By Doug Kenney
for Headwaters News
In 1998, the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission surprised many observers by identifying population growth as the single most important driver of water-management decisions in many locales.
Certainly this is the case in Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Idaho, the nations five fastest-growing states in the 1990s (by percentage). The regional salience of growth in the West is expected to continue, as census projections call for 30 million new residents from 1995 to 2025.
A more recent report of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado found some notions about the relationship between water and growth are wrong, while others may be more profound than previously thought.
Based on approximately 70 interviews with a "whos who of Colorado water leaders, as well as a review of recent water studies and legal documents, Water and Growth in Colorado (2001) describes existing water problems and potential solutions in the state.
While many of the issues identified are not the direct result of population growth, the rapid increase in municipal water demands has brought a greater sense of urgency to almost all facets of Colorado water development and management.
One goal of the study is to interject water issues into ongoing state discussions about growth and growth management. It begins by dispelling the popular notion that water development is a precursor to growth, and that a lack of water will slow growth.
Abundant water supplies in Pueblo have done little to promote growth, just as a lack of renewable water has not tempered development in the nations fastest-growing region: Douglas County.
Managing growth through water policy, therefore, is probably not an option worth considering.
Region's water use dictated by growth
By Greg Lakes, editor
July 17, 2002
Parts of the region that grew the most in the past decade are now panting through the worst drought in a half-century, yet most of the envisioned solutions are aimed at feeding more growth.
In Colorado, observers were stunned at the progress one bill made in the state's special session last week, a proposal that would have given a state panel $10 billion in bonding authority for new water projects that cleared the House in just three days.
Supporters, including Gov. Bill Owens and Front Range cities officials, farmers and developers, said it was a way to provide the water the region would need for future growth.
Critics, including environmentalists and Western Slope officials and farmers, said it was yet another assault on their water by the more populous and more powerful cities across the Divide.
Both sides said the politics were shrewd, pushing for massive spending authority when most of the state's voters were watching their lawns and gardens wilt.
The bill started at $1 billion and ramped up to $10 billion in two quick amendments, and while backers insisted it would be spread in small amounts over a variety of smaller projects, critics feared a return of massive dams and grand schemes.
Two often-mentioned proposals still on the drawing boards are a project to catch some of the headwaters of the Gunnison River and send it east, and another to siphon water out of the Colorado River near the Utah border and pipe it back over the Divide to the Front Range.
Even if new projects deliver more water, there's a built-in inequity over who gets it. In Phoenix and Tucson, there are no restrictions on lawns or car-washing, or on water parks, swimming pools, golf courses and new developments.
Farmers in certain areas have yet to see their irrigation restricted, and they're reaping a windfall selling alfalfa to their less-fortunate brethren who rely on shriveled rangeland.
The difference is due to the state's distribution system: Phoenix and Tucson get their water from the Colorado, by treaty and interstate agreement, via an established infrastructure.
Other parts of the state depend on runoff and ground water, and are more susceptible to drought.
Developers and officials in the big cities aren't about to give up their water, lest they forfeit their legal rights, and even if they were willing, they say there's no way to distribute it elsewhere.
And again, those hardest hit by the drought are those with the least political clout, particularly Arizona's Navajo. Tribal ranchers have been liquidating herds they can't water, for prices driven down by the crisis.
One tribal hydrologist said most of the reservation's 7,500 ponds have dried up, deep-water aquifers are empty and as many as 10,000 animals already have died.
So what do water-starved communities envision? Santa Fe officials are considering water-driven limits on growth, but a study by the University of New Mexico concluded that imposition of a "water budget" would only push new development outside the city and contribute to increased sprawl.
In rapidly growing Reno, city leaders picked through a dozen scenarios and backed a $32 million plan that would tap three creeks, build two treatment plants to remove arsenic and supposedly supply water for 20,000 new homes until 2028.
Throughout the region, cities have progressively usurped an increasing amount of the available water. In Arizona, in the 1960s, 80 percent was used for agriculture and 20 percent for residents and businesses, a ratio that is now reversed.
The Central Utah Project -- part of the Bureau of Reclamation's last big effort on the Colorado, built to deliver water to farmers in the Salt Lake Valley -- was turned over to the Central Utah Water Conservancy District in 1992 to supply the increasingly urban Wasatch Front.
