Page 30 - March 14-April 4, 2023 Water L ast month, we hosted a panel discussion at its Col- orado Water Forum in Denver. The forum brought together water professionals to discuss water risks and challenges in Colorado and to offer ideas on how we can make progress. The discussion was led by a panel of water experts from various backgrounds representing the land development, municipal, agricultural and environmental perspectives. While there are a multitude of water challenges facing Colorado and other Western U.S. states, a few issues have grabbed headlines and risen to the top of the prior- ity list for political leaders, water managers and land developers. These challenges include: n The Colorado River Basin is in crisis. For the past 20 years, the large river basin extending from the Rocky Mountains down to Baja, Mexico, has yielded less water supply than its inhabit- ants have used, which in turn has drawn down the water reserves built up in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. These storage accounts are now nearing critically low levels, and the known solution of reduc- ing water use in the basin is prov- ing difficult to gain agreement on. In Colorado, the result is that water users are faced with unprec- edented uncertainty about what the future holds and this uncer- tainty is causing anxiety. One effect is that some m u n i c i p a l water utilities are reducing the expected “firm yield” of Colorado- Big Thomp- son project units that draw from the basin, which has the imme- diate impact of increasing the cost per new home. Beyond new development projects, the Colo- rado River Basin issues pose a significant water supply risk to many communities and residents across Colorado. n New infrastructure is critical but hard to complete. One of the actions that we need to take to mit- igate climate change, to accommo- date growth and to improve our resiliency is to continue to invest in infrastructure, such as conveyance pipelines and reservoir storage. But infrastructure development is facing unprecedented challenges right now, including extensive regulatory timelines, very high construction costs and heightened local review. Thornton started to plan out its water supply future in the late 1980s, but implementing that plan continues to be stalled as it tries to gain permit approval for a pipeline to move its water rights south. Other examples include the Northern Inte- grated Supply Project and Gross Reser- voir Expan- sion. The pub- lic process is important, but there is a senti- ment that the timelines cre- ated by regu- latory approv- als make large water infrastructure projects too risky, especially for smaller water utilities. n Water cost is a significant financial hurdle for new devel- opment. Water has always been a necessary cost for land develop- ment in Colorado, and the cur- rent trends are that this issue is becoming one of the greatest con- cerns and challenges. For example, at one residential project in Fort Collins, the water costs were five times higher than the land costs to get the project started. The rising water costs make development projects harder to finance and less feasible, and the timeline required to acquire water rights can disrupt project schedules. This is particu- larly true for efforts to build afford- able housing in the state. The panel identified several potential solutions to these chal- lenges, or at least steps in the right direction. n Allow developers to bring cash for water service. The development community strug- gles to find acceptable water rights to dedicate to municipal water utilities, or to finance the upfront costs even if these water rights can be found. This issue relates to who bears the risk and responsibility of developing new water supplies, and some water utilities want to keep that responsibility with developers. But there are advan- tages to allowing developers to bring cash to the table instead of water rights, such as the ability to develop unique water sharing agreements, to leverage existing water supplies, and to develop larger water projects beyond a sin- gle development. If creativity and flexibility are needed to address water challenges, then having developers dedicate cash in lieu of water rights may be more desir- able. n Don’t litigate the Colorado Basin crisis. A panelist was pes- simistic that nine judges on the Supreme Court could find a bet- ter solution to the crisis than the water users and stakeholders in the basin. Once lawsuits are filed, people tend to protect their posi- tions and collaborative solutions are harder to achieve. The solu- tion to the Colorado River Basin crisis will require the seven basin states to step from behind their entrenched stances and offer con- cessions, specifically more com- mitments to reduce water use. n Agricultural rights are a resource for growth. The agricul- tural sector is an important com- ponent of the Colorado economy, particularly in more rural areas of the state. Agricultural water rights are a foundational piece of our water management. For decades, agricultural water rights have been transferred and converted to support the growth of municipal water supply portfolios, which has allowed population and economic growth across the state. This pat- tern will continue, and agricultural water rights will continue to be an important piece of how we are able to grow. The panel discussed the challenges posed by rapid growth and changes in agricultural water systems. Alternative water trans- fers that allow continued agricul- tural production but also provide a scheduled water supply to the municipal sector should continue to be explored, even as a supply to more permanent solutions. Water problems have a tenden- cy to persist, and progress often feels slow. The issues discussed at the forum are likely to be relevant for years to come. On the topic of water, we might realistically hope for certainty and that things don’t get worse. s Water problems persist in Colorado, lead to uncertainty Brett Bovee Presdient, WestWater Research Adam Jokerst Rocky Mountain regional director, WestWater Research