This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
A first-of-its-kind educational campaign is asking Coloradans to both conserve and protect the state’s most critical resource.
The “For the Love of Colorado” campaign — launched Wednesday at the Outdoor Retailer trade show — leans alarmist, which is warranted as climate change threatens Colorado’s snowpack and river health. The campaign is a call to arms, asking Coloradans to consider a state without enough water.
Colorado’s population is expected to double by 2050, “but our water supply won’t. Unless we do something about it,” one of the campaign’s ads reads. Or “700,000 additional acres of Colorado farmland are at risk of going dry,” and “More than 80 percent of our water comes from snowpack, which could decrease by as much as 50 percent by the end of this century.”
“This campaign is about ensuring that the public knows and understands that water is the lifeblood of our communities, our economy and our environment,” said Jon Goldin-Dubois with Western Resource Advocates. “It is critical that the public understands the large gap in funding the Colorado Water Plan and that we need resources for river health. We need resources for water conservation.”
While promoters call it an “awareness campaign,” the effort is prepping state residents to pay more for water management and infrastructure across the state. A lot more.
The Colorado Water Plan, born in 2015 from a multi-year collaboration involving politicians, communities and water managers from each of Colorado’s river basins, proposes directing $100 million a year for the next 30 years toward such water-management strategies as more efficient storage and infrastructure, water recycling, urban and agricultural conservation and water banking, which asks some users to temporarily lease their water rights in dry years.
It’s a grand plan to protect flows that float all of the state’s communities and economies. But there’s no dedicated money for it. Lawmakers this year delivered the first funding for the plan, but the $10 million is only a fraction of the plan’s funding goal. Legislators did approve a proposal to ask voters to allow sports betting, with tax revenue flowing toward the water plan. No one knows for sure how much a 10% tax on betting might deliver, but it won’t be anywhere close to $100 million a year.
At the same time, the seven states and Mexico that rely on the Colorado River hammered out hard-fought drought contingency plans that trim water use to prevent the federal government from stepping in and mandating cuts. The states in the Upper Basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — agreed to pursue a program called demand-management, which pays some water users to temporarily give up their water rights.
So there’s a lot going on with Colorado water right now. All of it demanding large amounts of money. And there are a lot of new residents moving to the state, some from places where the fundamental basis of Colorado’s prior appropriation water rights — “first in time, first in right” — is a foreign concept, as is the need for conservation.
Hence the campaign with the exasperated-sounding tagline, “For the Love of Colorado.”
The campaign is backed by philanthropy — including a grant from Denver’s Gates Family Foundation — and developed by Denver’s Sukle agency, which is behind Great Outdoors Colorado’s “Generation Wild” and Denver Water’s “Use Only What You Need.” It is not associated with the coming effort to persuade voters to approve sports betting as a way to help fund the Colorado Water Plan, but, obviously, the campaign could stir support for any and all proposals to fund more strategic water management in Colorado.
Colorado was buried in record snowfall last winter, but the need for long-term water planning and conservation is critical as the seven states that rely on the Colorado River hammer out plans to trim use for the over-allocated river. Even with the bounty of snow this winter, the Upper Basin’s Lake Powell is expected to reach maybe 54% of its capacity this summer. So an all-time winter — one of the snowiest in at least 20 years in Colorado — bumped up the Upper Basin’s water storage savings account by about 10 percentage points.
The new campaign will hammer home the message that every Coloradan needs to be part of the solution as the West’s growing population relies even more heavily on a finite supply of water.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed with the engagement across the board, with wide-ranging, bipartisan support from across the state. We are all really thinking about how we solve this problem together in a way that reflected the place that we all live,” Goldin-Dubois said.
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce has aligned with the conservation groups on the campaign. While chambers of commerce don’t always agree with environmental groups — especially when it comes to oil and gas — Colorado’s business leaders have a long history of supporting conservation causes in the state, chamber president Kelly Brough said.
“Our members have known water is life sustaining for all of us and while water is one of those issues that we have proven can really divide us as a state, what you are seeing here is an intentionality among all of us that we have to be truly aligned to be successful,” she said.
“For the Love of Colorado” promotes water literacy. The idea is that every resident should know how their use impacts supplies and availability.
Brough, whose chamber supported the legislation leading to the sports betting ballot measure, said the campaign is “vastly different” from the gambling plan. She likens the effort to transformative campaigns of lore, like those that promoted seatbelts and recycling, decried littering and deployed Smokey the Bear to fight forest fires.
“This education campaign is really informing generations who will understand that water is different in Colorado, more so than anywhere else you have probably lived,” Brough said.
Water conservation messages have resonated with Westerners. Look at drought-spurred pleas from water managers in Denver, Las Vegas and Albuquerque that resulted in significant water-saving by residents. While conservation will be a key component of the “For the Love of Colorado” campaign, it will also highlight how water anchors the state’s agricultural and tourism industries and communities.
“No one will ever consider wasting water once this campaign is done,” Brough said.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the 15-county Colorado River District, has learned over his career that no one thinks about water when supply managers do their job well and both taps and rivers are flowing. That presents a challenge, especially in a super-wet year like this one.
“We have more and more people living here and we have hotter temperatures, which means less water making it to the river. So how do we communicate that water conservation of all types is really critical for long-term success of our communities?” wondered Mueller, who sees the “For the Love of Colorado” campaign as raising the “water IQ” of the state’s residents, especially the newcomers.
“This is an educational campaign. We want to get everyone to think about water as one of the most fundamental building blocks of all our communities,” said Mueller, who points to places like Israel, Jordan and Australia where residents embrace progressive water-saving strategies. “If we have it in our eternal consciousness that water is precious, there are amazing things we can do.”
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