Guest Columns

COLEMAN: WE HELP COLORADANS LEARN TO 'SPEAK FLUENT WATER'

Water has statewide, national, implications

GUEST COLUMNIST

Everyone makes choices about water. Whether it’s on a large scale, making policy decisions for the town, state or country; or in the privacy of the home — in Colorado, water is a complex and scarce but essential resource. It’s particularly important to make informed decisions.

“When you touch water in the West, you touch everything,” says Chris Treese, external affairs with the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Whether you are talking about land use, whether you are talking about allocations of other scarce resources; almost inevitably you are going to be talking about water. You have to understand those implications.”

Colorado’s water is important to the state, but it also impacts the rest of the country — we are a headwaters state with water flowing from our mountains to nourish 19 states and the Republic of Mexico. Our water matters. If Colorado has a dry year, or pulls more than our allocation of water from the state’s rivers, our downstream neighbors will feel the effects. This has always been true, but as populations continue to grow and we experience more frequent hot and dry years in the West, competition for water is going to intensify and those choices we make become increasingly grave. It’s important to understand the implications of water use on a personal and policy-level.

“Each year, we have somewhere around 30 bills that affect water policy,” says Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress. “So every year, the legislature is making adjustments to our water law system. It’s important to understand what those changes would do and to be aware of unintended consequences.” Decision-makers rely on organizations like the Colorado Water Congress for guidance in vetting those bills. Legislators have to understand issues from many perspectives: local, statewide, regional, and national so there aren’t unintended consequences resulting from their actions. Getting to know the water community is important to ensuring that Colorado’s water management and regulatory framework works for everyone.

At the same time, the state often sees new policy-makers who need to quickly learn water policy; this year there are eight new legislators on the House Agriculture Committee. “They’re certainly dealing with a variety of complex topics, everything from climate to groundwater policy to water planning,” Kemper says.

Making those complex topics digestible is why the Colorado Foundation for Water Education exists — to help all Coloradans ‘speak fluent water.’ That means knowing where your water comes from, where it goes, who else depends on it and using that background to make informed decisions. The nonprofit started in 2002 as the result of legislation and was backed by financial support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. As Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs says, water professionals came together with the shared sentiment that Colorado needed an organization focused on nonbiased statewide water education. “We can point to a law that the legislature passed that is unlike anything else that I know about in the water field,” Hobbs says. “The fact that the state of Colorado has decided to support a non-advocacy, nonpolitical water foundation to communicate with people is extraordinary.”

The foundation provides publications, tours of Colorado’s river basins, lectures, and networking opportunities. This year tour participants will visit Colorado’s Lower Colorado River to learn about agriculture and energy around the Grand Valley in May. A separate group will tour the Upper Colorado River to learn about headwaters health and transbasin diversions in June. A final group will head across state lines touring the Platte River and seeing how a river that begins in Colorado is used in Wyoming and Nebraska in July. These individual opportunities for learning and professional development enable regular people and decision-makers to represent their interests in a responsible way. This is the age of partnership and cooperation.

Colorado’s water is owned by the people of the state, but rights to use that water are individually owned, making it a local issue with statewide, even national, implications. For this reason, education that reaches everyone from the individual to state legislators, county commissioners and city council members is imperative in Colorado.

Caitlin Coleman is a program associate at Colorado Foundation for Water Education.