In May, as the drought lingered for yet another year, Governor John Hickenlooper issued an executive order to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, calling for a new Colorado Water Plan “that will support agriculture in rural Colorado and align state policy to the state’s water values.” Hickenlooper also paid tribute to Colorado’s historic water law, which claims first in time, first in right. But many in rural Colorado think that any new plans about how to allocate the state’s water are suspect.
Delta County Commissioner Mark Roeber is a new member of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, one of nine in the state. Reporting to the venerable Colorado Water Conservation Board, now 76 years old, the roundtables were created 8 years ago. Their purpose is to facilitate discussions on water management issues and encourage locally driven collaborative solutions. They are intentionally diverse and inclusive - the group's 31 people represent counties, agricultural interests, industrial water and more.
"Everybody you can think of is represented there," says Groeber.
This group is scheduled to debate a document that sets forth principles for the Colorado Water Plan, starting with an affirmation of the power of local governments. The first of those principles states, "Solutions in the Colorado Water Plan to supply water for growth and development in one part of the state should not override land use plans and regulations adopted by local governments in the part of the state from which water will be taken.”
The conflict over water between the east slope and west slope of the state has persisted over the past 80 years. And Coloradans don’t hold the only claims to the state’s water: there are nine interstate water pacts, and Colorado rivers feed eighteen downstream states plus Mexico.
As population increases and critical water shortages loom, Roeber is adamant that ranching shouldn’t be sacrificed in times of water scarcity.
"There’s always talk out there that this crop is more valuable than that crop," he says. "Whenever you start prioritizing who is more important than somebody else, regardless of water rights, because the state was founded on water right, it’s a scary thought."
"Because then everything becomes a public trust. And you’d have no rights that maybe your family has had for a hundred years," Roeber says. His own family has been ranching in the North Fork for generations, enduring the severe droughts of 1934, 1954, 1977, 2002 and 2012. He predicts that Western Slope water users will stand together and if need be, defend their water rights.
"I think we will have to assert ourselves, in just saying no," he says. "We’re not going to give anything up without going to court."
The Gunnison Basin Roundtable meets Monday, September 9 in Montrose at 4 pm.