Will the Colorado Water Plan Work?

Oct 20, 2015

Fishing in the Upper Colorado River. Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Fishing in the Upper Colorado River. Photo by Sinjin Eberle

A recent magazine article asked the question: “Can a Water Plan Actually Work?”‘

According to Ken Neubecker, it all depends.

What follows is a reprint of Neubecker’s post on the topic. He is associate director of the Colorado Basin Program for American Rivers:

In a recent 5280 magazine article, Kate Siber asked, “Can a Water Plan Actually Work”? At times she came close, but never really answered her own question. The answer is a solid “it all depends”.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Director James Ecklund and his staff have put a tremendous amount of time, effort and political capital into the fledgling Colorado Water Plan. So have the nine Basin Roundtables and the Inter-Basin Compact Committee (IBCC). So have the thousands of people from all around the State who have been engaged, submitting comments and learning more about how water “works” in Colorado.

With support like this, how could the Water Plan fail? Well, that depends.

The success of the Colorado Water Plan depends on the sincerity and willingness to abide it receives from the established water community. When work on the Plan began, some detractors replied that Colorado already has a water plan. It’s called prior appropriation. And they are right, for the most part.

The Colorado Water Plan is an advisory document. It is a blue print for how we should manage water for all our needs, but it has no force of law behind it. Like a County Master Plan, it provides guidance for the future based on how we see it today. In Colorado, while the people own the water itself, the right to use it is an individual property right that can’t be abrogated without due process.

So the Water Plan falls back on how much people, especially people who make decisions about water use and development, respect it. The State does have some permitting authority for water projects, as do local County governments. The State also has considerable funding capacities for water projects and efforts such as the Roundtables. These can provide powerful incentives for project proponents to comply with tenets of the Water Plan, but only to the degree that decision makers continue to support the Plan.

Whether the Colorado Water Plan works or not boils down to a matter of faith – faith in our institutions to do the right thing. Change doesn’t come easy, but it will come. How we shape that change using guides like the Colorado Water Plan is how we shape our future. James Ecklund, in Kate Siber’s essay, echoes a common sentiment that “If we keep doing things the way we’ve done them for the past 100 years, we will be in trouble.” That’s putting it mildly.

No one expects the doctrine of prior appropriation to go away, but changes will be needed, especially if we want rivers and watersheds to be healthy and resilient while keeping productive agriculture and growing communities “vibrant”. Times and values have changed since 1876 and we need to understand that.

The changes also need to be in how we’ve traditionally provided for water in the past through more storage and more diversions from one side of the Continental Divide to the other.  The past is no longer a guide to the future. We need a new water paradigm for Colorado, a new way of thinking that looks more towards conservation, efficiency and 21st century technologies.

Other places with climates similar to or even drier than ours have gone in this direction. It is amazing how much the Israeli’s can squeeze from a drop of water! Doing this in Colorado will require changes in laws, traditions and practices; and that will not come easy for some.

If the Colorado Water Plan is going to work we will need to use it, not as a roadmap from the past but as a creative guide for the future. It will also take substantial goodwill and cooperation among all the users and uses we have for the scarcest of western resources, water.