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A water balancing act

An Associated Press interview with Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board James Eklund caused a stir earlier this year when he said, “If anybody thought we were going to roll over and say, ‘OK, California, you’re in a really bad drought, you get to use the water that we were going to use,’ they’re mistaken.”

After several colleagues said they were somewhat shocked by the statement, Eklund, who spearheads state water policy and is senior deputy legal counsel to the governor, scaled back his comments in an interview with Fox News saying Colorado is not trying to “flex its muscle” when it comes to water between the two states.

The Colorado River, which starts in the Rockies and runs through Colorado’s Western Slope, is at the center of many worries in both California and Colorado, and other regional states, because it supplies water to 40 million people in the driest part of the nation.

PuebloDam
After the authorization of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, the Pueblo Dam was constructed between 1970 and 1975. Photo courtesy of the Pueblo City-County Library District

Currently, how much water is sent downstream is according to the 1922 Colorado River Compact – which was established in a particularly wet period. The amount is predetermined, but because Colorado gets more the share than it usually needs, Colorado has allowed California to take extra water. Eklund is working, reworking and speaking with people around the state for a plan that would keep the water that belongs to Colorado here for future use.

In 2013, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order to water officials around the state to devise and present a plan by Dec. 2014 for meeting water needs for the next 40 years. This has become the “Colorado Water Plan.” It’s only a draft right now. Hickenlooper’s goal is to have a concrete plan by December. This is what Eklund has been working on.

With so much focus on drought in California, a state that has depleted water tables and is now considering transforming ocean water into drinkable water, and a lot of talk in Colorado about how to better manage water many people wonder what that means for their own region.

Jim Broderick, executive director of the Southern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said it is almost impossible the 1922 compact will ever be amended, updated or changed in any way. It’s a contract between each of the states the river supplies water to, and it’d have to be done through the Supreme Court.

The plan offers “collaborative solutions” such as efforts to conserve water, reusing and recycling and options to prevent farming land from drying up like it has in California.

So, why a plan now?

In short, drought. Since 2002, the state has been studying water and it’s apparent now more than ever that there is a growing gap between the finite resource and its need.

“In a single year, we have experienced severe drought followed by severe flooding,” the Department of Natural Resources wrote in a June update. “This climactic variability in our water supply emphasizes the need to strategically plan for the future, now more than ever.”

If the Colorado River is managed differently it would possibly mean change for portions of the state, such as Colorado’s eastern slope and communities along the Arkansas River in Southeastern Colorado.

“Upper and lower basins are working to see if there are areas where they can help each other, and that can be done by a litany of things from following what (California) Gov. Brown has done with conservation to the lower basin not taking as much,” Broderick said.

Managing water in the state differently means getting better at the balancing act.

“Whenever you have a catastrophic event like this (California’s drought) people start thinking differently.” – Jim Broderick, executive director of the Southern Colorado Water Conservancy District

Citizens, farms and towns along the Arkansas River heading east rely on the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project for water. The project, approved by John F. Kennedy in 1962, is a series of tunnels and piping that also brings water from the Colorado River into the Arkansas Basin. However, most of the water that makes its way downstream and out east is snowfall that would naturally flow east.

Getting approval for the project was tough and highly political more than 50 years ago.

“The project drew heavy fire in the House–from those who ridiculed the idea of a trans-mountain tunnel as a “Rube Goldberg Project” and those who asserted the $170 million will simply be money thrown away,” said former-Rep. Morris Udall in a 1962 report. “One of the principal critics of the tunnel idea was a Long Beach Congressman whose people turn on their taps to draw water which has come 200 miles across the desert from the Colorado River through many mountain tunnels.”

The sentiment is as relevant today as it was in 1962. Water is a tough business and when one aspect is changed it leads to a domino effect. Only so much water exists, everybody is in need and demand is increasing.

Broderick said managing water is just like completing a puzzle. Water rights and physical restrictions, such as a reservoir being at full capacity, make the job tedious and technical. There’s also politics, which is always closely tied to weather and climate.

Broderick said it is, for the most part, tough to say what could happen for Southeastern Colorado on a broad scale with the plan. Does it mean the Southeastern region of the state will see less water? Most likely not. That’s water the region is entitled to.

Right now, it still takes a great deal of studying and planning.

Around March, when the snowpack begins to melt, he can tell from historic patterns whether agriculture will have a tough growing season. If the trend is looking bleak in March, farmers will make arrangements to their crop plans. Plant less, or something different entirely.

For municipalities, reservoirs serve as storage. So, in a dry year there the effects of a drought aren’t always felt as harshly. The Pueblo Reservoir, which holds a lot more than just Pueblo’s water, stores three years worth of water for the city.

“The problem is not drought years, it’s the wet years because that water is gone the next year,” Broderick said.

John F Kennedy in Pueblo
John Carroll presents John F. Kennedy an engraved frying pan at Dutch Clark Stadium upon the appropriation of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project in 1962. Photo courtesy of Pueblo City-County Library District

Meaning, there is no rollover. If there isn’t a place to store the water, the owner doesn’t get to claim it once there’s room. So, really, a major piece becomes storage.

At the beginning of April, snowpack in Colorado was at 65 percent of average. But the state is doing better than average on storage. Reservoirs are at 108 percent of average. So, even with less water it doesn’t necessarily feel like it to average citizens.

“Whenever you have a catastrophic event like this (California’s drought) people start thinking differently,” Broderick said. So, the Colorado Water Plan isn’t much of a surprise. It’s tweaking to get the most out of the state’s water.

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Written by Kara Mason

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Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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