Management of water resources will impact Colorado’s economy and quality of life

The Colorado Statesman

Despite increasing pressures on Colorado’s fragile water supply in the coming decades, competing interests — cities, industries, agriculture, recreation and environmental groups — could all be satisfied if the state takes a smart approach to growth combined with revamping antiquated policies governing how the precious resource gets used.

That’s the conclusion shared by a panel of water experts who discussed the topic at forum on Tuesday at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. The panel featured Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead and Bart Miller, who directs the water program at Western Resource Advocates. It was organized by the Denver-based law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and moderated by the firm’s Michelle Kales.

Michelle Kales, chair of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s renewable energy practice, James Lochhead, CEO/manager of Denver Water, and John Salazar, Commissioner of Agriculture, participate in the law firm’s panel on water’s impact on economic and agricultural growth, which was co-sponsored by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
Photos by Focus Tree Photography

“Water is a finite and ever-scarcer resource, and regardless of the industry you represent, or your personal position, how the state manages the water resources it has will be critical to the economic success and the quality of life in the state of Colorado,” Kales stated at the outset.

In light of Denver’s stage 2 drought and concerns about water shortages across the state, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and The University of Denver Sturm College of Law co-sponsored the panel on April 23.
Photo by Focus Tree Photography

While the “ongoing push-and-pull between urban use and rural use” described by Kales has been an undercurrent of Colorado politics since statehood — “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting” might well be the unofficial motto of the arid state — a rapidly growing population and an unpredictably changing climate mean that traditional planning no longer cuts it, the panelists agreed.

Riley Combelic, Lauren Hammond, unidentified guest, Cortney Brand and Andrea Cole pose for a photograph at the reception following the panel on water held on April 23.
Photo by Focus Tree Photography

Colorado is projected to grow by another 3 million residents by 2040, a 60-percent increase that far outpaces the country’s or the world’s population growth over the same period. And much of that growth will be concentrated in the dozen Front Range counties — stretching from Larimer and Weld south to Pueblo — which, by 2040, could constitute 80 percent of the state’s population.

Susan Daggett, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at the University of Denver, and Bart Miller, water program director at the environmental group Western Resource Advocates, chat after a panel discussion on April 23­ at DU’s Sturm College of Law about the future of water availability in Colorado. epartment of Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

While the vast share of Colorado’s water is used for agriculture — currently 85 percent — the addition of so many new residents is projected to boost annual demand for water by as much as 630,000 acre feet, more than twice what Denver Water currently supplies to its 1.3 million customers. (The utility provides water for its namesake city and 14 surrounding suburbs.)

Sabrina Garvin and John Yelenick of Porosity Storage Reservoir Systems, and Dorothy MeNeese, a cartographic technician at USDA Forest Service, enjoy a reception following the water panel at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law on April 23.
Photo by Focus Tree Photography

“Is it possible to meet that demand?” Salazar asked. The answer, he said, lies in conservation and efficiency, citing Australia as an example of the kind of low water use Colorado can emulate. That country only uses 36 gallons of water per capita every day, while the average Coloradan goes through 121 gallons every day — significantly higher than the average U.S. per capita consumption of 98 gallons a day.

The conversation, Salazar maintained, has to change. Instead of saying so many people are moving here, and they’ll each need a certain amount of water, he said, the discussion should start with how much water is available and proceed to how the newcomers can use it.

“Water should not be a limiting factor for growth. It’s how you use that water,” he said. “As long as that water’s not used consumptively, it can be used over and over and over again to infinity,” he said, pointing to the reuse of “every single molecule” of water on the space station.

Although farms and ranches use most of the state’s water, Salazar said, the equation could change in coming years as the state loses as much as 3 million acres of agricultural land over the next decade. And as urban and industrial users gobble up water rights, that could dry up an additional half million acres of agricultural land by mid-century.

“We have to make every single effort we can possibly can to make sure that we keep water on the land, farming and raising crops,” he said, noting that agriculture makes up the second-largest slice of the state’s economy.

Coloradans have to stop encouraging urban sprawl, Salazar said. “Instead of growing out, we should talk about planning our cities and growing upwards,” he said, noting that condominium dwellers, for instance, use as much as 70 percent less water than their neighbors in single-family homes surrounded by thirsty lawns.

Lochhead made a similar point later.

“If we continue the western ethic of sprawl, if we are developing quarter-acre, third-acre, half-acre lots half way out to Kansas, we will not have a sustainable environment, both environmentally, and particularly from a water-use standpoint,” Lochhead said. He added, “Sprawl will destroy what makes Colorado Colorado.”

But make no mistake, the panelists agreed, there’s likely to be even less water available in a state already buffeting between droughts as the climate changes.

Scientists are projecting significant increases in temperature, particularly in the spring months, which could have a devastating effect on snowmelt, Miller said. Add in a future where “decreasing snowpack is the norm” and the West’s water landscape could change dramatically. “We are facing a future where Lake Powell and Lake Mead may not function the way they have,” he said.

“What climate change does is forces us to think longer-term,” Miller said after the discussion. “On top of the fact it’s more people, we have to deal with this long-term drought issue. I think it heightens the need for us to have smaller water footprints, have new developments that don’t use as much water so they won’t be impacted by drought or climate change as much. If your dependency on water is lower, you won’t be as affected by climate change.”

“Water is not only a scarce resource but it is potentially a diminishing resource if you look at the effects of a warming climate,” said Lochhead, noting that Denver Water recently hired a climate scientist to help grapple with the looming challenges.

“If we’re going to sustain Colorado and its values as a state beyond the next few decades and survive in a changing climate, we need to move beyond traditional thinking of supplying water to whatever development might occur,” he said, making another case for limiting suburban sprawl.

A changing climate is just one recent development among many that throws a wrench in what has been a stable, if contentious, endeavor: predicting how much water customers might need.

In the past, Lochhead said, water planning was “linear” — based on past data about the availability of water combined with projections about population growth and anticipated usage.

“I think we’ve seen in the last 10-plus years that the complexities and the uncertainties make this approach unsustainable,” he said, adding that “a more dynamic approach” will be required.

Among the shifting uncertainties he listed are changing drought patterns, the devastating effects of more forest fires — the resulting change to run-off adds tremendous strain on water treatment and storage systems — plus potential terrorist threats and even the lingering impact of economic downturns.

Conservation and efficiency are key, he said, including an eventual goal of reusing every drop of water before returning it to streams. In addition, he said, the utility has adopted a different understanding of its own infrastructure. Instead of just counting its dams, pipes and treatment plants, the concept also encompasses the water sheds, equipment inside customers’ homes such as high-efficiency appliances and fixtures, and outdoor landscaping that uses less water.

Miller stressed that it’s critical to “decrease the water footprint” of new customers, while also exploring innovative water projects, and making it easier to reuse water and for agricultural and urban customers to share water depending on their needs.

“They’re not brand-new ideas. The question is going to be how aggressively we implement things,” he said.

The panelists agreed that water law needs reforming, with Lochhead — himself a former water lawyer — calling it “way more complicated than it needs to be.”

As the only panelist who isn’t a water lawyer — although his brother, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar more than makes up for it — Salazar said that complex and expensive water law too often stymies practical solutions to water problems.

“If there was less water attorneys in the state, I think we’d get along a little better,” he said. “You can get two people in the room, and you can discuss and figure out a solution, and then one water attorney walks in the room and everything goes to hell in a hand basket.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com