Water for Colorado’s 21st century economy | Denver-gazette

Water has always been integral to the state’s prosperity, environment and the quality of life of its residents. Coloradans know that water is one of the foundations of our unique mix of economic drivers: outdoor recreation, agriculture, high-tech industries and thriving cities.

However, driven by migration from other states, Colorado is expected to continue to grow at a significant rate, especially along the Front Range, the I-70 corridor and in southwestern Colorado. By 2050, Colorado’s population is expected to grow to 7.5 million, an increase of 1.7 million people.

This comes at the same time that pressure on state water supplies will continue to increase. Interstate compactors signed decades ago legally bind Colorado to share water with downstream states, even as Colorado’s climate grows hotter and drier, and we experience reductions in river flows. The projections for Colorado’s most populated river basin, the South Platte, which supplies water for metropolitan Denver, northern Front Range cities, and much of Colorado’s most productive agriculture, bear this out. While water flows are projected to decrease by 34% by 2090, the state water plan projects that the population could increase by 55% by 2050 under business as usual.

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The stakes are high. In 2019, the state of Colorado estimates the impacts of not meeting future water needs will ultimately cost the state between 355,000 and 587,000 jobs and reduce state and local tax revenue by between $3.4 billion and $6 billion. Action is needed from the federal, state and local governments, along with businesses, municipal water providers and private citizens.

Our goals when we accepted the challenge as 2022 Terry J. Stevenson Fellows at the Common Sense Institute were to work together, navigate our differences and propose a joint paper that examines the issues facing Colorado’s future water supply and propose achievable solutions. Our report: “Adapting Colorado’s Water Systems for a 21st Century Economy and Water Supply,” was just released this week, and in keeping with the nature of the fellowship, offers six calls for collaborative action:

Colorado will have to do more with less water; Reducing the competition for water will require more regional cooperation and planning to manage, share and reuse existing water supplies.

The costs of acquiring new water supplies along the Front Range are increasing at an exponential rate, impacting the ability of homebuilders to provide affordable housing. To control costs, communities need to implement conservation and demand management programs such as removal and replacement of ornamental turf.

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There is a water supply crisis on the Colorado River. In addition to meeting water needs of the West Slope, trans-basin diversions are a critical water source for Front Range cities from Pueblo to Ft. Collins. A large part of our state’s share of Colorado River supplies is at risk. The state must act to strengthen existing water supplies and be fully prepared to use less of the river in the future.

Preserving agricultural water supplies is becoming more challenging, and even more critical, indicating that action is needed to preserve long-term agricultural water supplies. Solutions include prioritizing regional collaboration and increasing financial assistance to farmers who invest in water-saving technologies.

Action is needed to increase the resilience of critical watersheds, aquatic habitats and the recreation industry. In particular, the project capacity should be increased to maintain the flow levels for water recreation and in-river flow purposes.

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Colorado must be a leader in the development of innovative cooperative projects in the state and with neighboring states. State and water leaders must be more open to allowing greater flexibility in the law to open the door for innovative projects.

Our full report details additional statewide and basin-specific recommendations that are meant to educate, inform and empower citizens about what needs to be done on this issue. The combination of climate change, a growing population, and interstate complications with downstream states means that the state will have less water to use in the future. However, with common sense solutions, it will be possible to work within existing legal frameworks to adapt our water supplies for Colorado to sustainably grow and thrive in the coming century.

Erik Kuhn and Jennifer Gimbel are Terry J. Stevinson Fellows at Common Sense Institute, a nonpartisan research organization dedicated to the protection and advancement of Colorado’s economy.

Erik Kuhn and Jennifer Gimbel are Terry J. Stevinson Fellows at Common Sense Institute, a nonpartisan research organization dedicated to the protection and advancement of Colorado’s economy.


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