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Environmental Blog

  • 05
  • August
  • 2015

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Colorado's Interbasin Compact Committee Releases "Seven Points" for Negotiating New Transmountain Diversions: A New Paradigm or Potential Impediment to Mega Projects?

Image Source: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A long-standing controversy in Colorado involves the diversion of water supplies from the Colorado River System for use by cities and farms on the Front Range. The second draft of Colorado’s Water Plan, released last month, includes a revised “conceptual framework” for future negotiations over development of new transmountain diversions (TMDs). The revised framework (which Colorado water planners sometimes call the “Seven Points”) seeks to strike a balance between developing new projects to accommodate future population growth, while also guarding against future water shortages during drought conditions. The framework was crafted by the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC), which includes two representatives from each of Colorado’s nine regional river basin roundtables as well as several appointees by the Governor and representatives from the Legislature.

Background on the Colorado Water Plan and the IBCC Conceptual Framework

Colorado’s Water Plan pursues a self-described “balanced strategy” of water conservation, reuse, transfers, and projects to ensure that enough water is available to meet future consumptive use needs, especially for urban and industrial growth. According to the plan, “[t]he gap between municipal water supply is growing, and conservation and the completion of proposed water projects are likely insufficient to address projected 2050 shortfalls that could total more than 500,000 acre-feet statewide.” This projected water supply gap relies on several assumptions, beginning with expected population growth, per capita water uses, projected conservation levels, the “success rate” in constructing new water supply projects, and the amount of water that shifts from agricultural to urban uses. The shortfall is also based on predictions of increased drought conditions and rising temperatures attributed to climate change.

The IBCC meets under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency tasked with finalizing the Water Plan by December 2015. For the past year, members of the IBCC have been wrestling with a draft conceptual agreement about potential new TMDs that would move more water from the Colorado River System to the Front Range. Currently, between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet of water is diverted annually from the West Slope to the East Slope. However, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s most recent estimates, the state’s western basins will face a combined shortfall in supply of at least 130,000 acre-feet of water (and potentially as great as 470,000 acre-feet) by 2050, due to the influx of another 3.2 million to 4.5 million new residents by that time.

To meet this projected gap, water providers on the Front Range must secure additional sources of water. But the options for new water supplies are limited: most of the rivers on the East Slope are already appropriated; groundwater supplies are declining in some areas due to excessive well pumping; and in recent decades, the costs and uncertainty surrounding new TMDs have stymied the construction of many projects.

Stakeholder Comments on the Conceptual Framework

Generally, stakeholders on the West Slope oppose new TMDs due to concern about potential shortages from sustained drought and rising temperatures, as well as the potential for overdevelopment related to both a Colorado River Compact deficit, and the need to sustain critical levels for system reservoir storage, such as the minimum power pool needed to operate Glen Canyon Dam. Rather than construct new diversion projects, these groups contend that the Front Range’s water demands can be met by increased storage capacity on the East Slope, improvements and repairs to existing collection and diversion infrastructure, and the development of conditional water rights.

In contrast, East Slope stakeholders advocate a balanced approach that would keep open the option of future TMDs. However, these groups show support for a wide range of water management strategies favored by their western counterparts, including expanding water conservation and reuse programs and enlarging existing storage capacity. They also argue that management techniques—such as water banks and methods for temporarily reducing water use during dry conditions—can effectively manage a warmer and possibly drier climate.

In developing the Colorado Water Plan, the nine basin roundtables submitted “Basin Implementation Plans” (BIPs) that identify their projects and strategies for meeting basin-specific water needs and challenges. Sharp disagreement over new TMD projects is apparent in the BIPs submitted by the Colorado Basin roundtable and the Metro and South Platte Roundtables. The Colorado Basin BIP, for example, identifies uncertainties in precipitation and temperature due to projected effects of climate change, stating that TMDs “should be the last ‘tool’ considered as a water supply solution, once the many and complex questions are addressed over hydrology.” The Metro and South Platte BIPs, by contrast, advocate “simultaneously advance[ing] the consideration and preservation of new Colorado River supply options.” Both viewpoints acknowledge the constraints of water availability and Colorado water law, but they differ in how they perceive a new TMD will align with the state’s water supply planning goals.

Last June, the basin roundtables reached a tentative consensus on a draft conceptual framework for new TMDs and submitted the framework to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for inclusion in Colorado’s Water Plan. Following publication of the first draft of the Water Plan in December 2014, the basin roundtables continued to debate the framework. Informed by these discussions and additional public comment, the IBCC proposed to revise the framework and tasked a subcommittee with addressing stakeholder concerns. The subcommittee included representatives from every state river basin and the Denver metro area, and included agricultural groups, municipal and industrial water providers, conservancy districts, and environmental organizations.

Key Revisions to the Conceptual Framework

The revised framework, released on July 24 for public comment, included several significant changes to the previous draft. Some of the most important changes in the revised framework include:

  • Clarifying that “East Slope water providers will not look for firm yield from the Colorado River System, but instead would develop a project that could provide firm yield if operated in conjunction with East Source sources of supply.” (Principle 1).
  • Identifying “triggers” (operating parameters) to determine when and how much water a potential new TMD could divert, based upon predetermined conditions within the Colorado River System. These triggers would “insure that diversions by a new TMD do not unacceptably increase the risk to the yield of existing uses of a [Colorado River] Compact deficit.” (Principle 3).
  • Providing basin of origin benefits to basins in the West Slope needs as part of a new TMD project. However, the framework says that the TMD project proponent will not necessarily be required to pay all costs associated with providing the basin of origin benefits “beyond those required to mitigate a new TMD’s impacts identified in regulatory processes.” Rather, providing such benefits “may require building coalitions and finding additional funding.” (Principle 5).
  • Requiring water providers that participate in a new TMD project to have “active water conservation plans and activities approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in place prior toimplementation of the project.” (Principle 6)
  • Requiring that “environmental resiliency and recreational needs” be addressed both before and conjunctively with a new TMD. These measures could be included as part of a package of compensatory projects for the basin of origin discussed in Principle 5. The framework further states that “project proponents must mitigate impacts that result from a new TMD project, even if those impacts occur outside of Colorado.” (Principle 7).

The Colorado Water Conservation Board voted to include the revised conceptual framework in the second draft of Colorado’s Water Plan. It is seeking one more round of comments before incorporation into the final Water Plan. Comments are due on or before September 17.

The full second draft of the conceptual framework can be read here

Posted at 08/04/2015 6:23 PM

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