While the Colorado Water Plan does not contain a list of water-supply projects endorsed by the state, the plan’s adoption still gives a boost to at least $2 billion worth of potential projects, as recently prioritized by regional water-supply planning committees, or basin roundtables.

“The old truck is on its way, and we’ve shifted a gear today,” said Russell George of Rifle, who represents the Colorado River basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, after the water plan was approved Thursday by the CWCB board.

“It’s projects, projects, projects,” George said of the CWCB’s new “gear.” “And our job here is keep the resources coming for the projects, because that answers need.”

The roundtables, through their “basin implementation plans,” have identified 880,000 acre-feet worth of new water supplies that could be developed across 91 projects, according to chapter 6.5 of the water plan, which focuses on water-storage.

The Yampa/White’s basin plan indentified the potential to develop the most of any basin, with 317,316 acre-feet of new water supply from 12 projects.

The South Platte/Metro’s plan identified 191,980 acre-feet that could be developed from 23 projects, the Arkansas 166,500 acre-feet from 17 projects, and the Gunnison 139,406 acre-feet from 21 projects.

The Southwest basin identified 30,354 acre-feet of developable water from eight projects, the Colorado River basin 24,082 acre-feet from three projects, the North Platte 11,993 acre-feet from five projects and the Rio Grande 6,030 acre-feet from eight projects.

For a sense of scale, Ruedi Reservoir uphill from Basalt holds about 100,000 acre-feet of water.

The three potential water-supply projects in the Colorado basin plan include expanding Hunter Reservoir near Grand Junction to 1,340 acre-feet; expanding Monument Reservoir, near Collbran, to 5,255 acre-feet; and building Kendig Reservoir on West Divide Creek south of Silt, which could hold around 18,000 acre-feet of water.

A screenshot from the website of the Colorado Water Plan.
A screenshot from the website of the Colorado Water Plan. Credit: Source: CWCB

Basin plans

Implementation of, yes, the basin implementation plans, or BIPs, is now a major theme of the water planning process in Colorado.

Consider that the first item in the water plan’s vaunted “critical action plan” says that the state will “support and assist the basin roundtables in moving forward priority … projects … in their basin implementation plans through technical, financial and facilitation support when requested by a project proponent and pertinent basin roundtable.”

After the water plan was approved Thursday, the CWCB board heard from representatives of various roundtables, including Michael “Sandy” White, a water attorney who represents Huerfano County on the Arkansas roundtable and is the group’s new chair.

“From our viewpoint, the Colorado Water Plan is, in the Arkansas basin, the basin implementation plan,” White said. “We are just beginning to implement it.”

“I know from your vantage point here, what happens at the state level is very important, and that’s where your focus will be,” White told the CWCB board. “But I encourage you not to forget that the basins are the locations of where the action will be. And we need your help in implementing the BIPs.”

James Eklund, the director of the CWCB, suggested after presentations from representatives of the Arkansas and Gunnison basin roundtables that Coloradoans could become fans of various water projects.

“Just like we had baseball cards, maybe we need to have water-project cards that show people where these projects are, how long they’ve been in the works, why they are important and what the stats are on them,” Eklund said.

And after hearing from all of the roundtable representatives, Russell George again put an emphasis on projects.

“I think we heard, as the representatives of the basins talk, it’s projects, projects, projects, and that’s as it should be,” George said.

Another sign of the rising importance of the roundtables in Colorado’s water-supply process is that they are now moving from groups of volunteers lightly overseen by CWCB staff to groups that can hire contractors to work on, yes, implementing their specific plans.

For example, on Wednesday the CWCB approved a three-year $150,000 grant for a part-time public relations coordinator for the Arkansas basin roundtable who will “undertake a structured public relations effort” to generate public acceptance of new water projects and “move these projects forward toward implementation.”

The Arkansas roundtable plans to focus on three projects a year.

“In the first year, identified projects will be chosen that focus on storage, multi-purpose storage projects and meeting the ‘gap’ in the Arkansas basin,” the roundtable said in its grant application.

When roundtable representatives do come forward to seek assistance for new water-supply projects from the CWCB, they will be expected to show that their projects are consistent with the newly adopted Colorado Water Plan.

George suggested to his fellow CWCB board members that “anyone that comes to CWCB asking for assistance ­— and we’ll continue to have many, many customers and we want to serve them — they will now be expected to research the state water plan and tell us where their project fits in the plan.”

Applicants seeking support for new storage projects will have find plenty of language in the Colorado Water Plan to work with.

“Colorado will require the implementation of many identified projects, storage, other infrastructure and methods to meet future municipal, industrial and agricultural needs,” the plan states, for example, in chapter 6.5.1.

Eagle Park Reservoir, in the upper Eagle River watershed, is on the list of potential projects in the Colorado River basin implementation plan.
Eagle Park Reservoir, in the upper Eagle River watershed, is on the list of potential projects in the Colorado River basin implementation plan. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Project criteria

The process of identifying potential projects in the various basin plans was not exact and, at least in the Colorado River basin roundtable process, fairly informal.

But Melinda Kassen, a governor’s appointee to the Interbasin Compact Committee, said the final Colorado Water Plan has a list of criteria that projects are going to need to meet in order to gain state endorsement.

Kassen, an attorney, said “state support” is defined as “state engagement, facilitation, or funding.”

If held to the full list of criteria, a project in any of the basin plans may have a lot to prove.

Most of the criteria for projects is outlined in Ch. 9, on page 44, and they break down into four general categories.

1. Does the project proponent demonstrate a commitment to collaboration?

Does the project proponent:

address more than one type of need;

involve multiple participants where appropriate;

consult with a broad set of local stakeholders and local governments before or early in the regulatory process (examples of stakeholders include relevant basin roundtables, water users, conservation groups, and community groups); or

provide meaningful opportunities for input?

2. Does the project proponent address an identified water gap?

Is the project:

included in a basin implementation plan;

identified as meeting a defined need in a basin needs assessment;

identified as meeting a defined need identified in the Statewide Water Supply Initiative 2010 (SWSI); or

identified as part of the no-and low-regrets scenario planning process?

3. Does the project proponent demonstrate sustainability?

Does the project proponent:

adopt an integrated plan or plans geared toward implementing the conservation best practices at the high customer participation levels, as defined in the SWSI;

avoid adverse effects to environmental and recreational interests or adopt environmental, watershed health, and recreational mitigation in the planning phase of the project, prior to consideration in the permitting phase of alternatives that minimize or avoid adverse effects;

avoid impacts to, mitigate, or enhance water quality, such as exceeding water quality standards or impairment of classified uses;

mitigate or avoid economic and social impacts on agricultural and rural communities;

maximize the use of water resources (through reuse, firming the yield of existing supplies, water sharing arrangements, improving or modernizing aging infrastructure, or aquifer storage and recharge projects);

partner with the local government(s) being served by the water project to incorporate best water use practices into land use planning efforts; and

demonstrate that the project will not unreasonably increase the risk of non-compliance with any interstate compact or the curtailment of existing water rights?

4. Does the project proponent establish the fiscal and technical feasibility of the project?

Does the project proponent demonstrate:

over-all cost-effectiveness;

local investment or contribution;

financial capability to repay debt (bonds, loans, or other debt instruments);

an intent to leverage any state grant or loan with private, local, or federal funding;

technical and legal availability of water supplies for the project; or

readiness to proceed upon receipt of necessary funding and permits?

Editor’s note:
Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Post Independent published a shorter version of this story in its printed edition of Monday, Nov. 23, 2015.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...