River District Rallies West Slope Counties to Protect Agriculture

Nov 6, 2018

Water Managers in the Southwest United States are witnessing record levels of reservoir depletion, and Colorado’s Western Slope is feeling the stretch, especially in the agricultural sector. As KBUT’s Christopher Biddle reports, one group thinks others should share the burden.

The Colorado River Watershed is one of the most crucial water supply networks in the country. It brings water to 40 million people in the American Southwest, an area with an economy that’s equal to the fifth largest in the world.

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“All that water flows into the Colorado River and ends up down in Lake Powell, ends up feeding Las Vegas and L.A. and San Diego and Phoenix and Tuscon . . .”

That’s Andy Meuller, director of a public water planning and policy agency called the Colorado River District,

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“. . . And along the way it gets taken out to feed the needs of Denver, and Greeley, and Fort Collins, and Boulder, So all of those major cities depend on the water that originates here in Gunnison County.”

To be clear he doesn’t mean just Gunnison County, but also 14 other Counties on Colorado’s Western Slope whose water rights his organization represents. But Gunnison County does contribute a significant amount. Blue Mesa Reservoir, 20 miles east of the county seat, is the largest body of water entirely within the state of Colorado. It’s part of a system of reservoirs that includes names like Lake Powell and Lake Mead. They were built in the 50s and 60s to help fuel the American post-war expansion, and they served their purposes well. But lately, they’ve been put to the test.

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“What we’ve seen over the last 19 years is a drought that we may have seen about 13 hundred years ago in comparison but nothing in between then. No drought has lasted this long and been this severe in the Colorado River Basin. And so, we’re watching a system that was designed to handle occasional droughts based upon its reservoir capacity. But as the reservoirs have dropped, we’re looking at critical levels being hit in those reservoirs where we may not be able to produce the water that we need to deliver.”

And there’s also a risk that so much reservoir depletion would limit or eliminate the ability to make hydro-electric power for rural communities in the southwest, which also provides revenue for water sanitation and endangered species programs.

In order to avoid a worst-case scenario, the bureau of land reclamation put out a draft of new drought contingency plan earlier this year It’s the fourth version of the plan first drafted in 1922, revised in 1948 and then not again until 2007. The new plan involves drawing more water from Blue Mesa in order to fill Lake Powell. It immediately drew scorn from Western Slope water managers who said they believe front range communities should share some of the burden.

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“We on the Western Slope really are the stretch in the rubber band. We have demands to the East and the West.”

That’s Zane Kessler, communications director for the Colorado River District.

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“How we grow is going to have tremendous impacts on both water quantity and quality. And here on the Western Slope, our first priority is protecting agriculture.”

With a booming Front Range population and a state-wide population that’s supposed to double by 2060, Kessler says that’s becoming harder and harder to do, but the Colorado River District sees some solutions.

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“How do we disincentivize that type of development? How do you creat incentives or even requirements where the water use becomes less.”

That’s a clip of Andy Meuller speaking to the Board of County Commissioners in Gunnison at a recent meeting where he tried to convince the board to think about building permits, zoning laws, and other land-use regulations as tools for water conservation on the West Slope, primarily in residential developments.

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When you have formerly agricultural property, you could look at tying their exterior water use to their building permit, and say we need an analysis on how you’re going impact your neighbors and the ag community around you. What steps are you taking to conserve?

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“What’s the message you’re trying to convey to them? What decisions do you hope they’ll make in the future after this?”

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“I think at a County level…”

Again, Andy Meuller.

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“. . .One of the main functions of a county government, the way our state is set up in Colorado, is land-use. Next to roads it’s probably their most important function. So we’re asking them to think about how their land-use decisions impact the viability of productive agriculture in our state. Because we see that land-use, not only is it encroaching into agricultural lands, but it’s impacting our long-term ability to have water for use in food production. It’s a really complex series of events that will occur if we’re not careful, where our agriculture will end up having its water taken away from it to support urban areas in our state.”

For Rocky Mountain Community Radio, I’m Christopher Biddle.