Last week, water attorney James Eklund (please see his extensive resume and experience in last week’s Rotogear) interrupted his vacation to Crested Butte (the wonder of Zoom!) to share with us the current status of Water in the West, especially the Colorado River.  He began with an adaptation of Rotary’s 4 Way Test, from the “truth” about water in the West to making water policy “beneficial to all concerned”.
There are “Good, Bad and Ugly” components to the story.  We are all too familiar with the “ugly”- climate change with increasing temperature, wildfire and COVID.  The “good” includes Colorado’s recent (and overdue) strategic water plan (2016) and the start of cooperation between many disparate but interested parties.  In 2016 the stars were aligned for the birth of Colorado’s first water strategic plan  -  our governor (Hickenlooper) was less a politician and more a businessman (water use and ownership was historically a political “hot potato”) plus we were in the worst drought in recent Colorado history.
How we value water is fraught with paradoxes - the cost of this valuable resource is kept artificially low and expected to be affordable for all those who use it in the West. Colorado receives 14 million acre feet (MAF) annually of water from rain.  However, 80% falls on the western slope while 90% of the population lives on the eastern side of the mountains. This situation has been an opportunity to both divide and unite (eg, trans-mountain diversions) the population.
In 2003 when the drought was at its worst, the Colorado legislature realized there was no complete resource for water information, and initiated new studies of water demand and supply.  We cannot create new water but we can manage what we have by increasing storage -  both above ground (new and expanded reservoirs) or below ground (eg., in the Denver basin aquifer).  Looking into the future, the Denver metro area alone will use up the currently available water in Colorado. New watershed management plans will need to create innovative exchanges between agricultural use (currently the largest water user) and urban needs.  Key to future management will be projects such as enlargement of Halligan reservoir and overall groundwater management.  It is anticipated that $20 billion will be needed to implement a successful future water supply.
The second part of the talk focused on our Colorado River. The Colorado River basin covers 243,000 square miles and supplies 40 million people, making it the largest ecosystem in the world.  Interested parties include Colorado, California, Arizona and Mexico.  According to legal agreement, the upper basin (Colorado & Lake Powell) gets 7.5 MAF, the lower basin (Lake Mead suppling CA & AZ) gets 7.5 MAF and Mexico 1.5 MAF. In 1900 there were 18 MAF to divide but now there are only 12 MAF. Both reservoirs are currently only at 50% capacity.  Infrequent heavy wet snows do not provide the expected stream flow because the ground in the West is currently so dry it grabs the water as it falls (“spongification”).  As climate change with increased temperatures continues, we will see a massive shift in agriculture to the North with significant cultural disruptions (North Dakota will be the new Nebraska).
Future demand and supply management will require public-private partnerships. Rotarians and other leaders need to be involved.

Our Q & A lasted almost an additional hour indicating the interest of members in this timely and critical information.