Final Colorado Water Plan Provides a Framework to Solve Projected Water Shortages Through Continued Civic Engagement and Colorado’s Prior Appropriation System

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) approved the final Colorado Water Plan (Plan) and submitted it to Governor John Hickenlooper on November 19, 2015. The Plan is Colorado’s first comprehensive water plan. The Governor directed the CWCB to write the Plan two years ago by executive order. In accepting the final Plan, Governor Hickenlooper quoted a line from Thomas Hornsby Ferrill’s poem, “[h]ere is a land where life is written in water,” and commended the Plan as a step toward protecting Colorado’s water, the state’s most valuable resource.

The Plan provides a framework to reduce the state’s expected water shortages in coming decades. Coloradans developed this framework during two years of discussions, meetings, and negotiations between the public, local and state governments, water providers, and others. This framework represents the most extensive civic participation in Colorado’s history on a single project. It also reflects the diversity of the participants’ interests in consumptive and non-consumptive uses of water.

The Plan is focused on the state-wide need to reduce water shortages and incorporates a diversity of recommendations to meet that need. These recommendations are categorized as values, measurable objectives, goals, and actions. The Plan identifies potential ways to implement these recommendations, ranging from legislation to input from local groups and organizations. Implementing these recommendations will also require continued participation and collaboration among the public, local and state governments, water providers, and other affected parties.

Among the recommendations in the Plan is continued reliance on Colorado’s prior appropriation doctrine. This doctrine provides for administration of water rights based on beneficial use of water, in order of priority, as set by appropriation and adjudication dates. In practice, this doctrine protects established water rights while allowing for new and changed water uses. The Colorado Constitution establishes this doctrine through its guarantees that water is the property of the public, the public’s beneficial use of unappropriated water shall never be denied, and more senior appropriations provide more secure rights. The Plan recognizes that the prior appropriation doctrine has proven to be “remarkably flexible” in accommodating Colorado’s population growth and changing water values.

The Plan also aims to reduce future water shortages, primarily through conservation and storage measures. Water users and local governments in each of Colorado’s major river basins have created their own basin implementation plan (BIP), which they will continue to develop with assistance from state and local governments, the public, the CWCB, and other stakeholders. In the event that more transmountain water diversions from the western slope to the eastern slope are necessary, in addition to conservation and storage measures, the Plan also provides guidelines for negotiating such diversions.

Since the CWCB released the Plan last week, it has been both praised ― as an achievement in collaboration among diverse participants ― and criticized ― for not providing concrete enough recommendations.1 We must understand the Plan for what it is, however: a framework for continued civic collaboration to solve projected water shortages. Alan Salazar, Governor Hickenlooper’s chief strategist, stated that the “purpose of the plan is not to have a legislative blueprint. It’s to show the state’s collective vision for the next 50 years.”2

It is fitting that, because water in Colorado is dedicated to public use, it will fall on the public to now implement the recommendations in the Plan. At the least, the Plan provides a framework for continued civic engagement to solve future water shortages by strengthening and improving Colorado’s prior appropriation system.

By: Morgan Figuers and Steve Leonhardt

  1. See Chris Woodka, Varied Interests Sign Off on First Water Plan, The Pueblo Chieftain (Nov. 19, 2015).
  2. Marianne Goodland, Path Forward is Murky in Hickenlooper’s Final Water Plan, The Colorado Independent (Nov. 20, 2015).