Will Agriculture and Recreation Survive the Colorado Water Plan?

June 09, 2014

Moving water from the West Slope to the Front Range has never been popular in western Colorado. These “transbasin diversions” have dominated discussion and debate as Colorado moves toward completion of the state-wide water plan. But this focus on diversions obscures the larger and much more difficult question that Coloradans must address in the very near future. How can we allocate our limited water resources to support all of the four primary uses of water: agricultural, recreational, municipal and industrial?

There is only so much water in our rivers and streams. That water is increasingly going to municipal and industrial uses, often at the expense of agriculture, recreation and the magnificent streams and rivers that currently sustain these uses. While Trout Unlimited believes that additional transbasin diversions can be avoided by more diligently pursuing conservation, reuse, small-scale storage and water-sharing programs, the topic of transbasin diversions continues to dominate our water plan discussions.

Transbasin diversions won’t address the important underlying allocation questions that will ultimately decide the fate of West Slope communities. Coloradans need to ask themselves: How do we keep enough water to ensure a viable agriculture sector? What are the water requirements of a robust recreation and tourism industry? How do we ensure healthy rivers and streams? What sacrifices are we willing to make to protect these vital resources? These are the larger questions the citizens of Colorado must answer through their new water plan.

The primary consumptive uses of water are agriculture, municipal and industrial uses, while the non-consumptive uses are things like recreation and tourism that rely on healthy rivers and streams. Both uses are vital. As Colorado cities and industries grow, they require more consumptive water. In the most developed areas along the Front Range, additional water has been provided by piping it from the West Slope to the Front Range via transbasin diversions. Continued diversion of water away from West Slope rivers reduces water needed to support healthy flows in our magnificent rivers and streams, not to mention jeopardizing the $9 billion a year recreation-tourism industry that relies on healthy waters.

As municipal and industrial growth continues along the Front Range, Coloradans must decide whether to divert more water from the West Slope at the expense of our rivers and streams. We must decide whether we want to preserve viable agriculture in Colorado and cease the conversion of agricultural water rights to municipal and industrial uses—so called “buy and dry.” Finally, we must ensure enough water in the Colorado River system to meet our downstream flow obligations–interruptions in Lake Powell hydropower or curtailment of water use in the upper Colorado River basin cannot be allowed to happen.

I believe that Coloradans will choose to preserve our beautiful rivers and streams and the rural and semi-rural communities that rely on them. If we lose our farms and ranches and drain our rivers and recreational opportunities, we will lose the very essence of what makes this state so special.

Healthy rivers and streams, agriculture and recreation-tourism are bedrocks of our state culture and economy—and we must make hard choices to protect them, choices that will become increasingly difficult as time passes. If you believe these water uses are part of Colorado’s economic strength and quality of life, go to the Colorado Water Plan website and tell our water leaders that additional transbasin diversions should not be on the table now.

We can’t take our rivers for granted. It is far better to work together now and act to conserve these vital natural resources than to wake up at some time in the future and ask, “What happened to our state?”

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