Highlights of the IBCC Report to the Governors (December 2010)
Tracy Kosloff, Colorado Division of Water Resources
On December 15, the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) released a report to then Governor Ritter and Governor-Elect Hickenlooper. The report discussed accomplishments made by the IBCC to date and presented a work plan for 2011. The full report is available on the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) website at: http://cwcb.state.co.us/about-us/about-the-ibcc-brts/Pages/main.aspx
The comprehensive report included a section written by each Subcommittee, with topics ranging from Water Conservation to New Supply.
The report to the Governors clearly indicates that there is a large gap between Colorado’s future water supply and demand. By 2050, Colorado will need an additional 200,000 to 600,000 acre-feet beyond what is already planned for to meet municipal and industrial (M&I) water demand, including replacing 35,000 acre-feet of non-renewable Denver Basin supplies. There are many possible ways to fill the gap, but the huge hurdle is reaching consensus on what combination of actions should be taken. The IBCC has agreed that meeting Colorado’s future water needs should include a mix of the following four sources:
1. Water conservation;
2. Implement Identified projects and processes (IPPs) – projects and methods local water providers are already pursuing;
3. Agricultural water transfers (ag transfers); and
4. New supply development.
The remainder of this article focuses on two of the more challenging of these sources, ag transfers and new supply development, as well as the role of the state in supporting new supply development.
The IBCC seems to be struggling in particular with paving the road for alternative ag transfers – that is, alternatives to traditional permanent ag transfers – and transbasin water projects, while making large scale “buy and dry” water transfers less attractive. The dilemma is summed up in the following quote, “Inaction is a decision itself…the status quo scenario is not a desirable future for Colorado”. The status quo means that water providers rely on large ag transfers as the path of least resistance. As a result, more land is permanently dried up along with streams, threatening ecosystems, recreation, Colorado’s economy and culture. Meanwhile, the permitting process for large water projects seems to be increasingly more arduous and expensive for water suppliers, discouraging storage and new water development.
Alternative Agricultural Transfers
The section written by the Alternative Agricultural Water Transfers Subcommittee suggests that although the idea of alternative ag transfers is theoretically a win-win, there are more questions than answers about practical implementation. The report notes that, although ideas such as water banks and rotational fallowing are promising, there are numerous obstacles to their large-scale implementation. For instance, transaction costs for changing water rights are too high for ag transfers that might only be temporary. The Alternative Agricultural Water Transfers Subcommittee presented the following near-term recommendations to help answer the lingering questions: complete peer-reviewed studies to develop methodologies to better measure and monitor water available for alternative transfers; explore how the Division Engineers would administer alternative transfers; and consider amendments to the existing interruptible supply agreements statute to facilitate longer-term lease/fallowing programs.
The longer-term ideas of the Alternative Agricultural Water Transfers Subcommittee are also interesting:
1. Consider the use of presumptive consumptive use to streamline the use of a water right via lease/fallowing. The presumptive consumptive use would need to be a conservative amount, but could be estimated through computer modeling.
2. Complete ditch/canal-wide historical consumptive use analysis that could be used in alternative ag transfer situations.
3. Have the state fund some of the infrastructure cost of alternative ag transfers to make it a more attractive option.
4. Allow transfers where only part of the historical consumptive use is transferred and some type of irrigation, using less water, continues on the farm.
The New Supply Subcommittee has an explicit goal to fully develop Colorado’s Colorado River Compact allocation, but points out that it is not clear how much water there is available for development. They stress that any new project must support consumptive and non-consumptive needs on both the east and west slope. The New Supply Subcommittee has accepted that the amount of Colorado River water available is a range and that there is not one correct number they can agree on for planning. The idea posed for dealing with the threat of curtailment of a new Colorado River project is to have an early warning system based on hydrologic triggers. When triggers occur, diversions to the new project would be stopped or curtailed, hopefully well in advance of a Colorado River Compact call; the new project could potentially be developed with a backup source of water available for critical needs if the triggers occur.
The New Supply Subcommittee suggests that large scale permanent ag transfers (greater than 1,000 acre-feet) and new water projects should have equal requirements for implementation. Requirements should include public notification, avoidance and mitigation of environmental impacts, and consultation with regulatory agencies. The New Supply Subcommittee also broaches the idea of a water transfer fee to be levied on the beneficiaries of any new water project or large scale permanent ag transfer. The fee would then be used to offset the effects of the project or the ag transfer.
Role of the State
The report to the Governors includes an entire section on the State’s role in supporting water supply projects. It notes in particular that, “the State should seek to solve problems and help identify ways to overcome obstacles related to water projects rather than make problems and create obstacles to those projects.” One conclusion is that a joint agency task force should be created to serve many purposes, but in particular to design a clear sequential process to move projects through the regulatory process. Another role of the State is to provide funding at increased levels. The Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI) analysis completed in 2010, estimated the capital cost of six of the most talked about future water supply projects (Flaming Gorge Pipeline, Yampa Pumpback, Ag Transfers from the Lower South Platte etc.) in the $5 to $9 billion range for 250,000 acre-feet ($20,000 to $36,000 per acre-foot). The total cost of bridging the 2050 M&I water supply gap is estimated to be between $16 and $18 billion.
The report to the Governors points out several major accomplishments, including unprecedented cooperation among diverse water interests. The members agree that the status quo means significant agricultural land dry-up, which is harmful to the entire state. The IBCC has established a framework to guide Colorado to develop a mix of solutions to meet future water needs.
Although the IBCC has been working for a long time, many difficult decisions are still ahead. The progress described in the document is buffered by the following sentiment, “Unfortunately, knowing what can and needs to be done does not automatically translate into getting it done”.
On a side note, Governor Hickenlooper announced that John Stulp will act as both special policy advisor on water to the governor and the next chairman of the IBCC, taking over for Alex Davis.