Is the Colorado Water Plan a silver bullet for Industry?

By Bart Taylor | Jan 21, 2014

Companies don’t often have the luxury of forecasting business a decade from now, so it’s no surprise that of the 50 makers and manufacturers we profiled last year, none identified water as a challenge to their operations. Does that mean manufacturers shouldn’t care? No.

If goods-producers are focused on today’s pressing issues, like workforce development, prosperity will come only to those with water. Unfortunately, it’s an increasingly open question as to who will have enough. Some will have less. It’s the West’s greatest economic development challenge.

For their part officials here hope the Colorado Water Plan, currently under development, will provide a modern, equitable distribution blueprint. Part of the rationale, reasonably, is to encourage and codify smart use and conservation. It’s also intended, one assumes, to take a more holistic view of distribution and management, which as a practical matter may be the only way to manage a diminishing resource in the face of growing demand.

But the stakeholders who would divide Colorado’s water are drifting apart. There’s arguably less agreement today on key issues that would make or break a meaningful plan.

The water discussion here begins and ends with the Colorado River, and there’s a pervasive sentiment on the western slope that more water will be diverted to front range users, something viewed as an existential economic threat by many officials west of the divide.

Lurline Curran, county manager of Grand County, put a fine point on it at a Colorado River Basin Roundtable meeting late last year. “Don’t goddamn come here any more,” she now famously exclaimed. “We’re trying to tell you, Front Range: Don’t count on us,” Curran said. “Don’t be counting on us to make up all the shortages.”

Front range municipalities in Douglas County, and elsewhere, like ag-counties on the eastern plain and south, in the Arkansas River basin, see it differently. For one, planners believe more water can be developed from the River per the 1922 Compact. The Bureau of Reclamation, final arbiter on the issue of supply, has established Colorado is using less than its full entitlement. The state’s never used the three million acre feet or so it’s entitled.

As a result south metro officials are pushing for active consideration of new projects that would at once bring more water to the front range and enable the state to realize its full entitlement from the River, something it’s never done.

Will the plan address or sidestep other prickly issues? Ag, energy, municipalities, industry and business – compete for a finite resource. We know ag will get less, cities and towns more, industry enough to sustain short-term growth. But where is the new equilibrium?

Who will own Colorado’s share and how much is also only a piece of the larger River puzzle. What of the other parties to the Compact? The Lower Basin states are in the midst of a water crisis involving the River. At the same time California bakes in drought, it’s being forced to use less what from the Colorado River. For decades California, Arizona and Nevada overused their entitlement. With demand growing, there will be less water. And lower basin users facing imminent shortfalls will not go quietly.

How will all this impact business and industry? A friend with knowledge of northern Colorado water guessed, “If Cargill had taken a real close look at the state’s water issues, they’d never have come here”, referring to that company’s plans to locate a steel processing center in the area.

Agriculture is already losing water and being asked to reinvent itself on the fly, a challenge akin to changing a tire on a moving vehicle. Makers and manufacturers throughout the food and beverage sector should watch closely.

Can the new water reality – scarcity – disrupt industry in a positive way? Without question, it has. The culture of craft beer manufacturing is generally informed by progressive, modern conservation ethos. Growers, producers, and manufacturers - all are developing new methods and materials to use less and do more.

Can a meaningful water plan avoid consensus on major issues but further codify and be a catalyst for a new water-sharing paradigm?

Everyone, including industry, should keep a close watch.