Planning for Extreme Drought


Denver, Colorado   March 7, 2013

Planning for Extreme Drought: How Communities are Thinking About and Planning For Extreme Drought

The recent drought in the West forced some local and state officials onto the cutting edge of planning and adapting to extreme drought. Water resource management in extreme drought has significant implications to municipal, industrial, and agricultural water and land uses. Some Colorado municipalities are proactively developing programs including the WISE project (Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency) and other plans to ensure its constituents will have the water they need. Alex Davis, Principal of GBSM, a Denver based consulting and public affairs firm, and Eric Hecox, Executive Director, South Metro Water Authority, Greenwood Village, Colorado gave this presentation.

The Problem of Prior Appropriation

Alex Davis presented a brief background on western water law, before talking specifically about prior appropriation. While the doctrine of prior appropriation worked really well in the west for the first century, now it is a huge problem. The single most overarching problem in the West is planning for the next century by figuring out how to solve complex problems facing us is prior appropriation. It is ad hoc, splintered, drives decision making processes down to the smallest entity, and each entity is pitted against every other water user in the basin. Prior appropriation sets municipalities against municipalities; energy users against farmers; etc.

The West is full of competing uses for a severely limited water supply. Currently water supplies do not meet water demand in Colorado. The western slope has more water than Front Range—where 80% of the water is on the west side of Colorado, and only 20% of the population, and, conversely, the Front Range has 20% of the water, and over 80% of the population. On rivers like the South Platte, the general calling date is an 1865-69 date. Therefore, we’ve been over allocated on the South Platte for over a hundred years. The prior appropriation system is already over allocated, so how are we supposed to plan for population increases in the future?

Davis noted that planners suggest Colorado’s population will double by 2050, increasing to 5 million people. 80% will live on Front Range, resulting in increased demands on agriculture, energy, food, and the environment. When people on average use 100 gallons per capita per day to supply basic needs, 500 gallons of water per day in food, and 500 gallons per day in energy, how are we going to face the future? We must think holistically when it comes to conservation.

“In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.” — Wayne Aspinall

Davis said that the future is uncertain. One challenge for planners is climate change, because we do not know how it will impact water availability. Suggestions of climate change impacts include the potential for temperatures rising 2.5 to 4 degrees; there could be a 5 to 20% reduction in Water availability; Colorado could see less snow pack than we traditionally have, but see more intense rain storms and earlier runoff. In essence, water supply planning will become more complex.

Water is the foundation of planning for the future, land use planning, and managing energy reserves. The biggest challenge we have is figuring out how to get all of the disparate water users to work together to solve complex problems. Who makes the tradeoffs and who decides? We know we do not have enough water to meet all needs. Who decides what is the highest value of water? We do not have a huge slate of options. Water supply options will likely be a mixture of conservation; reuse; agricultural transfers; new water supply development and storage; and multi-purpose.

Davis concluded suggesting that the best solutions are really local. There is no way the federal government can determine the best solution for the St. Vrain River, as the nuances of the local governments, communities, and attitudes differ greatly. The phrase, “think globally and act locally” applies to water planning, as is where the solutions lie. Davis stated that while she did not have lots of answers to the problems, we must think about how we create the structures to allow more regional collaboration, thinking, and solutions.

Many Parties, One Need

Eric Hecox spoke next, describing specific local decisions that attempt to drought-proof Colorado municipalities along the Front Range. Hecox first described the South Metro Water Supply Authority (“SMWSA”), a membership organization of 15 water providers in the south metro area of Denver. These entities are normally pitted against each other, but are bound together by one need—all of these entities rely on the groundwater supply in a declining aquifer. That reality forced them to come together to develop alternatives, as they need the economies of scale to make their water projects financially possible. SMWSA developed regional renewable water projects to use the Denver Basin Aquifer. While the aquifer is pretty much drought proof, and as a base supply it is a liability, it gives the region a competitive advantage against the state.

Hecox said that in 2002 water planning changed for water communities in Colorado, as the drought that year was the single largest drought on record (until last year). The drought was a wake-up call for many state water providers. The city of Aurora, just east of Denver, was one of the hardest hit cities because it has a junior right to water. Aurora implemented extreme drought restrictions, and was within months of running out of water before a late spring blizzard.

The drought scared Aurora into action, and they developed the Prairie Waters Project downstream of the Denver metro waste water plant. Essentially the Prairie Waters Project became a very large reuse project with a capacity of 10,000 acre-feet per year, and is expandable to 50,000 acre-feet with additional infrastructure. The project includes a 34 mile pipeline with 3 pump stations, a multi-barrier state-of-the-art treatment process. In all, the Prairie Water Project’s infrastructure cost 800 million dollars. Despite the cost, Aurora conceived, planned, and built Project in less than ten years.

WISE Partnership

Prairie Waters created a Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (“WISE”) partnership between the cities of Denver, Aurora, and the SMWSA. WISE creates a secondary water supply and system to mitigate droughts for the Front Range. Further, Aurora gets cost sharing in this expensive project. South Metro also benefits from a renewable water supply, as the water is used and reused in a continuous cycle. This WISE partnership impacts and serves over two million people.

In additional to the local partnership, Hecox, believes that the WISE Partnership also has a number of regional benefits. Denver, Aurora, and South Metro are in a partnership. This project builds regional cooperation and partnerships and recognizes the interrelationship of the region. This opens the door to regional cooperation and provides a sustainable supply to SMWSA without compromising Aurora’s and Denver’s water supplies.

Through this project, several of the largest cities in Colorado hope to cope with drought. They hope that through planning, they will become drought proof.

As continued drought and lack of water plagues agriculture, municipalities, and the energy industry, instead of looking for the federal government to solve problems, perhaps the real solutions can be found at the local level. By following the example of the WISE partnership, perhaps other communities can also work together to overcome the biggest challenge—figuring out how to get the many disparate water users to work together to solve the complex problems of water management.