What’s Wrong With The Colorado Water Plan, And How To Fix It
September 29, 2015
I was recently asked to speak about the Colorado Water Plan at a State Legislative Forum in Fort Collins. After two years of engagement with the Plan and its process, and after the 2nd draft was released, here’s what I told the legislators and the public was wrong with the Colorado Water Plan and how to fix it.
1. The Plan is based on Governor Hickenlooper’s Executive Order which tries to minimize the amount of water farmers sell to cities. I disagree with the Governor. I believe that farmers should be able to sell their water if they want to. Further, Colorado has a very long and successful history of transferring water from farms to cities. In fact, if just 10% of all water used on farms in Colorado was transferred to growing cities, it would completely cover the state’s theorized “gap” in future demand out to the year 2060. To fix this problem, state water planners need to allow farmers to sell their water and to make it easier to do so, either by a “Traditional Transfer Mechanism” (buy and dry) or an “Alternative Transfer Mechanism” (like rotational fallowing).
2. The Colorado Water Plan process has been corrupt. The statewide Plan is based on the “Basin Implementation Plans” which are written by “Basin Roundtables,” groups of self-appointed individuals along the Front Range that have vested interests in seeing new dams/diversions built, or have a deep investment in making sure the status quo continues. As one example, environmentalists who oppose the status quo have been purposely excluded from the South Platte and Metro Roundtables, which are the two biggest municipal water users in the state. To fix this problem, the process needs to be truncated now, and a new diverse set of stakeholders need to rewrite the Basin Implementation Plans.
3. Because of the flaws in the Governor’s Executive Order and the corruption of the process, the product is very heavily skewed towards supporting the status quo of building more dams/diversions that would further drain and destroy Colorado’s rivers. To fix this problem, the Plan needs to focus solely on “alternative water supply methods” that are faster, cheaper, and easier, such as water conservation and efficiency, water reuse and recycling, growth management, and working with farmers to transfer water to cities. Further, concerned citizens should fight to stop new proposed dam/diversion projects so that alternatives are allowed to flourish.
4. The Plan does not contain remotely enough information and support for river protection and restoration. While the Plan proposes $20 billion for new projects, only $5 million of that appears to be directly for river restoration. Many of Colorado’s rivers have been almost completely drained and destroyed, but the Plan doesn’t even come close to addressing this egregious history of environmental destruction. Further, the Plan does not even discuss “dam removal” as a mechanism to restore rivers, an activity that is flourishing across the U.S. and has occurred on the Cache la Poudre River in northern Colorado. To fix this problem, the Plan needs to focus dramatically more attention and resources on protecting and restoring the rivers across Colorado. A “river renaissance” is occurring across Colorado whereby local communities are protecting, restoring, and revaluing their local rivers — the state should aggressively join this effort.
5. The Plan discusses the problems with permitting new dam/diversion projects, but completely fails to discuss the real truth of the issue, and here it is: When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation go through a permitting process, they purposely don’t hire unbiased, peer-reviewed, scientists to do the work. Instead, they contract the “Environmental Impact Statement” out to large multi-national engineering corporations that have a vested interest in seeing the project permitted, and thus grossly skew the analyses making a complete charade of the supposed “science” that an EIS requires. Thus, public comments are always extremely negative about the EIS, and the Corps continues to go through iteration after iteration, taking years and millions of dollars. To fix this problem, the Corps needs to hire real, unbiased, peer-reviewed scientists to create EIS’, not biased engineering firms that make their livings building dams and large construction projects.
6. The Plan proposes to “fully develop compact entitlements” to Colorado’s water supplies by making sure not one drop of water leaves the state in a river that is not required to by federal law. This policy proposal is anti-environmental, unethical, and provincial. Rivers across state boundaries also need water to be healthy. To fix this problem, the Plan should protect rivers in Colorado and across state lines, making sure enough water leaves the state so that each river is healthy when it crosses state boundaries.
7. The Plan proposes that $20 billion needs to be spent to “fill the gap” (build the new dam/diversion/reservoir projects) that will come from all of the new population growth heading to Colorado in the next 45 years. Thus the Plan proposes many statewide funding mechanisms — including taxes and bonds — to pay this enormous price-tag. Such statewide funding concepts are simply massive subsidies to the growth and development industry to make it easier, faster, and cheaper for Colorado’s population to double. To fix this problem, the state should let local governments address their ‘water and money gap’ on their own. As such, some cities may choose not to grow, or may choose to force the growth to pay its own way, rather than having it subsidized by state taxpayers.
Gary Wockner, PhD, Executive Director, Save The Colorado