Energy, Utilities & Water  July 26, 2023

Confluence: High water costs here may seem like bargains for outsiders

LOVELAND — Like it or not, as developers, cities and farmers struggle with the high cost of water in Northern Colorado, water users outside of Northern Colorado are increasingly seeing a bargain in those same prices.

The result is that water leaves the basin, and with the water goes future economic opportunity, members of a panel on water resiliency said during Confluence — Colorado Water Conference Wednesday at the Embassy Suites Loveland Hotel and Conference Center. 

To combat that lost opportunity, groups are coming together to determine strategies for keeping water in the region.

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Claire Bouchard from the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado noted that the Northern Colorado Water Alliance, a group of 21 organizations, formed in January this year to seek collaboration on storage, delivery, demand, development, growth, housing and more in the region. It seeks to determine how the region preserves its water, she said.

Multiple panel members mentioned the external forces, which extend beyond the traditional efforts of metro Denver cities to tap into the water reserves of the region. Out-of-state interests, not the least of which are the lower basin states of the Colorado River who consume 3 million to 4 million acre feet of water more than the river produces in a typical year. 

Sean Chambers with the city of Greeley said that in addition, water quality has become more of an issue as headwaters areas are affected by wildfire.

Greeley, he said, draws water from four river basins, which helps in its diversification. Still, there is heavy competition “making water efficiency extremely important. When water leaves Northern Colorado, we transfer our future economic well-being,” he said.

He noted that innovation in agriculture will help because ag tech helps farmers produce more with less water, leaving more for more urban uses.

Chris Matkins of Ally Utility Consulting, said “water competition is really competition for economic vitality.” 

“If water is leaving Northern Colorado, it’s because local providers aren’t recognizing its true value. How can we put in place systems that allow local providers to compete for that water,” Matkins asked.

He mentioned alternative transfer mechanisms, or ATMs, that permit nearby economic interests, such as farms near urban areas, to share water resources in a way that continues to meet ag’s needs while also meeting urban needs.

Patrick Wells from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District said analogies to retirement accounts are appropriate when it comes to water. He advocated for “scenario planning” so that multiple possible situations are considered in planning with an aim of protecting the future water bank account.

A regional water ethic is developing, he said, “where we jointly recognize the issues and opportunities. The benefit is more resilience.”

James Eklund, an attorney with the Sherman & Howard law firm who moderated the discussion, said that even small disruptions in water supply can have significant economic impacts.

“If one area runs out of water, that becomes the (news) story, not how well you’ve done in other areas,” he said. Industries that might otherwise come to the area want to be assured that water will be available.

Ken Amundson
Ken Amundson is managing editor of BizWest. He has lived in Loveland and reported on issues in the region since 1987. Prior to Colorado, he reported and edited for news organizations in Minnesota and Iowa. He's a parent of two and grandparent of four, all of whom make their homes on the Front Range. A news junkie at heart, he also enjoys competitive sports, especially the Rapids.
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