Aurora officials worry state water plan doesn’t do enough

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Colorado has released its first-ever water plan for the entire state, which talks about ways the state can deal with a fast-growing population that could run out of water by 2050.

Fishermen wait for a bite Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 15 at the Aurora Reservoir. The city's water officials say that while the Anadarko Petroleum Corp. water lease deal was high profile, the city has been leasing water to entities for years. Aurora City Council members agreed to lease effluent, or used water to Anadarko in July for hydraulic fracturing purposes, and the company is paying the city $9.5 million over five years for the water.  (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)The plan presents nearly 500 pages of solutions for more water that include improving the permitting process, funding more storage and reducing the state’s projected 2050 municipal water demands by 400,000 acre-feet through conservation. That equates to a nearly 1-percent annual reduction in  water use for the state’s cities and towns, according to the advocacy groups Conservation Colorado and Western Resource Advocates.

Aurora Water officials say they are disappointed with that goal because it could overly burden Front Range cities.

“I view the plan as a good starting point,” said Marshall Brown, director of Aurora Water. “To address this gap is going to require cooperation across all water users in the state. It’s not just addressed by focusing on the municipal sector.”

Brown said municipal and industrial use accounts for less than eight percent of the state’s water use, while agricultural use makes up the lion’s share.

According to the state’s water plan, 70 to 80 percent of Colorado’s water falls west of the Continental Divide, while 80 to 90 percent of the state’s population resides east of it. Twenty-four tunnels and ditches move an annual average of 500,000 acre-feet from the western slope to the eastern slope. More than 5 million acre-feet of water is consumed annually through agriculture, municipal and industrial uses.

Aurora has proven a leader in Colorado when it comes to water conservation with its innovative Prairie Waters Project, which developed in response to the 2003 drought.

The $653-million project increased Aurora’s water supply by 20 percent when it was completed, and today provides the city with an additional 3.3 billion gallons of water per year.

“It’s going to be difficult to come up with new savings when we already have a lot of the suggestions in place,” Brown said of the water plan.

Aurora water officials also said they are concerned about the plan’s discouragement for more water diversions, stating Colorado watersheds and ecosystems cannot handle any more of them.

“In fact, new diversions and storage will be needed to develop collaborative, regional projects,” said Joe Stibrich, a water resources policy manager with the city, in October.

Advocates of the plan have touted that the plan makes large, new river diversions from the Western Slope to the Front Range highly unlikely.

“A framework presented in the plan about how to make decisions on these projects will help ensure the expense, time and alternative approaches are thoroughly considered,” wrote Bart Miller, director of the Healthy Rivers Program for Western Resources Advocates, in a column for the Aurora Sentinel. “There are cheaper, faster and better ways to meet our water needs than piping water west to east over the Rockies.”

The plan is the product of two and a half years of collaboration and public participation, with more than 30,000 public comments submitted since the plan was first drafted.

The plan does not yet have any legislation to enact its recommendations. That will be the role of state and local governments in coming months.

“This is a moment for Coloradans to be proud,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, in a statement. “For 150 years water has been a source of conflict in our state. More recently, that story is changing, and Colorado’s Water Plan — a product of literally thousands of meetings and conversations across our state — is the best evidence yet for a new way of doing our water business.”