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4 takeaways from this year’s Water Congress

From avoiding ‘Day Zero’ to getting creative with funding, what one expert learned after a few days with Colorado’s water geeks.

In a remote high mountain valley far, far away, a little-known secret team of water wonks meet. Their mission is to face the “Fallout” from drought, population growth and climate change. Mission Impossible? Probably not.

As Captain Toilet Man, a.k.a. Denver Water’s government relations manager, one of my missions is to be a part of this team: the Colorado Water Congress. Before your eyes glaze over, stick with me, because your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to count up all of the water puns I’ve hidden in this story about some of my takeaways from the Colorado Water Congress’ annual summer conference.Colorado Water Congress 2018 Summer ConferenceBack to the Future (What can Colorado learn from Cape Town’s “Day Zero” crisis?)

Eighteen years ago, the Cape Times predicted that Cape Town, South Africa, would run out of water in 17 years (a message from Marty McFly?). While they are not out of the rapids yet, the crisis has been delayed. A fascinating presentation on this crisis offered five takeaways for water managers and whether Day Zero could happen to us:

  1. Expect the improbable — we can no longer rely on the past as a predictor of the future.
  2. Don’t count on water conservation alone — if water saved through conservation is your only way of creating supply for growth, you will run out, eventually.
  3. Act sooner rather than later — long-range planning is important.
  4. Diversify your water supply — multi-sourced storage, conservation, efficiency and reuse must all be part of your water portfolio.
  5. Don’t waste a crisis — political action is much easier when times demand it.

Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead participated in this panel and echoed many of these ideas in his presentation of how Denver Water plans for our long-term future using scenario planning.

Chris Piper, Denver Water’s government relations manager, and Dave Takeda, with MSK Consulting, enjoy wine made with water from the PureWater Colorado Demonstration Project at the Water Congress' networking event.

Takeaway: The world is a changing and sometimes unpredictable place. To be prepared for an unknown future will require leadership, teamwork and cooperation — qualities I see up and down the organization at Denver Water. From installing new pipe in the street to planning for the next 50 years to the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, #WeAreOnIt.

Wild and Scenic (Not a crazy college party — congressional act turns 50 years old)

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System Act was passed by Congress in 1968. Its purpose is “to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

On this 50th anniversary of the act, I was surprised to learn that only one river in Colorado, the Cache la Poudre, has been designated as “wild and scenic.”

So how does a river get designated as wild and scenic? There are three factors: the river must be determined as eligible by one of four agencies (Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or U.S. Forest Service), must be free flowing, and must have at least one outstanding remarkable value as defined in the act.

While there have been many attempts to designate other rivers in Colorado as wild and scenic, stakeholders have opted to negotiate local agreements in lieu of the official designation. That’s largely because designating a river as wild and scenic curtails all future water development in that reach of the river. This can be a pro and a con to designation, and stakeholders often opt to find ways to protect rivers similarly to wild and scenic AND allow for water development activities.

The rainbow trout fisherman.

One example is the Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, that protects four species of endangered fish in the Colorado River and its tributaries and water use and development for human needs.

Takeaway: In Colorado, some rivers have similar characteristics to ones that meet the requirements of a wild and scenic designation, placing Colorado in an ebb and flow between protection and management of our rivers. However, with a lot of cooperation and hard work, water managers, regulators and the conservation community have, in many cases, found calm waters when it comes to balancing competing interests for the state’s waters.

No, you cannot borrow my fire! (What is “fire borrowing” and why is it important to Colorado?)

With many wildfires burning in Colorado and the West lately, there is a real need for resources to fight them. And while this summer has been worrisome, wildfires have been a huge challenge for at least the last 10 years, frequently setting new benchmarks, by acreage and cost of damage.

At the conference, we heard from officials about the recent solution to the U.S. Forest Service’s budget to alleviate the pressure for borrowing funds from forest health, fire prevention, and post-fire mitigation and restoration programs within the agency when firefighting funds run out, also known as “fire borrowing.”

The Hayman Wildfire destroyed over 138,000 acres in 2002. Photo courtesy: Coalition for the Upper South Platte.

We know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure as exemplified by the From Forests to Faucets partnership between Denver Water and the U.S. Forest Service. To preserve critical funding for prevention (forest health and fire prevention programs), Congress passed and the president signed the omnibus spending bill that includes an additional $2 billion per year (not just a drop in the bucket), outside of the Forest Service’s regular budget, to pay for firefighting efforts. This will go a long way in making sure forest managers can fight this challenge from both ends, through preventative measures and fighting fires when they happen.

Takeaway: Where there is common interest and cooperation, funding for important projects like this can be found.

Birthdays abound (Denver Water turns 100)

Of course, it wouldn’t be a watershed moment if I didn’t spend a little time bragging. Denver Water was honored to present to the Water Congress two videos showcasing the celebration of our 100th Anniversary: “The Journey of Water,” a new four-part series that goes behind the scenes of Denver Water to explore the people and the system that brings water from the snowcapped mountains into the home, and a trailer for “Written in Water: Reflections on a Century of Service,” a 46-minute documentary that looks at how a reliable water supply enabled Denver’s growth and Denver Water’s relationships with people and communities across Colorado.

Takeaway: 100 years is a long time and Denver Water has come a long way; from wooden pipes and open air outdoor sand filter ponds to state of the art water filtration and 1.4 million customers. Seeing these videos reminds me of how lucky I am to work in a place where we make such a huge difference in people’s day-to-day lives.

The Water Congress summer conference is always a great opportunity to whet your whistle on the topics of the day and network with others in the water world. And if you’ve read this far, congratulations! While my children would have called them “bad dad jokes,” if you paid close attention, you would have found six water puns, awful as they are.

ANSWERS: “not out of the rapids yet,” “ebb and flow,” “calm waters,” “just a drop in the bucket,” “watershed moment,” and “whet your whistle.”