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Interview with Jame Eklund, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board

James Eklund Photo

A fifth generation Coloradan, James Eklund grew up on the Grand Mesa skiing in jeans and chaps at Powderhorn. His grandfather told him it was always better to be upstream with a shovel then downstream with a lawyer. Now as a water attorney he thinks it’s better to upstream with a shovel and a water lawyer.

Colorado’s Water Plan was recently finalized. What role did you and the Colorado Water Conservation Board play in the drafting of that plan? Can you give us a sense of how comprehensive the plan is and the time that went into the plan?

We were pretty much front and center as the state’s water policy agency. The best way to describe how it came together is a perfect storm of factors we haven’t had in the past. Before Gov. Hickenlooper called for this we didn’t have a comprehensive water plan in Colorado.

So the perfect storm was first, a political push from the Governor. Second, we had the largest civic engagement effort ever in Colorado’s history with the water roundtable process, which had been going on since 2005. Essentially it was 11 years of people in the different river basins getting together to talk about their water and how it should be managed. The third piece was this crisis with the changing climate and resiliency in our water systems. If you look at the Colorado River basin where many of the ski areas in Colorado are located, we’ve had the worst 16-17 year period in hydrology that we’ve ever seen. You have to go back 1,200 years in the paleo hydrogeology and tree ring studies to find a set of years that are as bad as the ones we’re in right now. So in the spirit of Winston Churchill: never waste a good crisis, that was the third part of what came together for us to be able to produce the first strategic water plan for the state. 

I can’t emphasize enough how important the regional planning through the basin roundtable process was to the water plan. Water is a visceral thing because everyone has to have it and it’s also a private property right in Colorado, so we had to be very careful about how we talked about water. The conversation had to start in the basins. After we had those regional plans our agency’s job was to make sure we honored all the work that had been done on the plans and try to come up with a water plan that worked.

What comes next and into the future in terms of implementation of the water plan? What about timeline and timescale?

We’ve got a series of major measurable objectives. We concluded quickly that the public needed to be able to keep score at home on how we were implementing this, otherwise it would be a glossy report that sits on a shelf.

Every conversation about water has to start with conservation. We have a supply demand gap where we’re supposed to be about 540,000 acre feet out of whack by 2050, which is a lot of water. To give you an idea of scale, one acre foot is equivalent to a football field including both end zones full of water. That’s enough water for about four or five average size households for a year. So 540,000 of those is no small thing and we have to hit both the supply side and the demand side. On demand side it’s conservation: 400,000 by 2050 and the supply side it’s storage so we’ve got to have 400,000 acre feet of new storage brought online by 2050. We think if we do that, then we will put in place a water picture in Colorado that zeros out that gap, but it’s going to be a heavy lift.

So those are two measureable objectives we will be looking at in the future.

Skiers and snowboarders do understand climate change poses a threat to skiing as winters get warmer and shorter, but can you tell us about the potential effects of earlier and smaller spring runoff on Colorado generally and different regions of our state’s economy?

I know this is something ski areas follow very closely. We look at data that suggests that a combination of warmer air temps and the potential for climate change patterns like the El Nino last year and now the La Nina that we’re in the middle of now, can really effect snowpack conditions. We have data that suggests that between changing weather and beetle kill, which has taken out massive swaths of our forests, our water sheds are really impacted. That has serious effects on many parts of the economy: recreational and eco-tourism and the agricultural industry, specifically in the high country, and on the western slope that is absolutely impacted. It’s changing so quickly that it’s hard for us to get our arms around how and what the monetary value and hit of climate change is to us in a given year, but there definitely is one and we want to make sure that we’ve got the most resilient and sustainable ski industry or eco-tourism or agribusiness possible.

Colorado’s population has rapidly grown and is expected to continue to increase for the foreseeable future putting more and more strain on our water supply. Are you optimistic about our water future? How concerned should skiers/riders and average Coloradans be for the next 10 to 50 years?

