Emerging Demands in the Colorado Headwaters
The Water and Growth in the West conference covers a breadth of issues, including demographics and water-use trends, improved planning and efficient use, implementation of TMDL and ESA requirements, groundwater management, tribal water resources, environmental protection, social costs of water transfers, climatic variability, and related issues. The third day of the event focuses exclusively on Colorado water issues.
The focus of the conference not only reflects the continued salience of water issues in the modern West, but is a recognition that current rates of growth in the region have brought greater urgency and complexity to many longstanding issues. Over the last decade, nine of the ten fastest growing states are located in the West - a trend that is expected to continue. Most of these residents, both old and new, live in the region in part due to the considerable environmental amenities and recreational opportunities. Others are attracted to the strong regional economy and an abundance of developable land. Water makes this possible. The potential exhaustion of available supplies, consequently, is a broad-ranging concern. While there is currently no evidence to suggest that potential water shortages are slowing current growth patterns, it is notable that virtually every western river of significance has at least one endangered species issue, and that competition for limited supplies increasingly pits sector against sector, basin against basin, community against community.
In the modern West, it is increasingly difficult to separate issues of water quality and quantity, and water management and land-use. This is perhaps best illustrated by the emergence of TMDLs, the broadening influence of the Endangered Species Act, and the growing stresses on the agricultural sector. Nested within these concerns are thorny issues of equity and fairness, private fights versus public concerns, and the appropriate delineation of roles between federal, state, and local governments. The prospects of drought are also increasingly troublesome, as new demands threaten to reduce the “drought cushion” in water systems, and as new research shows that recent decades have been abnormally wet. On many levels, the world of western water resources is becoming more complicated, as strong growth pressures illustrate both the limits of current practice and the opportunities for improved management.