This is part one of a two-part series by General Manager, Ralph "Terry" Scanga
Most discussions involving water supply or quality require a good examination of historical perspective of water development. For this reason, understanding the system by which water is and has been allocated in Colorado since statehood is a good starting point.
Water in Colorado is allocated as a private property right through a system referred to as the Appropriation Doctrine. It is the only arid Western state that utilizes a pure form of this doctrine called the “Colorado Doctrine”. This doctrine is enshrined in the State’s constitution. It is a constitutional right for the citizens of Colorado to an appropriation of water based on its beneficial use. Although many legislative statutes deal with water appropriation and use these all rely upon and must comport with the basic constitutional right granted the citizens of the state. This article is not intended to delve into the Doctrine except to point out that water rights and decrees are granted as a private property right. In fact, this system is automatically designed to apportion available water supply without undue interference from government except for the administration of the existing water decrees or through the water court.
In 2005 legislation was passed creating the inter-basin compact committee and the nine basin roundtables. The basins utilized the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (A project to calculate the available water supply compared to demand --a needs assessment) to identify the projects and processes needed to address any water supply gap out to the year 2050 for all uses- municipal, industrial, irrigation (agricultural), environmental and recreational. Water entities and individuals were involved in each basin throughout the state to develop these plans. Projects were identified and some were funded in part with grants from the state’s Colorado Water Conservation Board. The Colorado Water Plan was developed from these plans and processes. These projects have gone a long way to make available the necessary water supplies for the future. Many of the projects are ongoing and more will be needed to meet future needs.
Colorado is an arid state with future shortages forecast in the higher growth regions. In the Arkansas Basin many junior water rights were established during high precipitation periods. Due to this the Arkansas Basin today is considered an over-appropriated basin; meaning that on average there are more decreed water rights than water available. Most of these junior water rights are decreed for irrigation use in agriculture. In the Arkansas Basin shortages are forecast for all water uses.
The Colorado Water Plan is a collection of the ideas and projects on how we can meet future water demands. Meeting the future need revolves around developing new Colorado River Supplies and Alternative Agricultural Transfers coupled with storage. The Colorado River normally has water that is unused and could be utilized to fill the gaps in the higher growth regions. Presently Colorado is well ahead in meeting its Compact obligations on the Colorado River despite unsubstantiated claims from some state politicians and the administration that Colorado may be unable to meet its obligations. Agricultural irrigation uses 80 percent or more of the available supply statewide. Some of these uses could be temporarily interrupted through court approved Lease-Fallowing agreements, and the water owner compensated, to meet shortages in drier years. In wet years existing storage and new storage could be utilized to save the excess for drier times. Storage projects including alluvial storage need to be built to meet the future needs. Through the existing Appropriation System, the above plans and others are underway to meet this future need. Water storage operations could be adapted to meet multiple uses for stream management to meet increased demands for the environment and recreation. All this can and should be completed through the Colorado Doctrine of Appropriation, a strong legal framework to guarantee the security, reliability and flexibility in the development and protection of water resources.
In our next “Water Talks” article we will explore the various threats to our water supply.