GUEST COMMENTARY | Water Plan Process Gets Scrutiny in Gunnison County

04/17/14 | By | More

Concern about possible trans-mountain diversions dominated a public information-and-input meeting in Gunnison on Gunnison Basin Roundtable water planning. The Gunnison County Commissioners hosted the meeting during their work session Tuesday, March 25. Thirty-five or forty citizens participated in the discussion through the course of a two-hour meeting.

The water plan under consideration was the Gunnison Basin Roundtable’s contribution to the Colorado Water Plan ordered by Governor John Hickenlooper in May 2013; the plan will possible solutions for a significant gap between the known water supply and the needs of a population projected to grow 60-100 percent by mid-century, mostly in the Front Range metropolis. Presenting information on the Gunnison Basin plan were Roundtable members Frank Kugel, Rufus Wilderson and George Sibley.

The meeting focused mainly on goals that have been identified for the Gunnison Basin over the next four decades, and some “statewide principles” that it hopes to persuade at least the other West Slope basin roundtables to adopt in negotiations for the statewide Water Plan; some may be acceptable to all eight state river basins plus the metro area.

The priority goal stated for the Gunnison Basin is “to protect all existing water uses.” Roundtable members, according to Sibley, feel that the Gunnison Basin now has a good mix of consumptive uses (agricultural and municipal/domestic/industrial) and non-consumptive uses (environmental, recreational and hydropower), town-and-country, working-and-playing landscapes, and they want to carry that forward into the future. Change should be incremental, and weighed against its impact on existing uses.

Some of the citizen input warned the Roundtable presenters to anticipate possible major changes in the headwaters region, from the oil and gas industry and potential mining operations for copper, molybdenum and “rare earth” minerals. Several citizens wanted to see more focus on water quality.

Other intra-basin goals discussed support the priority goal. While the planning process was brought about by a projected metropolitan water shortage, the municipal/industrial shortage in the Gunnison Basin is projected to be small, around 6,500 acre-feet (enough for ~13,000 four-person households) – roughly one percent of the projected statewide M/I shortage, and probably manageable through some anticipated agricultural land-use changes.

The heavily agricultural basin does, however, have a significant existing shortage of agricultural water, mostly late in the season, limiting the productivity of the land. Concern over these shortages is not limited to the ranchers; it acknowledges the close relationship between the valley’s agricultural land base and its economically important nonconsumptive uses – the environmental and recreational uses also dependent on the extensive groundwater storage, wildlife wetlands and increased late season flows that result from irrigated floodplains, as well as aesthetic open-space considerations.

Most of the concerns expressed by the citizens present, however, reflected a Gunnison Basin antipathy toward headwaters diversions across the Continental Divide going back to the 1930s. These fears were not entirely allayed by the “Statewide Principles” being advanced in the Gunnison Plan; Kugel and Sibley explained that the strategy was to set the bar so high, for Front Range demand reduction preceding any diversion and West Slope compensations in exchange for any diversion, that the diversion would prove to be economically unfeasible. This strategy is furthered by the fact that both the Gunnison and Upper Colorado Basins are now over-appropriated in sub-average water years; any new diversion would be limited to above-average water years – a serious risk for the Front Range water suppliers to contemplate, given the projections for climate change on the one hand, and the high cost of “pump-back” projects on the other.

That notwithstanding, the message from the audience was clearly for the Roundtable to not be “soft” on the inevitable discussion of further trans-mountain diversion from any West Slope basin, since water removed from any of them increases the amount of water the other basins must send downstream for still undefined Lower Basin obligations.

Other public-input meetings are planned for other communities throughout the Gunnison Basin over coming weeks. In addition, a public survey is available online, through the Upper Gunnison River District website, www.ugrwcd.org.

The Roundtable is now moving into the stage of generating specific plans for meeting the identified needs and expressed goals. The Roundtable meets the first Monday of every month, except for January, July and September, at 4 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Express in Montrose; the meetings are open to the public. The meeting on June 2 will precede a “State of the River” informational event held in conjunction with the Colorado River District at 7 p.m.

 

George Sibley is the Gunnison Basin Roundtable Education Committee Chair

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