Water-related “carrying capacity:” An idea whose time has come?

By Bart Taylor | Sep 27, 2012

Last week, the Colorado Water Conservation Board hosted a conference to discuss the impacts of drought and how water providers can adapt to meet demand in light of diminishing supplies. It's not an easy chore. Drought is stressing an already nervous water ecosystem. The conference was another example of how western states are trying to stay ahead of water-related challenges.

Aside from agriculture, business was largely absent from the conference, the norm for most things water. This should change as business leaders come to grips with their uncertain water future. Business hates uncertainty. And among the noteworthy aspects of the conference, a palpable, deepening concern was evident here – that solutions will be very elusive, with uncertainty the rule. Drought was the topic, but drought seemed only one important, if highly visible, aspect of a larger challenge.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also made news by suggesting that Colorado may soon be forced to evaluate its water-related “carrying capacity” - the notion that at some point, population-driven demand will exceed the state's water supply. It's a concept that conservation and environment interests have been asking we consider all along – that at some point, there simply won't be enough water to support un-managed growth. That unfettered growth will have to end. That we need to consider a new model.

Hickenlooper agrees, and reasonably so. But of course immediate questions beg. How much water, how much growth? What's a reasonable timeframe? Who get's water and who doesn't? And what happens between now and then? Details.

Some question whether the conversation's necessary. We're not running out of water, after all, but reaching limits of our ability to provide water to current users, in the same amounts. Water for the millions of new urban residents will come from someone's else's share. The pie will be reapportioned.

In the short-term agricultural transfers will water growth. Ag uses 80-85 percent of consumptive water in the West. To this point, it's been mutually beneficial. Water rights are valuable. Farmers and ranchers have enjoyed a windfall. But ag now worries about losing too much water. At issue is how much will be enough in the future?

But starting a serious discussion now might have big benefits, and Hickenlooper deserves credit for encouraging the dialogue. Tough, difficult questions face the community, like whether to develop possible new supplies – the established model – or reconsider our historic approach in favor of conservation. A serious conversation about 'carrying capacity' is obviously years away. But on a smaller scale, communities will be debating issues involving similar choices.

In Colorado, the conversation regarding the state's remaining Colorado River Compact allocation will likely develop along these lines. Colorado's entitled to around three million acre-feet of water from the river. It currently uses around two million acre-feet. The Lower Basin states use this surplus to great effect, and with Colorado facing a supply “gap” in the near future, a compelling case will be made to tap this entitlement.

Colorado's Western Slope interests already argue that other methods – conservation foremost among them – should be fully implemented before this supply is tapped. The issue may, in the end, test the newly signed cooperative agreement between the Front Range and Western Slope.

What's certain is that ongoing drought will only make the issue more difficult.