The state of water in Colorado is dire. You’ve seen the headlines: finite water resources are quickly dwindling in the face of climate change and increased demand. Stories about Lake Powell’s historically low storage level. Wildfires in December, then again in March.

Bart Miller, left and Matt Rice

They all have driven conversations about drought and water management from family farms and university science departments to newspapers and dinner tables. Everyone is wondering: How does a state that’s growing ensure a water-secure future when its water supplies are shrinking? 

These conversations recently have focused on one controversial proposal to divert water from the San Luis Valley to Douglas County. The idea is borne of broader anxieties about Colorado’s dwindling water resources, its growing population, urban and rural relationships, and the strategies our state can or should employ to meet these challenges. 

There’s some good news: there are sustainable, long-term, and innovative solutions to Colorado’s water woes. Scientists and policymakers in the West have known these types of water shortages were coming for a long time. These experts — including those at the nine organizations that make up Water for Colorado — have identified solutions that not only address short-term water challenges, but set communities on a path toward long-term resilience.

And, as the Colorado Water Plan undergoes its scheduled update, there is plenty of opportunity to advocate including conservation-oriented and sustainable solutions, and the specific actions and funding requests to ensure their implementation. 

The proposed San Luis Valley diversion is not a sustainable solution.

Renewable Water Resources, the company behind the San Luis Valley diversion, is proposing that Douglas County spend $10 million worth of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to build a pipeline into the county. Dedicating millions of dollars from the rescue plan, which was meant to offset the devastating impact of one crisis, will only postpone another.

Water in the San Luis Valley — as in the rest of the state — is finite. Taking water from one Colorado region does not eliminate water concerns for another, it just temporarily postpones them. If Douglas County invests in Renewable Water Resources’ proposed solution, it will once again find itself scrambling to meet the water needs of its communities down the line.

As widespread, bi-partisan opposition has made clear, the proposal will irrevocably damage the communities and ecosystems in the San Luis Valley and set a dangerous precedent for water management going forward.

It’s not good for Douglas County, either. The proposal is economically risky and endangers the long-term interests of a growing community that needs future-oriented solutions, not proposals born of short-term panic. Douglas County deserves better.

The community is growing rapidly, but it also can grow responsibly. To do so, population spikes must avoid being linked to increased water use at the expense of other communities across the state. Instead, the long-term focus should be on developing no-regrets strategies to conserve and reuse water. These solutions also would protect Douglas County water users from being saddled with high water rates to cover the billions of dollars of debt needed to pay for pipelines.

Many Colorado communities already have demonstrated that conservation-oriented approaches can be successful. Consider Aurora (our third-largest city, which has experienced growth comparable to Douglas County) where a proposal to limit lawn size in newly built homes and to reduce grass in city common areas has been met favorably. Aurora’s Republican mayor has shown that water conservation and reuse is not a partisan issue. In fact, many cities in Douglas County already are working to transition to renewable water sources, recognizing how imperative it is to be judicious with existing water supplies in the high desert. 

Similarly, water reuse programs, like one in Orange County, Calif., that has been operational for nearly 15 years, can transform urban water management in areas where populations are growing. Reuse is “drought proof,” meaning it can put communities ahead of the curve in terms of managing reduced water resources. In fact, efficient water reuse systems can meet two times the water demand with the same volume of water, stretching limited water resources even as the region gets drier.  

If Douglas County invests the money flowing to our state through the Rescue Plan  and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to implement cost-effective, conservation oriented approaches such as turf removal and water-reuse programs — which 81% of Coloradans favor over costly diversions — they can meet the needs of their population and demonstrate fiscal responsibility to residents.

All eyes are on Douglas County. The community has found itself at the center of larger water-management conversations going on across Colorado and the West. Douglas County can be a leader, setting a once-in-a-generation example for how to address these growing challenges with innovation.

It will have wide-ranging support, proven science, and the state behind it when it does. 

Bart Miller, of Boulder, is the Healthy Rivers Program director for Western Resource Advocates. Matt Rice, of Denver, is southwest regional director of American Rivers. They are co-chairs of the Water for Colorado Coalition. 

Others who have signed on to this column:

Abby Burk, of Grand Junction, is Western Rivers Regional Program manager for Audubon Rockies.

Aaron Citron, of Denver, is senior policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy, Colorado Program.

Alex Funk, of Denver, is director of water resources and senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Brian Jackson, of Denver, is senior manager, western water, for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Josh Kuhn, of Denver, is water advocate for Conservation Colorado.

Molly Mugglestone, of Gunnison, is Colorado River Basin director for the Business for Water Stewardship.

Drew Peternell, of Steamboat Springs, is Colorado Water Project director for Trout Unlimited.

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