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Posted: April 19, 2012

A new business agenda on water

It's time to take a seat at the water table

Bart Taylor

With a slim snowpack serving only to reiterate Colorado's long-term water challenge, its clear that  reaching out to business to talk about water is increasingly important – but doing so in a meaningful way is difficult. Generally, business hasn't been involved in the water discussion.

There's every reason to believe they will be.

The system we rely on, the network of public providers that manage the complex web of water rights and delivery, is in flux, straining under the pressure of inexorable demand. And the scale of the challenge, of meeting growing demand for municipal and industrial water with finite or even diminishing supplies, is prompting a system-wide reassessment of how states and communities will meet their obligations.

The water landscape is changing. And business will be forced to get involved.

“Without a seat at the table," says Jim Kuiken, SVP at global water infrastructure leader MWH, “their future will be decided for them.”

Business leaders in agriculture, energy, real estate, and manufacturing, to name a few, are engaged; their future is water-dependent and state and regional supply shortfalls are forecast in much of the West. Agriculture, especially, is in the bullseye. Ag is the largest single water – roughly 85% of current demand – and also the one dependable short-term new supply for urban users. Ag “transfers” are watering new development throughout the West.

But how long can the ag sector transfer water before its business is fundamentally changed? What impact will a diminished ag sector have on food production, on land-use, on quality of life issues in ag states and the economy at large?

The regional boom in gas and oil production is transforming America's energy landscape. Energy development is water intensive. Large-scale gas and oil development requires more water. Other business segments will be the source – like ag. Colorado's natural gas boom is a by-product, in part, of agricultural water. For how long? 

(Developers of nuclear power face similar potential limitations. Utah recently approved a new 50,000 acre-foot diversion from the Green River for a new nuclear facility. A coalition of business and environmental voices oppose the allocation.)

When real-estate reawakens, as it will, water will replace finance as a significant barrier to growth in Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona, and other locales in the West. No-growth is real-estate's 'nuclear option'. How close to no-growth edicts are we in places like southeast-metro Denver and other locales? Don't believe water can impact development? Developers of Sterling Ranch, or the Canyons, both in Douglas County, may disagree.

On the western slope in Colorado, and in communities along the River throughout the Basin, business that relies on steady, regular flows for their livelihood are attuned to the major fight developing over the future of the River. New alliances are forming to join the battle, like Protect the Flows, a coalition of business and environmental interests in western Colorado. They generally oppose new appropriations from the River, though Upper Basin interests may be entitled to more. Who's right? Business, or, well, business that needs the water?

What impact can new corporate sustainability initiatives have on reducing demand and extending current supply? Should water replace energy conservation as the compelling 'green' initiative for business? If so, how?

Without a sustainable water plan – one that business supports – can the West promote its otherwise brilliant future? Or will industry rule out Colorado and the West and locate elsewhere? 

Business will joining the water discussion to address these and a dozen other questions.

Bart Taylor is the publisher of ColoradoBiz magazine. E-mail him at btaylor@cobizmag.com.

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