November 25, 2015

Lots of ‘storage’ in water plan, but few ‘dams’

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Pueblo Reservoir dam

In the just-released Colorado Water Plan it’s rare to see the word “dam” used.

And yet, dams and reservoirs are at the core of Colorado’s water-supply systems, past, present and future.

The word “dam” does not appear at all, for example, in Chapter 10 of the water plan, which is the “Critical Action Plan” for the future of water supply in Colorado.

Instead of using “dam,” or “dams,” the state water plan, and most people at water meetings in Colorado, use the word “storage,” as in “water storage” or “storage project” to describe some type of structure that backs up and holds water.

In Chapter 10, where “dam” is ignored altogether, “storage” merits 14 uses.

In Chapter 6.5, the word “dam” is used just twice in the 30-page chapter about “infrastructure,” while “storage” is used over 160 times.

And in Chapter 4, “dam” is used 13 times, as one might expect in a chapter called “Water Supply.” But “storage” is used 71 times.

In a state like Colorado that can store 7.5 million acre-feet of water in 1,953 reservoirs — all formed by dams of some sort — the practice looks a bit like “dam” avoidance.

The dam across the main stem of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

The dam across the main stem of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen.

Routine use

There are, however, a few instances in the water plan where “dam” or “dams” are used in a routine way.

“While new storage projects will certainly play a role in meeting the state’s water needs, the enlargement and rehabilitation of existing dams and reservoirs will provide more options for the path forward, as Ch. 4 discussed,” the plan states, for example, in Chapter 6.5.

In that context, the use of “dams and reservoirs” sounds appropriate, and not overly damning, one would suppose.

Here’s another example.

“While storage is a critical element for managing Colorado’s future water supplies, new storage projects may be contentious and face numerous hurdles, including permitting and funding,” the plan states in Chapter 4. “In many cases, it may be more practical and efficient to reallocate or enlarge an existing dam and reservoir than to build a completely new structure.”

Again, a seemingly innocuous use of “dam and reservoir,” which is to the plan’s credit, at least linguistically.

But “dam” is not a popular term in the water plan.

“Storage” is the preferred word.

In an op-ed in The Aspen Times on Nov. 23, Gary Wockner of Save the Colorado said the use of “storage” was “an Orwellian double-speak way of saying more dams, diversions and river destruction.”

Double-speak or not, “storage” is used a lot in the plan, including four times in the two sentences below, which describe the priorities of the Arkansas River basin.

“Storage is essential to meeting all of the basin’s consumptive, environmental, and recreational needs,” the plan states in Chapter 6.2. “In addition to traditional storage, aquifer storage and recovery must be considered and investigated as a future storage option.”

To be fair, the water plan does discuss, and promote, the idea of “aquifer storage,” which does not require dams. It requires pipes and pumps to store water underground, but not dams. So aquifer storage is “storage,” but without “dams.”

A group of boaters watch as a raft runs Upset Rapid on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam.

Photo: Andrea Karson

A group of boaters watch as a raft runs Upset Rapid on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam.

Beyond ‘storage’

“Storage” was on the mind of Patricia Wells during the Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting in Denver on Nov. 19, when she told her fellow board members that “words matter.”

Wells is general counsel for and represents the city and county of Denver on the CWCB. She suggested that “storage” may have worn out its usefulness as a euphemism for “dam.”

“We keep saying storage and what that connotes for people is a big reservoir that takes the water out of the river and sends it down a pipe to a municipal treatment plant, and that’s what storage is,” Wells said. “But in fact, maybe we should call them ‘water management facilities.’

“Because as we all know, if you can store the water, you can manage the water,” Wells said. “And that may be for low-flow releases in the summer. That may be for a boat race through a whitewater park. So storage doesn’t just mean to meet the supply gap. It can also mean to meet all the other goals in the state water plan.”

Wells made her suggestion during the “basin directors’ report” section of the CWCB meeting, after the Colorado Water Plan had been approved and presented to the governor.

Earlier in his director’s report Russell George, who represents the Colorado River Basin on the CWCB, also said language was important in shaping perceptions about water, especially about “reuse” water.

“Because right now, when you’re having a conversation with anybody about reuse, it’s a negative,” George said, noting reuse was sometimes called “toilet to tap.”

“That sort of image isn’t helpful, but it’s real,” George said. “The idea is, let’s see if we can improve the tone of that conversation. I think we absolutely have to do that. It’s a cultural thing, and we know that reuse will increasingly be part of the solutions in the future, so we need to begin to change the language and the impact of language.”

“Reuse” water, by the way, is “water used more than once or recycled,” according to the WateReuse Association, which notes it is already a common municipal practice.

Layered meanings in canyon country.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Layered meanings in canyon country.

Multipurpose PR

Other words with layered meanings are also used in the water plan, including “multipurpose,” “balanced” and “education.”

“Multipurpose,” as in “multipurpose projects,” has a halo over it and the water plan seems to suggest as long as a project is “multipurpose,” it’s good to go.

“Those projects and methods that intentionally target consumptive and nonconsumptive benefits are categorized as multipurpose,” states Chapter 6.5, with an emphasis on “multipurpose,” as if defining the term.

But a sentence in Chapter 4 says “multipurpose” projects “take into account multiple users and multiple benefits, and diverse interests become involved during the planning process.”

But that could describe almost any “storage” project in Colorado.

Then there is “balanced,” which is often used by Front Range water providers and seems to suggest the use of Western Slope water to help meet the state’s water demands.

In Chapter 6.5 for example, the plan says the “primary message” of the South Platte and Metro basin roundtables was support for “water supply solutions that were ‘pragmatic, balanced, and consistent with Colorado water law and property rights.”

Joe Stibrich, the water resources policy manager at Aurora Water, and a member of the Metro Basin roundtable, told the CWCB on Nov. 19 that ”the development of additional storage was also identified as an essential tool for implementing these balanced solutions.”

And Joe Frank, head of the S. Platte River Basin roundtable, told the CWCB that his roundtable wants to see “a balanced program to investigate, preserve and develop Colorado River supply options.”

“Education” is another heavily used word in the water sector. Sometimes “education” means teaching students about water. But often it means “public relations.”

“Education” often is combined with “outreach” in the water plan, as in Chapter 9.5, which is called “Outreach, Education and Public Engagement.”

“‘Outreach’ creates public awareness of policies and processes, whereas ‘education’ promotes a deeper understanding of these topics,” the water plan states. “Both are prerequisites to ‘public engagement.’”

The word “public relations,” however, is not used in the chapter about “Outreach, Education and Public Engagement.”

But that doesn’t mean PR is absent from the plan, it’s just called “outreach and education activities.”

“With completion of the basin implementation plans and Colorado’s Water Plan in 2015, it will be imperative that the Colorado water community sustain momentum for outreach and education activities, and that funding for such activities increase as the community implements water supply solutions,” the plan states in Chapter 9.5.

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