Water planning: What Colorado could learn from Texas

Craig Mackey

Following an executive order from Gov. John Hickenlooper in May 2013, Colorado commenced creating its first statewide water plan. Other western states have already done this, most notably Texas. And for Coloradans, it’s certainly worth learning from Texas – borrowing from what has already been proved to work and avoiding what does not.

Recently at the Infocast Colorado Water Summit held in Denver, the seminar “What Lessons Can Colorado Learn from Texas’s Approach to Water Problems?” provided key insights. Since 1997, Texas has developed a statewide water plan and reshaped it every five years; the most recent one was issued in 2012. The Texas state plan is basically a combination of 16 regional plans, each with its own set of 50-year projected water demands and new water-supply strategies. The 2012 plan projects a statewide gap between supply and demand of 8.3 million acre-feet in 2060 that would require a whopping $53 billion in new water-supply strategies. This jarring forecast prompted the Texas Legislature and voters to approve a new $2 billion revolving-loan fund, providing support for projects included in the state plan – with the requirement at least 20 percent of the funds be spent on conservation and reuse across all sectors as well as an additional 10 percent set aside for agriculture conservation and rural areas.

What can Colorado learn from this? First, the Texas planning process virtually gives free rein to the regional demand projections over the next 50 years, often leading to over-projection of future water demand. The process also led to a long wish list of projects that add up to a $53 billion price tag. Most of the very expensive projects are to meet speculative needs far in the future. And many of those are controversial reservoirs and pipelines that would be built to move water all over the state, inviting extensive regulatory challenges. That is something for Colorado water planners to scrutinize closely as similar ideas for pipelines are floated and the competing needs of Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range communities collide.

Colorado could take a more pragmatic, cost-efficient approach by placing more emphasis on what could be done to meet realistic demands in the next 10 or 20 years and avoiding complex projects that may never be needed. Both the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study and Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper point to water conservation as the first step in any discussion about water. Conservation practices are cost-efficient and can be implemented almost immediately. Basic measures including increasing indoor and outdoor efficiency as Colorado’s cities and towns grow could reduce today’s water use levels 35 percent by 2050. Water recycling programs and flexible water-sharing agreements between agricultural producers and growing communities are a big part of new supply. Pursuing new trans-mountain diversions – taking water from West Slope rivers to Front Range populations – would be costly, controversial and may prove unnecessary.

Second, the Texas planning process does not adequately address how much water will be needed to keep streams and rivers healthy, ensuring wildlife and vegetation can have the water needed to survive and flourish. In the Colorado River basin, healthy river flows support a $26 billion outdoor recreation economy; that includes over $9 billion on Colorado’s Western Slope. Serving the thousands who flock to the banks of the Colorado River and its tributaries are countless local businesses and communities whose livelihoods depend on healthy-river flows. It is therefore imperative that Colorado’s water plan give equal billing to healthy rivers – a vital component of the state’s economy and an integral part of the Colorado experience cherished by residents and visitors – alongside the need for water in our cities and farms and ranches.

Third, when it comes to state spending (or other forms of support) on water projects, priorities need to be clearly established. The Texas Water Development Board is now struggling to implement a complex prioritization system to implement the new $2 billion loan fund. Colorado, with guidance from the Legislature, could ensure any state money is allocated only to cost-effective, sustainable projects that provide the broadest public benefits possible, including protecting Colorado’s rivers.

The Colorado Water Plan is an important chance to establish a sensible course for water use for decades to come. By learning from Texas and other states, Colorado water planners can see more clearly what directions are best and what are best avoided. And it seems the best choices are simple: keeping Colorado’s rivers healthy and flowing; increasing water efficiency and conservation; and ensuring efficient and modernized agricultural water use. A Colorado Water Plan prioritizing these choices will go a long way to serving everyone’s water needs and will ensure the healthy river flows that support local businesses and power Colorado’s bountiful outdoor recreation economy.

Andrew Sansom is the executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and Environment at Texas State University and frequently enjoys the spectacular trout fishing provided by Colorado streams. Craig Mackey is co-director of Protect the Flows, a coalition of over 1,100 businesses that supports a healthy and flowing Colorado River system.

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