Water management in Colorado is a conversation that is as old as the state, yet remains no less important today than at any other time before. As Colorado’s population steadily increases, effective water management practices only increase in importance. Yet with any conversation as timeless in Colorado as water, we must separate the fact from fiction and the realistic solutions from the impractical ideas.
As a resident of Montrose, I am familiar with the conflict of Western Slope water supplying Front Range needs. While conservation is always important, the issue is less about supply and more about storage. Consider this year, our mountains received snow in epic proportions, but our ability to store the resulting runoff is limited. If Colorado was better suited to store water, this year could help supplement a year like 2012, when we received a below average amount of snow. Projects such as the Northern Water Northern Integrated Supply Project would create reservoirs on the eastern plains to help hold more water runoff. The two reservoirs in the NISP project, the Glade and Galeton, would be able to catch excess runoff from the Poudre River, which normally runs out of the state, and help alleviate frequent drought conditions in the eastern regions of the state. Aside from the NISP project, Colorado will greatly benefit from better water storage in several regions around the state. We have obligations to other states, but water in excess of our agreements should stay in Colorado.
In addition to water storage, Colorado needs to take an active role in mitigating what are called phreatophytes (pronounced free-at-toe-fytes). Phreatophytes are invasive, water absorbing plants that have infested many regions in Colorado. These non-native plants, such as the Russian olive and tamarisk (salt cedar tree), are found along river banks and around subsurface water tables. A single tree can, according to some sources, can absorb up to 200 gallons of water a day. Water sources in parts of Colorado are being ravaged by these water consuming plants and with water in already limited supply, fields of phreatophytes can greatly impact water availability.
The discussion about water management always includes our water consumption, but it is important to consider the context. Water in cities like Denver is contained in a system, meaning water is continually recycled. Though water conserving devices use less water, they have very little impact on the overall amount of the water in the system. Therefore, while water preservation helps, it will not address Colorado’s water management problems.
We need to invest in water storage to capture and retain as much of our runoff as possible and the state needs to mitigate water consuming plants like phreatophytes. Colorado is fortunate to have the Rocky Mountains, and if we take realistic approaches to water management, we’ll have sufficient water for our future.