Over the next four decades, millions of new residents along the Front Range are expected to boost water demands more than 50 percent above the currently available supply. But that doesn't mean the state needs a slew of costly water diversion projects that will damage the ecology and economy of other river basins, according to a new report by a coalition of conservation groups.
Western Resource Advocates, Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Environmental Coalition joined forces to produce the report, Filling the Gap -- a thoughtful read for anyone who wonders how the semiarid West can accommodate hordes of newcomers without becoming a dust bowl. Again.
The challenge is daunting. The population of eleven Front Range counties is expected to swell by another 2.5 million people by 2050, pushing municipal water needs to more than a million acre-feet of water a year. That's about 365,000 acre-feet more than the available supply. But Filling the Gap makes the case for pragmatic planning now rather than panic later.
Some additional dams and diversion projects are deemed acceptable by the report's authors. But the Upper Colorado River Basin is already quite stressed by the Moffat, Windy Gap and Colorado-Big Thompson projects, leaving anemic streams and declining water quality. Fully two-thirds of the native waters from the region are drained into the Front Range these days, and city planners have their eyes on much more.
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But the new study calculates that much of the increasing demand can be met through common-sense conservation strategies, better cooperation among agricultural and municipal interests, and other measures that don't involve tapping deeper into overextended supplies.
That could mean that future subdivisions aren't all lush green lawns. But this isn't Forest Hills, bub -- and the alternative could be a stampede to costly diversions that aren't as essential as their backers insist. Although it's not spelled out in the new study, the specter of the Two Forks Dam looms over any discussion of Colorado's long-term water needs. The dam was the big-ticket project of the 1980s that was supposed to save the metro area from certain doom -- while wiping out the town of Deckers, a herd of bighorn sheep and some highly prized trout streams.
It never got built, and somehow the city survived.
More from our News archive: "Beaver Lady Sherri Tippie explains how to give a dam, save a river."