April 2024 Resiliency Conversation: Planning Ahead for Water Uncertainty

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Planning Ahead for Water Supply Uncertainty

Even as Colorado sits at close to 100% of average snowpack at the twilight of ski season, water availability and management remains top of mind for community leaders across the state. Water availability impacts everything including wildfire concerns, human health, the health of aquatic ecosystems, key water infrastructure, agriculture, and the state’s $62.5 billion per year outdoor recreation industry.

Colorado has been in a near-constant state of drought since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) introduced the US Drought Monitor in 2000. Growing demand and climate change are creating a more uncertain future for our water supply. It is predicted that Colorado’s mountains will accumulate less snowpack in the future, snowmelt is likely to begin one to three weeks earlier each year, and statewide damages caused by drought are expected to reach $830 million annually by 2050.

The Colorado River is a key water source for Colorado and six other states, 30 Tribes, and 40 million people. This vital water supply is threatened by prolonged drought, low runoff conditions, and critically low reservoir levels. The Upper Colorado River Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) recently submitted the Upper Division States (UDS) Alternative, which requests that the Bureau of Reclamation model and consider the UDS Alternative in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process for Post-2026 Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The UDS Alternative responds to hydrologic conditions, rebuilds storage in the reservoirs, and protects water users and resources. The Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) submitted a separate alternative. All Upper Division States remain committed to working with the Lower Basin States to develop a consensus alternative. The current guidelines expire in 2026.

Did You Know?

Water conservation is critical. The 2023 Colorado Water Plan estimates a statewide supply gap of up to 740,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2050. Water conservation and efficiency efforts could narrow the gap by reducing future annual water needs by up to 300,000 acre-feet per year by 2050. Municipal and industrial uses account for 10% of Colorado’s water use (agriculture represents about 86%).

Local governments have the authority to decide how they grow and have sole discretion to determine whether water supplies are adequate to support new development. Because of this authority and discretion at the local government level, planners and leaders in Colorado’s communities carry an important responsibility. Specifically, land use policies noted in comprehensive plans have significant potential for future additional water savings. At the same time, land use decisions without the right tools and information could place avoidable strain that reduces the resiliency of the community’s water supplies. Several sources of funding, guidance, and technical assistance are available to help your community integrate water in your land use planning.

  • While the current round of the Department of Local Affairs' (DOLA) Energy/Mineral Impact Assistance Fund (EIAF) Program closed April 1, local governments can consider future rounds of funding to help carry out requirements related to water and land use planning integration in state statutes.
  • Local governments can access free water and land use integration technical assistance by contacting Scott Williamson, Land Use and Water Planner.
  • DOLA’s Water and Land Use page offers resources and guides to help you get started with your planning efforts.
  • The DOLA’s Division of Local Government offers technical assistance and administers State Revolving Fund programs relating to the conceptualization, development, and funding of capital projects, and the day-to-day needs of a water or sewer utility that can help local governments. 
  • DOLA and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) co-facilitate the Colorado Water and Land Use Planning Alliance, an informal group that helps local communities to effectively incorporate water in comprehensive planning. Participants from state agencies, local governments, advocacy organizations, research organizations, and other interested parties come together to develop resources, provide technical assistance, and track progress on water and land use integration across Colorado. Contact Scott Williamson to learn more.
  • The CWCB offers funding and technical assistance for conservation and land use planning in addition to raw water projects like water storage, supply, sharing agreements, watershed protection and more.
  • Through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the WaterSMART grant program is open to fund projects around water conservation, water efficiency, watershed management, studies, desalination, restoration, and more. 
  • Several nonprofits and academic institutions offer direct technical assistance to Colorado communities, including Sonoran Institute's Growing Water Smart Workshop and follow-up technical assistance, Western Resource Advocates, WaterNow Alliance’s Project Accelerator program, and university support including models and tools, student capstone projects, and more.
  • Want to gain a better grasp on water issues in order to support your community’s water needs? Local leaders can pursue a variety of educational and professional development opportunities, including Water Education Colorado’s Water Fluency program and Colorado Water Center’s Water Literate Leaders of Northern Colorado to name just two.

Dive Deeper

Pass it on: Take advantage of free Land Use and Water Planning Design templates from Colorado’s Northern Water and Norris Design and California’s Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership.

More on Drought in Colorado

More on the Colorado River: 

Learn More about Resilience in Colorado

To learn more about how state agencies are working together to strengthen resiliency across Colorado, and how the Colorado Resiliency Office is facilitating strategic action, please visit the Colorado Resiliency Office's website.