State of the Rockies Conference 2012: Final Session of Conference on 4/10 highlighted Colorado’s Stake in the Colorado River Basin

Government agencies are aware of the concerns that the Colorado River won’t have enough water to meet legal obligations in coming years and are working to avoid that scenario, three industry experts said during the final presentation of the 2012 Colorado College State of the Rockies Project Conference.

Held April 9-10 on the campus, the concluding event Tuesday night featured a lineup of:

  • Water Attorney Jennifer Gimbel, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board
  • Colorado College alumnus Chris Treese, external affairs manager for the Colorado River District
  • Eric Hecox, section chief for Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning section

All spoke on the topic: “Colorado’s Stake in the Colorado River Basin: Managing Colorado’s Water for the Next Generation.”

Water: Front and Center

This is the year to focus on water, Gimbel said. Not only has Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper proclaimed 2012 as “The Year of Water,” several important anniversaries are being observed to commemorate long-standing commitments to ensuring sufficient water supply and acceptable quality. Her organization turns 75. The agency Treese works for will be 25.

And this marks the 90th year since the Colorado River Compact was signed. The agreement between the seven states of the river basin is a compromise of how the water should be allocated and includes depletion requirements. A treaty with Mexico was added in 1944.

New guidelines established in 2007 allow more flexibility within the existing framework of the Law of the River — the various legal mandates, decrees and court decisions governing the Colorado River Basin.

Shortages, meaning less water in the Lower Basin than the Compact allows, won’t happen until at least 2026, according to Gimbel. But some expert studies predict that by 2050, climate change and burgeoning uses of the river system will result in inadequate water to meet all of its allocated shares two-thirds to nine-tenths of the time.

Gimbel used this analogy: “It’s like a train coming at you at 3 mph. If you can’t get out of the way, it’s your own fault. We can see it coming, and it doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to do anything,” she said.

Already there are supply and demand imbalances, she said, “So we have to be paying attention.”

Drought conditions, rising temperatures and other factors have decreased the river’s water supply but reservoirs, such as Lake Powell and Flaming Gorge have helped in dry times, the speakers said.

Colorado River water extends far and wide, from faucets in Los Angeles to Phoenix. While there are competing interests for drinking, irrigating crops, energy development and other industrial uses, recreational activities and protecting the environment, the speakers believe solutions are at hand.

“It’s all about putting the water to beneficial use and sharing it,” Treese said. “Compromise, consensus and collaboration are very messy and time consuming, but they beat litigation.”

Decades of lawsuits involving Denver Water’s quest for additional supply, which serves about 1.5 million customers, have given way to new approaches, such as a water bank to ensure that human health and safety needs are met, and viewing the river as a whole system, including the riparian areas and native habitats.

Efforts are underway to protect supplies, including a salinity control program, which Treese said costs up to $50 million annually but yields $376 million annually in benefits.

“The program is working,” he said. “It means we have lettuce on our table in January.”

The Time Is Now

As the last speaker at this year’s conference, Hecox issued this warning: “Colorado faces significant and immediate water supply challenges.”
And if nothing changes, agricultural water allotments would be at risk of being sacrificed for municipal and industrial needs, he said.

“If we want to avoid that we’ll have to implement a mix of strategies,” Hecox said. “We’re not going to be able to conserve our way out of it.”

Losing agricultural irrigation, however, is generally considered unacceptable, he said, for economic and food security reasons. So preparing for climate change and population growth (Colorado is expected to have 10 million residents by 2050, twice as many as today) with innovative planning and water management is underway, he said, adding that, contrary to popular belief, water does not create or stop growth. Jobs do.