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Posted: March 07, 2013

Salazar’s water future

Water may send Ken Salazar back to the forefront of Colorado politics

Bart Taylor

Of the myriad ways to measure anxiety in the West over water, add legislative activity in a drought year. The raft of water-related bills coursing through the Colorado legislature this session prompted one lawmaker, Randy Fischer, (D-Fort Collins), to wryly note in his hometown newspaper, “The number of water-related bills tends to be inversely proportional to the amount of snowpack we have.” The Coloradoan  is tracking more than a dozen bills on the subject.

As commendable as it is for the state’s elected officials to rally around the issue, the year-to-year, ad-hoc policy advocacy also speaks to the shortcomings of Colorado’s water-planning methodology, particularly the lack of a strategic water plan. Instead, state planners here participate in a process, where water entities and jurisdictions across the state engage in an ongoing discussion about stewardship of the state’s water resources. Historically, it has served the state well, and as I’ve said before, the professionals who administer Colorado’s complex water law are top-notch.

In recent years, however, the process has left much to be desired, as water interests vie for legislative influence or oppose what they believe to be unreasonable incursions. The slurry of bills speaks for itself.

Moreover, Colorado’s most pressing strategic water issue – the disposition of its remaining Colorado River allocation – is missing from the legislative docket. Although demand now exceeds supply, the prospect of developing several hundred thousand acre-feet of water the state is entitled to remains only a discussion point. Colorado remains undecided as to whether it should join its Upper Basin brethren and move decidedly to develop its entitlement.

Would a strategic plan change this outcome? It’s likely. But today, a framework that facilitates the discussion and leads it toward a well-reasoned end-point seems eons away (here’s another look at why this is the case).

Yet Colorado may have a wild card in play. There’s much speculation here about the political future of former senator and recent Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. He comes back home tested by fire, literally, seasoned to again lead and still relatively young. Will Salazar enter the dialogue and change the course of the discussion?

Well-versed in Colorado water issues before he left for Washington, his post at Interior could not have exposed him more to regional water challenges, including the plight of the Colorado River and its Basin stakeholders. His agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, just completed the seminal Colorado River Supply and Demand study. Salazar is among the nation’s foremost experts on water in the West.

Water also provides Secretary Salazar the issue he needs to engage the political sphere here in what might otherwise be an awkward reentry. Colorado’s political leadership is true-blue, with a popular governor and two popular Democratic senators who don’t appear to be going anywhere soon.

Nor do they seem particularly inclined to challenge the status quo on water. Granted, hundreds of years of water law and precedent is some stiff status quo. Yet on the issue of the state Colorado River Compact allocation, none seem inclined to act boldly with the state’s interest on the line. Would Salazar?

For starters, Secretary Salazar should acknowledge what his former department now accepts as fact: Colorado uses less Colorado River water than it is entitled to by a significant amount.

Salazar’s Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner, Michael Conner, spelled out the supply scenario in 2009, asserting that “..we have a hydrologic determination that has basically set the boundaries of what the Upper Basin states can expect under the Colorado River Compact. So it is not the 7.5 million [acre-feet] that was projected in 1922. It is somewhere closer to the 6 million acre-feet. So that’s the hydrologic determination... The states understand and are planning to that level. And we’ll be supportive of their planning efforts and their evaluations.”

Colorado is entitled to 53 percent of 6 million acre-feet, or 3.18 MAF. The Bureau’s just-released Colorado River Supply and Demand study quantifies Colorado’s current annual demand at roughly 2.1 million-acre feet – meaning the state could easily develop several hundred-thousand acre-feet of water with ample room for error.

Why isn’t Colorado “planning their efforts” and acting on its remaining allocation? Its a tall order to get consensus on any water issue, for one. There's powerful sentiment within the community against more development regardless of the entitlement. And without a roadmap, water is plain hard.

The media, among others, seem challenged to keep up. The past week, a Denver Post opinion-page contributor wondered, “...Just what is Colorado's remaining share from the Colorado River and its tributaries? Nobody seems to know.” In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency of record for water in the West, does know – as does its former steward.

Salazar must also grasp the incongruous plight of his native state. As the most prolific headwater state in the basin, Colorado is the remaining party to the Colorado River Compact yet to develop, or set out to develop, its full entitlement. It has watered the blossoming of the Southwest – but is last to claim its rewards.

To suggest that Colorado deserves its fair share is to state the obvious. What’s lacking may be the framework to make the argument – and a politician with the bona fides to make it.

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

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