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Posted: February 10, 2012

When a statewide water plan is not

Colorado water officials begin to discuss the prospects for a comprehensive water roadmap

Bart Taylor

Colorado is well-served by a cadre of water officials, many of whom gathered late last month at the annual Colorado Water Congress convention in what's being called the "Year of Water," or Colorado Water 2012.

No doubt many will use the designation to bring attention to the considerable challenges that lie ahead for the state's water community, like the supply ‘gap' that looms in the near future, diminishing aquifers, agricultural land drying up as water rights are sold to urban interests and a Western Slope/Front Range competition for water that simmers uncomfortably just below a veneer of cooperation and trust.

If this isn't enough, one session at the Congress brought to light another Mt. Elbert-sized obstacle that some argue stands between the state and a more secure water future - the development of a statewide plan, a water blueprint, where supply and demand issues are contemplated with the collective interests of the state in mind first.

To varying degrees, other states operate in this manner, and the prospect of such a plan was discussed at this year's Water Congress. (Watch a video of the session.)

For many, such a top-down approach is impossible to envision given Colorado water law. Colorado has an established water policy - prior appropriation - but not a plan. If you got there first, put the water to beneficial use, the right was yours - in perpetuity. As a result, our water community is comprised of fiefdoms, basically, more feudal system than modern bureaucracy. Water is owned and allocated on a local or regional basis, pursuant to these long-standing rights. Water is property, more valuable than gold. And today, this is truer than ever.

Huerfano County Commissioner Roger Cain, interviewed in the Denver Post, summed up the high-stakes game this way: "You take away our water, and there's not much left."

The question today is this: Can the current system provide for the collective economic interests of the state? Many say no, that without a plan that mandates future allocations, selects the infrastructure projects to deliver it and mitigates the damage that will most certainly be done to current rights-holders, Colorado will be unable to meet its urban and industrial needs. Or, we'll decimate agriculture and other water-related industries along the way or become an economic-development pariah nationally without water - or a plan - to sustain growth.

Welcome to the water discussion.

John Stulp is Governor Hickenlooper's Agriculture Commissioner and the man charged with starting a conversation about a statewide plan. Or deciding whether the conversation is a good idea. Think about that. We're not talking yet about what a plan would entail; we're still at the "does a plan make sense?" stage.

But by any measure, Stulp is well-qualified to lead the discussion, if one develops. He has deep roots here. He's a Colorado farmer and entrepreneur. He understands how water works in Colorado - and how difficult it will be for some to even contemplate a binding, comprehensive agreement.

The degree of difficulty of the issue was reflected in the Congress discussion. (View the video.) Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the largest and oldest of Colorado's four conservation district, reminded the audience that we've reached the point where tough decisions need to be made. Steven Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water District, looked forward and suggested any plan include provisions for a ‘soft-landing' for those impacted. Generally, the panel seemed to acknowledge the idea that the water status quo will change.

The burning question is, how? Stulp's attempt at the Water Congress to explore the idea only served to emphasize how far away Colorado is from a substantive, top-down framework. And with the myriad water interests in the state operating at cross-purposes with each other in so many instances, it's at once difficult to see how a consensus will ever be reached on a comprehensive plan, or how the state can find a sustainable water future without one.

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

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