by most measures,” Kugel said.
And that’s the kind of collaborative success water managers from across the state hope to see repeated in the future.