Tuesday, January 22, 2013


J. Craig Green, P.E.
Colorado Water Engineer


You may not realize it, but 2012 was almost as dry as the record drought year Colorado experienced a decade ago. One reason you haven't heard about it is that water users (cities, farmers, water districts, industries, etc.) have spent large amounts of money on conservation, improved efficiency, water storage and other traditional means of drought planning since then. This routine, self-interested water planning - which takes place every year - largely goes unreported unless there is a compelling reason making it newsworthy. Except for some articles, especially in agricultural cities like Greeley, Pueblo and Grand Junction, 2012 did not create the hysteria of 2002.

In 2003, I drafted the following article in response to the 2002 drought - Colorado's driest year in recorded history (based on a century of streamflow records). More specifically, the article was written in response to an unusually large number of bills proposing to change Colorado Water Law submitted to the Colorado General Assembly (Colorado's legislature) after the drought. Too many of these proposals were poorly thought out, driven by the emotion of a record dry year.

The article was never published, but I offer it here to document the reasons why proposed Referendum A in 2003 was such a bad idea, as I expect this kind of proposal will return to Colorado politics following future drought years. If many large reservoirs on the South Platte River downstream of Denver don't fill this winter and spring, we could be in for a second extremely dry year in a row, making the kind of news stories we saw in 2002.

In 2003, I was particularly struck by the flood of proposed water bills in the 2002-03 legislative session, some of which made no sense at all, as I discussed then:


It seems like a political opportunity to address some hot topic commanding the attention of the public-at-large is sometimes so compelling as to encourage abandoning all reason.


The record drought of 2002 and its aftermath seemed to take a toll on sanity. Water projects normally dismissed as grandiose or infeasible were suddenly models of planning wisdom. Water bills for the 2003 legislative session were stacked up like cordwood. You could almost hear the sucking sound from your checkbook as special interests hovered around the state capitol to propose multi-BILLION dollar slush funds for… well, their promoters couldn’t tell us for what.

In fact, that was what was wrong with Referendum A, soundly defeated by the voters in November of 2003. It would have created a two-to-four billion dollar increase in public debt, completely controlled by one person – the governor. Of course, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) was to be involved, but who appoints its members? The Governor. As jaded as I sometimes get about voters’ whims, I was pleased to see this gigantic taxpayer rip-off defeated, despite all the drought hysteria under the promise of building water projects. It had nothing to do with building economical, sensible water projects – it was all about pretending to solve water problems, with a complete lack of accountability.

Since 2002, water providers throughout the state have been busy revising their drought projections based on the new realities that 2002 presented them. Water planners for cities continue to figure out what combination of new supplies, better efficiencies and more conservation makes sense in the future. Many water problems have being solved, but the climate is ripe again for legislating promises for cheaper water, which is more often wasted than conserved. Some who realize this try to make water more expensive by law, rather than allow markets set prices based on supply and demand. Politics can be a magnet for hysteria.

Water in Colorado is complicated, but there are some simple facts. Only a small part of Colorado’s water will ever likely be used by cities and industries – most of it will remain in irrigation, which currently accounts for about 85% for all water use in the state. Many farmers and ranchers were hardest hit by the 2002 drought, since their livelihoods depend on a variable, moving resource that hit a modern low that year.

About half the water used in Colorado cities is for growing bluegrass lawns, golf courses and parks. Buffalo grass takes a lot less water, withstands drought better, and would go a long way to reduce summer water demands. Cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs have led the way with their “xeriscape” programs to plant native, drought-tolerant plants and other landscaping features that use less (or no) water. In addition, cities and water districts around the state have found that putting meters on old accounts has significantly reduced water use. Ask any municipal water department manager in the state about the effect of water meters on consumption.

Less than one percent of the water used inside your house is for drinking and cooking, so claims of “thirsty” citizens as we saw in 2002 are usually exaggerated, though many lawns went brown. Denver and other municipalities have already developed financial incentives for installing low flow devices in homes and have implemented new pricing structures to encourage conservation.

Though many people want to restrict water rights sales from farmers to cities, those cities frequently provide a higher market value for water rights that agriculture could not otherwise afford. It makes sense for some farmers and ranchers to sell (or temporarily lease) water to cities, especially in dry years, but this should be done without injuring other water right owners. Colorado’s existing water court system (developed mostly from common law and free markets in water) and most water plans approved by the State Engineer are designed to prevent this injury. They sometimes fail, but the current system works well, and should not be changed to accommodate the short-sighted emotion that so often drives the political process.

Cities and other water providers (including irrigation ditch companies) have a huge incentive to solve their own problems because they answer directly to water customers. Several municipal water providers reported savings from 10 to 30 percent in 2002’s record dry summer, so the last thing they need is the State of Colorado or the feds telling them how to run their water systems. If they still don’t have enough water, they may have to conserve more – just like you conserve money when your checkbook balance is low. As cities’ experience with water meters has shown – artificially cheap (below market) water encourages waste.

The Fish

I don’t know how, but apparently a few humpback chubs and native brown trout have elected some people to represent them. They think more water for fish should be taken away from people with legal rights to that water, because cities do terrible things like irrigate golf courses. They forget cities often help fish by transferring upstream irrigation water rights to downstream cities (increasing streamflows in between), although cities, ranchers and farmers compete with fish elsewhere to reduce streamflows. Rather than buy senior water rights to protect fish (a fair solution), their representatives often ask the legislature and federal agencies to suddenly make old, senior water rights subordinate to their tasty constituents. Since Colorado water rights are property rights, this is like asking the legislature to steal your neighbor's car, which it may do if a large enough mob of voters or lobbyists wants it.

Cries of “save our water” echo at the Colorado/Utah state line as the Colorado River drops an average of about 4.6 million acre feet a year into downstream states. An acre foot is one acre of water (about the size of a football field), one foot deep - about 326,000 gallons. Colorado is entitled to use a lot more water from the Colorado River than it does now, through old (1922 and 1948) interstate agreements called compacts. Southern California’s growing demand (supplied largely from the Colorado River) could jeopardize this right in the future, because Californians are using this water (for free) and we Coloradans aren’t. Interstate water issues are the domain of Congress, not the State, so you can imagine how rational and sane those issues will be in the future. California has 53 congressional districts to Colorado’s 7, so Coloradans have a lot more control over their own city councils and state legislature than Congress. If Colorado water users don’t need or can’t afford to build the facilities they want for future demands, why not sell part of Colorado’s compact entitlement to California? There, I’ve said it. Slap my face and get the tar and feathers. Selling part of Colorado’s claim to water it will likely never use could provide the funds for developing water it can use, without taxing Colorado citizens. But, anything dealing with the feds can be touch-and-go.

Hopefully sanity will return, but as long as citizens keep running to the state capitol for more soggy handouts, I wonder. The Colorado General Assembly will probably be asked to force taxpayers to fund poorly thought out water projects and to change water laws without understanding the consequences. Will its members display the statesmanship necessary to avoid these destructive tendencies as it has in the past? Only time will tell, but I am now warning you against other, more expensive, and even insane, proposals for changing Colorado Water Law in the future such as this one, which didn't collect enough signatures to get on the ballot in 2012:


Please be careful, and don't let uninformed promoters of political dogma destroy a beneficial water law and allocation system that has worked well for 160 years.


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