In 2015, then-Governor John Hickenlooper signed a momentous document into being – the Colorado Water Plan. At the time, decades of analysis concluded that a gap was widening between the limited supply of water and an increasing demand from users. This gap in water supply and demand would only grow worse and more insurmountable without decisive action. Simply conserving water wasn’t enough. The drought of 2002 drove home the fact that a decreasing and erratic snowpack would become the norm, wreaking havoc on communities and river systems across the state. Lawmakers, farmers, water managers, and others saw the writing on the wall and determined to be strategic and proactive. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the government agency tasked with overseeing water supply and management and utilizing technical data and analysis to assist decision making, were key partners in spearheading the unprecedented strategy. They couldn’t undertake the entire process on their own and looked to the Roundtables for on the ground planning. The Roundtables, one for each major river basin plus an additional Roundtable serving the Denver metro population, were created in 2004 as a regional answer to address water needs as identified by a variety of stakeholders. All of these partners were needed to become the task force which created the first ever Colorado Water Plan.
These five hundred plus pages of graphs, data, photos, and text combined to tell the story of each of Colorado’s major river basins. But more than that, it creates a compass for Colorado’s basins to identify and implement projects in their region that addressed a multitude of issues such as stream flows, reservoir storage capacity, agricultural sustainability, environmental needs, water administration, and even education and outreach on water topics. The Colorado Water Plan includes five major areas of water use: Municipal & Industrial, Agriculture, Environment & Recreation, Water Administration and Education & Outreach. Each of these areas affects all the river basins; however, water leaders recognize that the plan could not be a one size fits all effort. Geography, population, tourism, and other factors affect each region differently, so state officials decided to utilize the leadership of local roundtables. The resulting comprehensive state plan was made possible by thousands of hours of donated time from people in each basin who created an individual plan outlining the needs of their region and highlighting potential projects to address those needs. This basin implementation plan process, or BIP, allowed each basin to prioritize projects and informed the larger Water Plan’s goals and objectives. With many projects completed and numerous goals met over the past five years, new ones are needed to answer the increasingly pressing question of how to adequately meet diverse water needs with an ever-dwindling supply. To that end, the Colorado Water Plan is in its first iteration of updates, scheduled for completion in 2021.
For the past two years, CWCB staff has worked with stakeholders in all basins, as well as engineering firms, to complete data analysis through Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs) using updated data and the most up to date modeling tools available. These teams created five potential future scenarios facing Coloradans in the next 20-50 years. Each scenario incorporates existing data from the basins regarding current water use coupled with projected water use, population and economic growth, and, in some scenarios, potential impacts of climate change on water supply and use.
These technical updates necessitate an updated Basin Implementation Plan incorporating the modeling and identifying where other data gaps exist. In addition, projects which will address the gaps and meet Basin goals and objectives need to be prioritized for the next five years. Just as in the first BIP process, stakeholders from the Rio Grande Basin are encouraged to participate in subcommittees on each of the five target areas. This update process will be facilitated by a Local Expert who has been trained in coordination with Local Experts from other basins by the state’s general contractor for the 2021 Water Plan. The Rio Grande Local Expert is the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) staff, with Daniel Boyes as lead expert. The RGHRP was involved in the first BIP and works to improve the health of streams and riparian areas across the San Luis Valley and recently completed Stream Management Plans for the Rio Grande, Conejos River and Saguache Creek. Boyes and the other RGHRP staff have begun holding meetings to determine project possibilities and data gaps within the five key areas with community members providing valuable input. These meetings will determine what projects, goals, and objectives represent the Rio Grande Basin’s priorities for each of the key areas, providing once again valuable input to the overall state water plan.
With a below average snowpack for 2020 and no guarantee of continuing moisture or increased snow in 2021 or beyond, the Rio Grande Basin will face similar challenges as the rest of the state over the coming years. The creation of subdistricts to meet aquifer sustainability requirements, newly approved well rules and regulations for groundwater use, and the new SLV radar are unique local responses to these challenges. Participating in identifying and prioritizing new projects and goals is a simple way for the community to involve themselves with these crucial water decisions. With the help of the community, Rio Grande water leaders are working diligently to ensure our resources are able to meet needs and continue our San Luis Valley way of life.
The current Colorado Water Plan can be found at https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cowaterplan/plan and the Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan is online at http://rgbrt.org/rgbip-update/. To get involved or receive information about the current Rio Grande BIP process, please contact Daniel Boyes at [email protected]. Any community member from the six counties of the San Luis Valley is encouraged to attend Rio Grande Basin Roundtable’s monthly meetings (currently held virtually, with agenda and meeting information available at www.rgbrt.org), visit the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable’s Facebook page, or sign up for the quarterly Roundtable newsletter at [email protected] to learn more about upcoming BIP meetings and timelines.