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Conference to address water crisis in Southwest Colorado

Reservoirs across Southwest Colorado and the West have been suffering because of persistent drought. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Drought requires ideas and collaboration; Sky Ute Casino in Ignacio will host seminar

A 22-year drought means Colorado’s water supply will not meet all current and future demands. And one winter of above-average snowpack will not solve the long-term shortage.

Navigating these shallow waters requires education, ideas and discussion, which is the goal of Southwestern Water Conservation District’s 39th annual Southwest Water Seminar, scheduled for March 31 at the Sky Ute Casino Resort in Ignacio from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This year’s theme is “Seeking Common Ground in Crisis,” a call for collaboration.

Examples that describe the water shortage include:

  • From 2010 to 202,1 runoff in the Florida River watershed, Durango’s main water supply, dropped by 36% when compared with the years 1985 to 1999.
  • In 2021, a record-low McPhee Reservoir provided just 10% of allocated water supply to farmers in Montezuma County and Ute Mountain Ute lands, and in 2022, farmers only received 40%.
  • In 2021, Dove Creek nearly ran out of municipal water because canals that deliver the water shut down earlier than ever before.
  • Colorado communities could need 230,000 to 740,000 acre-feet of additional water by 2050 if the drought persists and no new water projects or strategies are implemented, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan.
  • Water conservation and efficiency efforts could reduce future annual water needs by up to 300,000 acre-feet, the plan states.
  • Building more storage capacity is a potential tool. On paper, existing water rights in Colorado could double the current storage up to 6.5 million acre-feet.
Diversity of topics, stakeholders

Exploring solutions as a community is the goal of the seminar, said organizer Elaine Chick.

“These are interesting times. How do we find common ground and work together and not against each other,” she said. “Through communication and collaboration, organizations working together can accomplish goals they couldn’t reach working in isolation.”

The conference moved to the larger Sky Ute Casino this year to accommodate its popularity, she said. The conference’s previous venue was at the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel in Durango.

The conference will feature expert presenters, water managers, environmental speakers, Ute Mountain and Southern Ute Tribe perspectives, and panel discussions on a variety of water topics.

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The draft agenda is being finalized.

The panel “Water Reuse: Treating Wastewater and Using it Again, A Deeper Look,” is a hot new topic drawing interest as a conservation strategy. The moderator is Peter Butler.

Panel members are Aurora’s Prairie Waters Project; Jolene Walsh, Eastern Municipal Water District; Brandi Honeycutt, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; Molly Morris, Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency, and Helen Katich, of U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper’s office on funding in the drinking water space.

McPhee Reservoir is a main water supply for Southwest Colorado. (Journal file)
Lake Nighthorse stores water for municipal and industrial use. (Durango Herald file)

“Water reuse is happening more, and it can be controversial,” Chick said. “It is seen as a solution for conserving water. The panelists will talk about successes and address concerns, talk about the technology of the systems.”

The panel “Seeking Common Ground along the Colorado River” features Chuck Cullom, executive director Upper Colorado River Commission; Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior; Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart; and Andy Mueller of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

The moderator is Steve Wolff, general manager for Southwestern Water Conservation District.

A panel about water use for Western Slope agriculture versus Front Range cities should be a crowd pleaser.

“West Slope-East Slope, Lower and Upper Basins Food and Water Connection” features Robert Sakata of Sakata Farms, Simon Martinez of Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch, and Paul Bruchez of Reeder Creek Ranch. The moderator is Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

For context on the “great divide,” 80% of water in the state falls on the Western Slope, and 90% of the people live east of the Continental Divide on the Front Range. To balance it out, 27 tunnels and ditches move 500,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Western Slope to Front Range users.

A panel on statewide and regional environmental issues will be led by Celene Hawkins, of the Nature Conservancy, Forest Programs Director Dana Guinn of Mountain Studies Institute, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

New this year is a media panel titled “The Role of Communication in a Water Crisis”

Moderator Jerd Smith of Fresh Water News will lead a discussion by reporter Jonathan Romeo of the Durango Telegraph, Alex Hager of KUNC and Christi Bode Skeie of Moxiecran Media.

Anyone with interest in water may attend, Chick said.

“It’s not just for water managers, it's for the general public, landowners, students, town council members, county commissioners,” she said. “The overall theme is, How do we address the crisis of diminishing water. It is something people need to pay attention to. The crisis is not going away just because we have snow today.”

To register in-person for $50, visit: swwcd.org/more/southwest-water-seminar/ before March 29. Registration includes breakfast and lunch. Walk-in registration may not be available if advance registration reaches capacity. Cost at the door will be $60.