On the population aspect: we currently have 5.5 million people living in Colorado and this may sound like a lot, certainly does to me when I grew up on the western slope. We are projected to hit 10 million residents between 2050 and 2060. So we’re going to essentially double our population in my kids’ lifetime, so we know we’re going to have to grow differently. If we grow the next 5 million the same way we grew the last 5 million that’s probably not a sustainable model because the water that we have predicated our Front Range growth on has been from either the western slope or from agricultural land on the eastern plains and both of those sources are not optimal. We don’t want take more water from the western slope and we definitely don’t want to be drying up our food security and our ability to produce food in Colorado for that growing population. So we have to get more conscious about how this entire system is all connected. We need people to realize that the snow they ski on is the water that they drink in their coffee. They need to identify that connection and realize that we’ve got a water plan that sets forth some things that everyone can really chip in on and help with and if we do those things we’ve got a really good shot.

You just briefly touched on this, but can you tell us more about the role that the ski industry plays in keeping water stored on the mountains and why that’s so important throughout the rest of the year?

Let me give some context. By virtue of being the headwater state, we have many interstate requirements that basically say: we have access to about one third of the water that falls on our great state. If you look at it the other way, two thirds of the water has to leave the state pursuant to those agreements.

The ski industry is taking the liquid form or water and putting it in snowmaking equipment on the mountains. Eventually that stuff comes off and melts and goes into the watershed. When you make snow at a ski resort, you’re mimicking a hydrograph that we’ve had for a very long time in Colorado. Frankly, in several of our fragile headwater streams we need as much mimicking of the natural hydrograph as we can possibly get. Putting snow on the mountains and managing the mountains and the forests to ensure that the trees provide sufficient shade to the snow makes it so that the hydrograph stays fairly consistent. If you get rid of that system because of beetle kill or because the forests aren’t being managed well, then there will be some pretty big impacts to our headwater streams and the economies that are associated with them. So the ski industry in Colorado is very important. It isn’t just part of our brand; everybody thinks of skiing when they think of Colorado, but the ski industry is also a huge part of the stewardship that needs to go on in our mountains and in our forests and I’m really proud we have the cadre of owners at the ski areas that are taking an avid interest in our water and how it’s all connected.

Any advice for Colorado’s outdoor enthusiasts and Coloradans generally on ways to conserve more water around the house?

There are a number of things they can do personally and then if they do want to scale up and get more involved at more of a systemic level there’s plenty to do as well. The first thing to do is go to the Colorado Water Plan website and just get conversant in the ways in which we’re all connected. There’s an interface we’re developing right now that will try and harness some of the data that the state provides on an open source basis so you can put in your zip code or your last water bill and it will tell you 3 or 4 things you can do immediately in your own home. Whether it’s installation of high efficiency water fixtures or trying to make sure that your outdoor sprinkler system is up to date. Now it’s legal to own and install a rain barrel in this state and that’s a good thing because it raises the conservation ethic.

We’re also working to make it easier for businesses and small business owners to interface with the water plan to let them go to our widgets on our websites and put in some pieces of information and then to custom design a plan of attack for them so they can say: I’m doing my part on this water plan because it’s the right thing to do.

At a higher policy level we do a lot of things that people don’t know about like cloud seeding where you can get up to five or fifteen percent more out of a weather system.

James can you give a brief explanation of what cloud seeding is?

So we shoot silver particles into clouds when we do weather modification or cloud seeding, they’re phrases for the same thing. We try and seed clouds as they’re coming over major passes and they’re going to drop snow anyway so we just put some more molecules up in the cloud system for more snowflakes to form around which creates more snow in the mountains. I also want to mention there’s not a correlation between the cloud seeding efforts that go on to help our snowpack or our ski industry and less rainfall on the eastern plains or elsewhere.

Is the anything else you would like to add about water in Colorado?

We get pretty nervous and know the ski industry does as well when we’re down pretty low in the snowpack number. It’s important to look at California recently for a comparison. When the 2015 water year ended, California ended with their statewide snowpack at 3 percent of average. If it can happen in the Sierras it can happen in the Rockies and we’ve got to be ready for that and make our system as resilient as possible. This is the right time to be thinking about water and conservation and it’s really great we have a partner in the ski industry that’s thinking about this stuff right alongside us.