Increasingly, water in Colorado (and around the West, for that matter) is becoming a fierce battleground with distinct lines drawn in the sand. We see environmentalists and recreationists squaring off against water suppliers; farmers duking it out with so-called “water grabbers”; and, unfortunately, the Front Range pitted against the Western Slope.

Kate Burchenal, Education & Outreach CoordinatorAnd it’s no wonder we see tension mounting with each passing year. We have a very finite amount of water at our disposal and seemingly innumerable ways in which we, as Coloradans, want to use that water. Drinking water, landscaping, agriculture, recreation, dust suppression, fire protection, industrial uses, snowmaking, power generation, environmental in-stream flows, and the list goes on. Each and every use is important in its own right, but finding the balance between these uses has proven to be extremely difficult.

Watersheds Conference

So one would think that when water professionals with various backgrounds get together in a room it would be all-out war, right? Wrong, actually. The Eagle River Watershed Council staff recently attended the Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference, an assemblage of water professionals from around the state, where that notion is shattered every year.

This was the ninth annual conference hosted by three nonprofit organizations: the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, the Colorado Riparian Association and the Colorado Watershed Assembly. Each of these organizations has a mission to better, in some way, the responsible use of water resources in the state of Colorado.

With nearly 55 speakers covering as many topics, there was no shortage of interesting subject matter to capture the attention of the 300 water professionals attending the conference. During the course of three days, we learned about groundwater, flood recovery, wildfires, resiliency, water quality, stream assessments and much more.

Collaborative Management

The session that most caught my attention was the one entitled “Collaborative Water Management.” Representatives from a municipality, a water utility and a nonprofit came together to speak about their experiences working with other entities to use water in non-traditional ways. One example was from the Front Range, others from the Western Slope, but the unifying factor was that these collaborations relied upon the strengths of various groups to use water in ways that benefited more than just the individual organizations.

Collaboration between entities, organizations and individuals on both sides of the Continental Divide is the answer to Colorado’s complex water issues. The conference highlighted this, perhaps unintentionally. People from around the state came together to learn from one another’s successes and failures, to network and to create partnerships that will help us to solve our problems, both locally and statewide.

Cooperative Agreement

There is always talk about the battle in the water world, but innovation and collaboration are abundant here, too, and it isn’t hard to find examples. Just look at the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which brought Denver Water together with 42 Western Slope groups to draft a historic agreement that benefits water quality, the environment, recreation and water supplies on the Front Range and the Western Slope.

Or, for example, the Minute 319 agreement in which the U.S. and Mexico came together in an effort to reconnect the Colorado River with the Gulf of California, where river waters hadn’t flowed since the 1990s. This experiment also paid for infrastructure maintenance and ecosystem restoration in the mighty delta of the Colorado River; a great example of wide-ranging benefits stemming from one bilateral agreement.

As the same folks that attended the conference continue to draft a state water plan that protects their own water interests, it is important to reflect on these past successes in collaboration. Solutions most often lie in collective effort rather than in disparate fighting.

Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Call the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org for more information.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on October 31, 2014.