A Local Ballot Initiative in Colorado Dedicated to Water Sustainability 

Among the many environmental wins for Colorado this election cycle, the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District (spanning multiple municipalities), received an encouraging number of votes on ballot measure 7A. The purpose of 7A is to generate sufficient funding to support the implementation of the District’s Water Vision and Action Plan through a property tax. The Plan seeks to strengthen water availability and management of the District’s basins through a variety of conservation, storage, and educational strategies. In Colorado, property taxes are collected and spent locally, and are calculated by multiplying the assessed property value by the mill levy (tax rate). In a District that has never asked voters for additional funding, the newly approved tax rate will be 1.25 mill, which is projected to bring in a little over $3 million dollars per year. 

This win for water comes on the heels of an intense drought and wildfire season throughout the state. In mid-October, the entirety of Colorado suffered at least moderate drought, which are conditions that have not been seen since July of 2013. The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District plans to tackle these weather challenges, which are exacerbated by climate change, in order to maintain a healthy and plentiful water supply in the dry years ahead. 

The 5-Point Water Vision and Action Plan 

The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District serves residents in Boulder, Weld, and Larimer counties, located about 33 miles northwest of Denver in the Longmont area. This local unit of government, alongside its Board of Directors, began crafting their Water Vision and Action Plan in 2016. Throughout the process, the District spoke to a variety of organizations including The Nature Conservancy, Western Resource Advocates, American Rivers, and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association to garner feedback and support for the plan. 

Encouraging support from these organizations and the public led to the official adoption of The 5-Point Water Vision and Action Plan by the Board of Directors in January 2020. The plan addresses the protection of water sources for generations to come in the following 5 areas:

  1. Protect Water Quality & Drinking Water Sources
  2. Safeguard & Conserve Drinking Water
  3. Grow Local Food
  4. Store Water for Dry Years
  5. Maintain Healthy Rivers & Creeks

The District kept an open line of communication with the public about the Plan and how the funds generated from 7A would be distributed among the plan’s five different parts. Because of the uncertainty each drought and wildfire season brings in terms of water availability, the District felt that having the flexibility to prioritize and determine on an annual basis how the revenue would be spent is the best way to make a positive community impact. 

Threats to Colorado’s Water 

2020 brought record-breaking wildfires through much of the West, including Colorado. The Pine Gulch fire burned 139,000 acres this summer, only to be surpassed by the Cameron Peak fire that began in August, spanning almost 209,000 acres. Severe lingering drought contributes to the spread and intensity of these wildfires. The absence of widespread rain showers and storms throughout the summer led to one of Colorado’s driest periods from January to July, with precipitation levels 3.17 inches below the average. These dry conditions also negatively impacted the livelihoods of farmers, many of whom saw their crops die at alarming rates this year. 

A La Niña weather pattern is also ongoing this year, which exacerbates drought conditions and may lead to less snowfall throughout the winter months. Lower-than-average snowfall in mountainous areas jeopardizes water availability because up to 75 percent of the water supplied in western states comes from snowmelt that flows into rivers. 

Climate change alters patterns of precipitation and evaporation, leading to drier conditions in some areas, including Colorado. Dried out soils and vegetation make the perfect condition for wildfires to start. Snow also melts earlier because of climate change, which extends the summer drought period and more fires can then accelerate snowmelt, creating an enduring, disastrous cycle

The historical wildfires come five years after former Governor John Hickenlooper (who will now serve the state as a Senator) approved Colorado’s Water Plan, detailing methods and goals to sustainably manage Colorado’s limited water resources. This plan emerged from a 2013 Executive Order signed by Hickenlooper assigning The Colorado Water Conservation Board with the task to produce this comprehensive plan with three values in mind: a productive economy, efficient and effective water infrastructure, and a strong environment. It includes input from farmers, residents from rural and urban areas, and businesses to identify needs and potential strategies to address the impacts of climate change on water availability and supply. One of the eight measurable objectives defined in the state Plan is to create innovative solutions to address water storage in order to manage and share conserved water. 

A closer look at St. Vrain’s strategies 

The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District’s 5-Point Plan is correspondingly addressing the concept of water storage in ways that also ensure ecosystem health to account for climatic uncertainty in the near future. 

Sean Cronin, the Executive Director of St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, elaborates on one such strategy called Creek Improvement Facilities (CIFs). Rather than damming a river, a CIF creates an off-channel reservoir that could store water in times of plenty, and use that saved water in times of drought. This storage method could also provide sufficient water for agricultural needs in the area. 

“If a river doesn’t have sufficient water to sustain a healthy aquatic ecosystem, we could make releases out of that Creek Improvement Facility to enhance or maintain a certain ecosystem.” Cronin explains. 

Snow melt is critical to the water system in Colorado, and due to a warming climate and drought conditions going into winter, stream and river flows may be much lower. It is important to design a water system that can adapt to these changes by multi-beneficial methods such as Creek Improvement Facilities. 

“We have to change our thinking about how we look at storage,” Cronin told Climate XChange. 

Other parts of the plan will make investments in education programs for both kids and adults within the Longmont area. The goal of these education programs is to show the interconnectedness of water in relation to mountains, snowpack, streams, and how water will impact agricultural and recreational economies.  

With the passage of 7A, the St. Vrain and Left Hand Conservancy District is better equipped to achieve the goals and projects surrounding water sustainability. Support for this initiative reveals an “understanding and a willingness by the community to make investments in water. Coloradans understand that there’s not a lot of water in their state,” Cronin points out. This Colorado District is one step closer in fulfilling a strong, sustainable water future. 

Featured Image: Photo by Zack Smith via Unsplash