Since, those thirsty Front cities have proposed a series of dams on the three tributaries that provide 70 percent of the inflows to the Great Salt Lake.
Two of the most controversial dams on the Bear River, which would have drained the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, were eliminated from consideration by Gov. Mike Leavitt last February. But that leaves
at least four proposed dams on the Bear River alone. And the words of one Salt Lake City activist doubtless will apply across the region:
"It's going to be fights and fights and fights."
The more relevant connection is the impact that growth is having on the states water resources. Unfortunately, growing municipal water demands, particularly along the Front Range, generate a wide range of water-related impacts.
Heading this list are depleted streamflows, water pollution, water scarcity, interstate disputes, rising water prices and economic uncertainties.
Additionally, the relationship of growth to drought vulnerability is of particular interest this year, as much of the state is experiencing its first significant drought in a quarter-century.
With 1.7 million new Colorado residents expected in the next two decades, the impact of growth on water resources figures to be a lasting concern.
In many locales, the result of growth is manifest in increased competition for water between the municipal, agricultural and environmental sectors, and between the East and West Slopes.
(Colorado is bisected by the Continental Divide into two halves, with the East Slope containing most of the people in the cities along the Front Range, and the mountainous West Slope possessing most of the water.)
Among water providers, the nature and intensity of this competition varies greatly due to different water rights portfolios and infrastructures. Well-established cities, such as Denver, are generally in a favored position, due to abundant senior rights and extensive water infrastructures, while the younger and faster-growing suburbs, such as Aurora, face a more formidable challenge keeping water budgets in the black and lawns in the green.
The range of coping strategies is also diverse, increasingly featuring environmentally sensitive water developments, an emphasis on agricultural-to-urban water transfers, and a commitment to using existing supplies more efficiently.
Specific tools include cooperative and joint water developments, small-scale and off-stream water storage, market-based water reallocations, temporary water transfers, ground-water development and conjunctive use, integration and coordinated operation of water systems, wastewater reuse, conservation and demand management, and the pursuit of cooperative solutions to environmental problems.
These water-management strategies and tools figure to play a prominent role in shaping how Colorado deals with growth pressures.
In addition to these notable innovations, managing water in a period of sustained growth will likely require reforming laws that discourage conservation, recognizing the true economics of water development and use, and perhaps reconsidering how we, as Westerners, value and use our limited water resources.
Pursuing reforms of this nature, however, are generally beyond the scope of water providers, but rather require a level of political leadership, public involvement and focused planning not typically seen on water issues. It is unclear if the region has sufficient leadership to pursue this full suite of water management reforms.
Part of the political challenge stems from the fact that the impacts of municipal growth generally are borne by the environmental and agricultural sectors, well beyond the sight of most municipal residents.
For example, trans-mountain water diversions serving Front Range cities often do so at the expense of streamflows on the West Slope and foothills, and have left some mountain communities struggling to find locally available water not already claimed by distant cities.
Other communities, such as those in the Rocky Ford area in southeastern Colorado, have seen local irrigation water and the associated agricultural economy exported to distant municipalities.
Other negative impacts, such as water pollution, simply flow downstream to other communities and neighboring states. Meanwhile, in the cities, the taps continue to flow uninterrupted.
This same calculus is found throughout the Western states; namely, the municipal sector, in most cases, will be the last to directly feel the water-related impacts of municipal growth. This bodes poorly for groups trying to mobilize political action protecting ecological resources and rural agricultural communities.
While these are issues of concern to most municipal residents, they dont immediately come to mind when watering the lawn or washing the car. But they should.
The 191-page Water and Growth in Colorado (2001) report features 13 pages of maps and figures, a detailed index, and more than 900 footnotes citing more than 400 sources. It is available for $20 (plus $4 postage and handling), or $10 (plus $3 postage and handling) in the CD format, from the Natural Resources Law Center (303-492-1286 or 303-492-1272; email@example.com).
A 16-page "Summary Report," responses to frequently asked questions about water and growth in Colorado, and additional information can be viewed at http://www.Colorado.EDU/Law/NRLC/waterandgrowth.html.
Doug Kenney is research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center, and project manager and co-author of the report.