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Is The Colorado Water Plan Ethically Bankrupt?
“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.” – Potter Stewart
On Tuesday July 7th, the second draft of the Colorado Water Plan was released to the public. The plan – now 2 years in the making and with thousands of public comments – calls for an “all of the above” water strategy that includes further draining and destroying the rivers across the state of Colorado. This plan may be rooted in the legal system of water rights in the Southwest U.S., although we think it absolutely won’t pass the test of the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act when they try to permit these massive new dam and diversion projects.
But another question of paramount importance — does the Colorado Water Plan pass any kind of ethical smell test?
The plan further entrenches the parochial state-by-state interest in the Southwest U.S. by repeatedly talking about Colorado’s “entitlements” to water. Whereas states usually say they are “allotted” water through interstate and federal agreements, Colorado escalates the discussion by using rhetoric about “entitlements” and how they will use their entitled water.
Federal laws exist (often called “compacts”) which requires Colorado to let legal minimum streamflows leave the state and flow into Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. But the Colorado Water Plan makes it dead clear that the Colorado state government intends to stop every drop of water at the state line that it isn’t legally required to send over the state boundary.
For example, on page 311 the plan hammers this point home, saying that the State government will: “Protect Colorado’s ability to fully develop compact entitlements, and continue to support agreements that strengthen Colorado’s position in interstate negotiations while ensuring the long-term viability of Colorado’s interstate compacts and relationships.” (underline added)
By saying that Colorado will “fully develop compact entitlements,” the State is saying that they will make sure that not one drop of water leaves the state that is not legally required to flow over the state boundary. This would mean huge and dramatic new diversions of water out of Colorado’s rivers, and it would mean dramatic reductions in flows in the:
- North Platte in Wyoming
- South Platte River in Nebraska
- Arkansas River in Kansas
- Rio Grande River in New Mexico
- San Juan River in Utah
- Colorado River in Utah
- and Yampa River in Utah.
Because climate change has and will continue to dramatically alter streamflows in Colorado’s headwaters rivers (mostly downward), it is not clear how much water Colorado is still “entitled” to divert. However as just one example, cities along the Front Range of Colorado believe they can still divert up to 1 million acre feet of water out of just the Colorado River as this news story in the July 10th Glenwood Springs Independent makes clear:
- “The cities point to state estimates that there is up to 1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to still be developed in the state, with 600,000 more acre-feet each year that could be developed in the Colorado River basin upstream of the proposed Glenwood whitewater parks, and 150,000 acre-feet below them.”
It’s also clear that every “upper basin” state in the Colorado River basin is trying to do the exact same thing – Wyoming and Utah are also planning new diversions to get their “entitled water” which would further deplete the Colorado, Green, and Yampa Rivers. But even if we assume that the water exists and that the law allows Colorado to divert it before it crosses the state line, does Colorado have an ethical right to divert it and further drain and destroy all of these rivers?
Either the laws are broken or the plans are ethically bankrupt, because if we follow the laws and the plans, the rivers of the West will be further destroyed. What is the lesson that we’d leave the next generation? “We didn’t break the law.”
Colorado may think it has a right to further drain all of these rivers, but is it right to do it?
Gary Wockner, PhD, is Executive Director of the Save The Colorado River Campaign.