Prospects are for the state's population to double by 2050, while the state's water supply does not increase - and it could even decrease with climate change.
That's driving creation of the Colorado Water Plan, which was initiated in May 2013 by an executive order from Gov. John Hickenlooper. The draft plan is due in December, with the final plan in December 2015.
Eight drainage basin roundtables are creating their own implementation plans to be part of the statewide plan.
Members of the Southwest Basin Water Roundtable hosted a Nov. 19 meeting in Bayfield to give an update and take comments. They also hosted a meeting last week in Pagosa Springs. They will have meetings in Mancos on Dec. 1 and Placerville on Dec. 9.
The Southwest Basin has nine sub-basins, with eight rivers that flow out of state, including the Pine, Piedra, Animas, San Juan, and La Plata Rivers. They are all part of the multi-state Colorado River Basin.
Roundtable implementation planning team member Carrie Lile presented fundamental statistics in creation of the basin and statewide plans: the Western Slope has 85 percent of the state's water but only 12 percent of population, while the Front Range has 15 percent of the water and 88 percent of the population.
One result has been years of tran-mountain water diversions from the West Slope to Front Range urban areas, as well as Front Range water entities buying agricultural water rights and drying up farm and ranch land.
Another fundamental statistic is that 89 percent of water in the state is used for agriculture.
"A significant part of the plan is to prevent buy and dry, to balance water needs around the state," Lile said.
Roundtable member Bruce Whitehead said the state plan has focused on four things: water conservation (such as lawn watering); already identified projects and processes (IPPs) that could be completed (such as Front Range storage projects); "new supply," which means more trans-mountain diversions; and buy and dry.
Whitehead said the Southwest Basin Roundtable and another entity called the Inter-Basin Compact Committee (IBCC) are pushing conservation and water projects to take pressure off ag and trans-mountain diversions. They also are adamant about preserving the state's prior appropriation system and private water rights.
Whitehead cited consumptive use of water versus the preferred non-consumptive use where all or most of the water theoretically returns to the stream. From the West Slope perspective, trans-mountain diversions are 100 percent consumptive, he said. None of that water comes back.
"Our basin is more focussed on (the idea that) we can't afford to continue to do business the way we have in the state," Whitehead said.
Pine River Irrigation District board member Phil Lane asked if conservation would be promoted with incentives or penalties.
There's nothing definitive on that, Whitehead said. "There have been discussions of incentives. In our basin, we looked more at (applying this to) new development. Most consumption isn't inside use. It's by outside use." He cited the "lawn bill" sponsored by State Sen. Ellen Roberts in spring 2014. With opposition from urban water interests, it was changed to a study of the situation.
Lawn watering is more of a consumptive use because of evaporation, versus urban inside use where the sink, shower, or toilet water goes to a treatment plant and back to the river. A roundtable goal is to increase the percentage of inside versus outside use.
How would lawn watering be regulated? Lane asked.
"This is to start the conversation of how to conserve," Whitehead said. "We've stressed that before you look at (water from) other basins, fully develop your own water, including storage."
Conservation could be encouraged by tiered water rates, he said. "Leave it to local governments to reduce outside use. No mandates," he said.
For example, the Bayfield Town Board has set alternate day yard watering to go into effect automatically from mid-May to mid-September to reduce peak summer demand.
More efficient ag use also is on the table.
Local rancher Wayne Semler noted, "Sometimes more efficient use means less return flow."
Oxford area rancher Ralph Klusman said, "If we create more efficiencies, I don't want that water to go somewhere else. I want it to stay here."
Roundtable representative Ann Oliver said, "We took an approach recognizing that sometimes water uses compete. We gave value to all of them."
Oliver said the basin plan has 21 goals that aim to balance all needs and reduce conflicts, maintain ag water, meet municipal and industrial needs, meet recreational and environmental needs, preserve water quality, and meet Colorado River Compact requirements.
Various compacts dating back to 1922 divvy up water, much of which originates in Colorado, among three Upper Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico) and four Lower Basin states (California, Nevada, Arizona, and part of Utah).
Whitehead said, "The compact allotments are more than what exists, especially in the last several years. Lake Powell is our bank account for the Upper Basin" to meet requirements to the Lower Basin states.
He noted estimates have ranged from zero to 1 million acre feet of water available for new uses in the Colorado River Basin. "We want to make sure that as development occurs, that more consumptive uses or diversions could create a compact situation where anything (water projects or rights) after 1928 or '29 could be at risk." The goal is to manage that risk, he said.
Oliver returned to conservation as part of that, and shifting more urban water use to inside use.
Whitehead said trans-mountain diversions move around 500,000 acre feet a year to the Front Range, and that ties in with compact obligations.
Oliver said the roundtable's criteria to be met before more diversions include clarification of the state position on how curtailments would be administered (e.g. whose water use gets cut) to meet compact deliveries to the Lower Basin states.
An audience member asked about the current Environmental Protection Agency proposal to change the definition of "Waters of the U.S." under the Clean Water Act.
Chuck Wanner said he is a member of the state Water Quality Control Commission, which is a delegated authority under the Clean Water Act. He said of the Waters of the U.S. issue, "Personally I don't think it's a big issue for us... I don't think it will affect the quantity of water we have to work with."
Whitehead agreed there is a lot of concern about the waters of the U.S. definition, "but does it expand what's administered under federal law? Ag people think it does. I kind of agree with Chuck that it doesn't affect water quantity, but it could affect federal jurisdiction."
Wanner said, "Colorado has its own law about that. It doesn't seem very scary to me. We have our own law that's delegated authority. A lot of the things people are concerned about, it looks like an expansion, but that's because in recent years it (federal jurisdiction) was set back."
Whitehead responded, "There are differences of opinion on that."
Oliver said the Roundtable will look at this issue because of the number of people who have expressed concern.
Comments on draft basin implemention plans are due by March 2015. Comments on the draft state plan are due by May 2015. The second draft of the state plan is supposed to be released for public comment in July 2015, with comments due by September.
The state plan and basin implementation plans are at www.coloradowaterplan.com.
Comments can be submitted to Lile at 259-5322 or email@example.com; or to Oliver at 903-9361 or firstname.lastname@example.org.