Colorado Water Plan Aims To Head Off Predicted Shortages Down The Road

Originally published on May 7, 2015 5:58 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the 19th century, before Americans fully settled the West, some called it the Great American Desert. It wasn't considered fertile enough to develop.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

People who called it a desert overlooked something; they didn't anticipate the human ingenuity that would channel plenty of water to regions that really were too dry in their natural state.

INSKEEP: That was then. This is now. Descendants of Western settlers face an increasing challenge.

GREENE: The climate is growing harsher. The West's population is growing larger. And the state we'll visit next has a water problem.

INSKEEP: Colorado's population is expected to nearly double by 2050 and there will not be enough water to meet demand, so officials are crafting the state's first ever water plan. Here's Grace Hood from Colorado Public Radio.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Snowcapped mountains are barely visible along the state's dry Southeastern plains. Here, farmers are performing what's become an annual tradition in this drought-stricken corner of Colorado - it's tumbleweed management. Farmer Dale Mauch pulls up alongside a tractor that's torching dried vegetation.

DALE MAUCH: This is how we control the weeds around - the tumbleweeds - this is our way of getting rid of them - eradication. (Laughter).

HOOD: Right now, the majority of Mauch's work comes down to keeping tumbleweeds out of irrigation ditches, especially the one that feeds Arkansas River water to his farm. He gets rid of them again and again.

MAUCH: Remember the movie "Groundhog Day"? We're living it. I went out the other night, and I go, you know, today was a repeat of yesterday. (Laughter).

HOOD: Last year, drought in this part of the state was so severe that it sparked comparisons to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The picture's improved slightly since then. Meantime, other parts of the state are struggling. Colorado's mountains may be snowcapped, but statewide snowpack that's critical for spring runoff is well below average for this time of the year. And that's why the state is creating its first ever water plan.

JAMES EKLUND: The landscape has shifted on us in the last 15 years to where we can't afford not to have this plan.

HOOD: James Ecklund oversees water policy and planning for the state of Colorado, whose Rocky Mountains provide water to 18 downstream states and the country of Mexico. Ecklund says drought combined with wildfires and extreme flooding in recent years brought the state's water challenges into sharp focus. And it's not going to get easier.

EKLUND: Our projections are that we're going to start crossing the lines of supply and demand sometime in 2030. Maybe in some parts of the state, we're already kind of crossing them.

HOOD: The building blocks of the plan are detailed strategies drafted by Colorado's nine water regions. In the Arkansas River Basin, where farmer Dale Mauch is based, a recently completed planning document spans hundreds of pages. Back on the farm, water is flowing through Dale Mauch's irrigation canal. A nearby track hoe scoops up tumbleweeds to keep the water flowing.

MAUCH: The main thing is to keep them moving to the end, kind of like herding cattle, I guess. There's our little doggies. (Laughter).

HOOD: As farming continues to be tough here, Mauch highlights another concern; he's worried about growing Front Range cities turning to water that's currently used by agriculture to fill their urban water needs. Colorado water managers are working on solutions to the problem.

MAUCH: If the Front Range is going to continue to grow, it will only be at the expense of agriculture. There's just not enough water.

HOOD: Mauch thinks there's a predictability to how the story will end, much like how gravity pulls spring runoff from the Colorado mountains, delivering river water to Western states that are increasingly stricken with drought. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.