Front Range cities good at making every drop count

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The Front Range Water Council, which consists of all major water providers along the Front Range, including Colorado Springs Utilities, Denver Water, and five others, has released a report titled “Water and the Colorado Economy.”

The report paints a very different picture of water use on the Colorado Front Range than what is commonly portrayed.

Viewed through an economist’s lens, Front Range cities are not greedy, inefficient water hogs who carelessly waste the precious fluid on lawns, golf courses and turf grass parks.

In fact, the reckless, profligate water users may be farmers and ranchers on the western slope, in eastern Colorado, and elsewhere in the state.

The Front Range generates 80 to 86 percent of the state’s economic activity and tax revenue, amounting to $132,000 in sales of goods and services for every acre-foot of water withdrawn.

The next most productive region, the Central Mountains, generates less than $12,000 per acre foot, while the Western Slope, with 41 percent of withdrawals, amounts to less than 10 percent of the state’s economy, or about $6,500 per acre-foot.

Front Range council members provide most of the Front Range municipal and industrial water demand and contribute to Front Range agricultural water demands. About 27 percent of council water withdrawals are from the Arkansas and South Platte river basins, and 73 percent are from the Colorado River basin.

The report is an economic analysis of the value of water use within Colorado. Its purpose is, according to the authors, “to provide data for collaborative decision making, which can be utilized in assessing the future use and allocation of water resources.”

Drawing upon data from many different sources, the report was written by a team that included Colorado economists Tucker Hart Adams, David Bamberger, Tom Binnings and Paul Rochette.

Leading the project team was Wayne Vanderschuere, manager of water supply resources for Colorado Springs Utilities.

Total water withdrawals for beneficial use in Colorado during recent years amount to 15.1 million acre-feet annually. An acre-foot of water is equal to 325,851 gallons — enough water to provide for three average households for a year.

Of that total, the Front Range withdraws 2.9 million acre feet, or 19.4 percent of the total. Western Colorado withdraws more than 6 million acre feet, amounting to 41 percent of all statewide withdrawals.

Of the 2.9 million acre feet withdrawn by the Front Range, only 962,000 acre-feet (6.4 percent of state total) is directed to municipal and industrial uses. Overall, M&I accounted for 7.5 percent of state withdrawals, while agricultural withdrawals amounted to 91 percent.

This disparity between regions is partially attributable to the economic inefficiency of irrigated agricultural uses in Colorado. Although some micro-regions which produce specialty crops, such as the wineries around Palisade make efficient use of water, agricultural economic output per acre-foot averages $1,280 on the Western Slope.

Eastern Colorado agriculture is even less efficient, producing only $919 per acre foot.

Front Range producers, using 13.7 percent of the state’s agricultural water withdrawals, produce 33.4 percent of the state’s agricultural output.

Such figures may suggest that a growing state should rethink traditional water uses, and redirect water resources to the most productive users.

The report notes that Colorado residents may be faced with difficult choices during the next four decades.

Demographers predict that the state’s population will increase by 60 percent by 2035, and double by 2050. The state believes that this increase will drive a significant future water supply gap, growing to more than 1 million acre feet by 2050. Municipal and industrial demands are projected to double in the 40-year period, precisely tracking population growth.

The report stresses that the water gap will develop even sooner if “current development projects and processes” such as CSU’s southern delivery system are not achieved.

One Response to Front Range cities good at making every drop count

  1. The report seems to suggest that continuing suburban sprawl and population growth on the Front Range is more important than growing food to eat. Economists can’t or don’t always measure the right things.

    Also let me point out that the future population growth will only occur if Colorado DOES divert water from agriculture to cities and build the big water projects like the one pushed by the project’s team leader. The state COULD decide enough is enough, let’s keep some agriculture close to home, keep some water in the rivers, and get unhooked from our growth addiction. We have to stop sometime. I suggest that now is a much smarter time to do so than in 50 years when the water is tapped out.

    This report is not about best stewardship of a scarce and vital resource.

    Dave Gardner
    January 29, 2010 at 2:12 pm