Guest opinion: Has the time come for a Northern Colorado water bank?

The history of water in the West is filled with ill-tempered episodes, often playing out in contentious courtrooms or heated legislative chambers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many examples, here in Colorado and throughout the West, where cooperative efforts have led to creative solutions.   

I recently attended an event that brought together a wide-ranging group of water-related interests. Speakers included the president of an area chamber of commerce, a prominent developer, and a board member from a nonprofit environmental group. All three speakers agreed on one thing: Northern Colorado needs to better prepare for its future at the regional level, and water should be a central component of any planning efforts.     

Could a water bank play a role in better regional planning for Northern Colorado?

I don’t profess to know the answer, but I am intrigued by the question. From Idaho — which created the first water bank in 1930 — to New Mexico and Washington, the water bank is a tried-and-tested tool for those who do not want to see this limited resource diverted for use outside our region. 

If a water bank is deemed to be a valid solution by a broad cross section of regional interests, it would, of course, need to be implemented in a manner that fully respects individual water rights. Water rights are owned primarily by agricultural interests and without the “buy-in” of the agricultural community, any planning efforts will likely fail.    

Water banks take different shapes and formats, depending on the needs and existing water laws. What works well for a water bank in Spokane County, Wash., will not necessarily serve the best interests of Northern Colorado. But the common thread is that a water bank is designed to provide market-based options that lead to desired outcomes and reflect community consensus.        

Some 20 years ago, leaders in Larimer and Weld counties explored the possibility of a regional water bank designed to get out in front of the rapid growth facing the region. The idea did not gain traction, perhaps because it was ahead of its time. Could an effort to rekindle that conversation build more momentum today?

Currently, Northern Colorado is on a trajectory to dry up a large percentage of its agricultural lands over the next 30 years. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this would be an optimal future for our region. This reality is not the result of nefarious efforts, but simply the result of market-based forces. Could a regional water bank create different types of market-driven incentives?         

We are also realizing the impact of long-ago Poudre River water purchases by the city of Thornton — a municipality that is, to its credit, taking great pains to prepare for its future water needs. But Thornton’s plans for this water will remove it completely from the Poudre River basin — an outcome that has no upside for Northern Colorado, whether the priority is agricultural, municipal, or environmental. What happens if more Denver-area communities follow Thornton’s lead?

We need to be realistic; a water bank of any kind cannot be achieved without a great deal of expertise and planning among affected parties. The good news is that there are a variety of groups in Northern Colorado attempting to build cooperation and consensus. The bad news is that despite such efforts, our current path

could lead to a future no one — least of all future generations — would find optimal. 

In a recent opinion piece in several area newspapers, Greeley City Manager Roy Otto provided the following challenge: “As we collaborate, we become a civic infrastructure more than capable of using water wisely. I ask you to consider what our legacy is going to be.” 

Regardless of your perspective on the issue of water, we must applaud previous generations for their planning and storage efforts. Without their foresight, many of us would not be able to live here. And without their concern for the environment, many of us would not want to live here. Water influences our economy and our quality of life like nothing else. What legacy will our generation leave as it relates to water?   

Ray Caraway is president of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado, which provides services to philanthropists and nonprofit organizations. It also acts as a convener and facilitator for important community conversations on topics ranging from water to regional cooperation.

The history of water in the West is filled with ill-tempered episodes, often playing out in contentious courtrooms or heated legislative chambers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many examples, here in Colorado and throughout the West, where cooperative efforts have led to creative solutions.   

I recently attended an event that brought together a wide-ranging group of water-related interests. Speakers included the president of an area chamber of commerce, a prominent developer, and a board member from a nonprofit environmental group. All three speakers agreed on one thing: Northern Colorado needs to better prepare for its future at the regional level, and water should be a central component of any planning efforts.     

Could a water bank play a role in better regional planning for Northern Colorado?

I don’t profess to know the answer, but I am intrigued by the question. From Idaho — which created the first water bank in 1930 — to New Mexico and Washington, the water bank is a tried-and-tested tool for those who do not want to see this limited resource diverted for use outside our region. 

If a water bank is deemed to be a valid solution by a broad cross section of regional interests, it would, of course, need to be implemented in a manner that fully respects individual water rights. Water rights are owned primarily by agricultural interests and without the “buy-in” of the agricultural…