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Comment on second draft of water plan by Sept. 17

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Are you concerned about how Colorado will balance the water needs of cities, farms and the environment in coming decades? If so, you have an opportunity to make your voice heard by state water leaders.

A second draft of Colorado's first comprehensive statewide water plan was released last month, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board is seeking public input. Comments on this draft must be submitted by Sept. 17 in order to be considered in the development of the final plan, which is due to be submitted to Governor Hickenlooper on Dec. 10.

This draft follows years of debate between Front Range and West Slope water providers, environmental advocates, river recreationists, farmers and ranchers over how to meet a projected gap between available water supplies and demands, particularly in growing Front Range cities. There are three main sources to turn to: transferring water from agriculture, pulling more water from West Slope streams across the Continental Divide, and significantly ramping up water reuse and conservation.

Like the original draft released in December 2014, the new draft dodges controversy and lays out a toolbox of actions alongside detailed information about current water supplies, demands and climate change projections. Particular project proposals are found in the "basin implementation plans" developed by roundtables of water providers and stakeholders in each of the state's major river basins.

The new draft does, however, contain significantly more nuts and bolts on how to move forward on measures such as promoting conservation, improving the efficiency of the project permitting process, and developing new funding mechanisms. The concept of environmental resiliency is also incorporated more fully into this draft of the plan.

In addition, the new draft includes a revised framework for discussing the perpetually hot topic of the potential for a new project to divert more water from the West Slope to the Front Range. The framework sets out "realities and issues proponents for a new transmountain diversion should expect to address," including the fact that water would likely not be available to divert in some years, due to existing uses and downstream obligations.

In the realm of urban conservation, the second draft of the plan contains beefed up sections on increasing the reuse of municipal water and integrating land use and water planning, since large-lot subdivisions consume more water than denser development with less turf.

In relation to agricultural water, the second draft discusses measures to increase efficiency and conservation -- while noting that the two are not equivalent. Increasing efficiency involves getting better at delivering water directly to where plants need it and nowhere else, which can actually make crops grow more vigorously and thus consume more water. Conservation, on the other hand, involves reducing the consumption of water, which can be accomplished through planting less-thirsty plants, giving crops less water than needed for maximum growth, planting less acreage, or getting rid of water-sucking weeds.

While efficiency can have water quality benefits and improve streamflows between the point of diversion and the point where unconsumed water trickles back to the stream, only reduced consumption can make additional water available for other uses.

The draft plan also dedicates considerable ink to "alternative transfer mechanisms" that allow farmers to provide a portion of their water to cities on a temporary basis instead of permanently selling the water rights and drying up their land. Using such mechanisms could be less damaging to rural communities than "buy and dry" practices, but they are more complicated to implement.

Permitting process proposals include ensuring that all agencies with a say on a project are involved early on. Funding proposals include establishing a guaranteed repayment fund to facilitate multi-party projects and green bonds for environmental and recreational projects.

One message that comes through in reading the draft plan is that no one big project or mandate will provide the answer to meeting all of Colorado's future water needs. The needs are diverse and dispersed, and a diverse and dispersed set of tools is needed to address them. And each tool comes with its own set of technical, legal and financial challenges. The draft plan attempts to chart the course for resolving those challenges, in the hope that the results will add up to a water future for Colorado that matches Coloradans' values.

You can decide for yourself whether you think the right tools have been identified and the strategies proposed are adequate by going to www.ColoradoWater

Plan.com. You can find the complete text of the plan under the "Resources" tab by clicking on "2015 Second Draft of Colorado's Water Plan." Clicking on "General Information" under the "Resources" tab will give you access to a webinar and a July 2015 update that outline changes incorporated into the new draft. The "Get Involved" tab provides several options for submitting input.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

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