2016 #COleg: Sonnenburg to help with #COWaterPlan implementation

From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

Sonnenberg, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, has promised his staff he wouldn’t sponsor as many bills as he did in 2015: 42, a modern-day record. But he still has big plans.

Top among his priorities for 2016 is implementing parts of the state water plan, a two-year project of the Hickenlooper administration, seeking to address a looming water shortage projected for 2050.

Sonnenberg has several bills in mind to help move the state water plan along: one that would streamline the permitting process for building new storage, and another that would expand storage in existing facilities. One bill would set up a pilot project to pump water back into underground aquifers, which would reduce evaporation. Another bill would fund dredging of shallow reservoirs, such as in Pueblo and Morgan County, to expand their water storage.

Sonnenberg hasn’t fully committed to carrying those bills, but he would likely be the first legislator to tackle the state water plan. Monday, Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Gunbarrel, told reporters she didn’t expect to see legislation from Democrats on the water plan until next year.

Sonnenberg tried to get the permitting bill through the Interim Water Resources Review Committee last fall, but lost on a 5-5 tie, which he blamed on opposition from Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Both Sonnenberg and Becker plan to tackle the issue of conservation easements: when a landowner voluntarily agrees to conserve part of his or her land, to keep it from being developed, in exchange for tax benefits. The land cannot be used for any other purpose, either at the time of the donation or in the future.

The program has been in trouble for years amidst allegations of abuse, but it’s reached new levels, as Sonnenberg found out in a hearing last August. According to The Denver Post, a Sterling couple, Alan and Julia Gentz, donated 20 acres of land to Logan County 10 years ago, and are now facing a $708,000 tax bill from the Department of Revenue after the appraisal was rejected. The Gentzes aren’t alone, either. Sonnenberg’s hearing drew residents throughout northeastern Colorado who experienced similar problems.

“The state made a contract with the people of Colorado and then backed out of the contract and changed the rules,” Sonnenberg said. The bill is likely to carry a large price tag, likely a problem in a tight budget year. “But it’s never too early to do the right thing.”

Finally, Sonnenberg is holding one bill in his pocket as a warning to those who want to ban fracking, a bill he sponsored last year: Communities that ban fracking would lose the tax revenue they would normally expect from oil and gas operations. The oil and gas industry is already struggling, he said, and continued regulation and barriers will force those companies to take their business to other states.

The 2016 General Assembly begins official business Wednesday, Jan. 13. Hickenlooper will present his State of the State address the following day.

A screenshot from the website for Colorado's Water Plan.
A screenshot from the website for Colorado’s Water Plan.

The #Colorado College 2016 Conservation in the West poll released today

Here’s the release from the State of the Rockies Project (Brendan Boepple):

New Survey Separates Rhetoric from Reality When it Comes to Mountain West Voters’ Support for National Public Lands

Wide margins of support for local efforts to protect public lands as national monuments; voters want a balanced approach to energy development

Against an uptick in anti-public lands rhetoric from militant extremists, a new Colorado College State of the Rockies Project Conservation in the West Poll released today revealed strong public support for efforts to protect and maintain national public lands.

The poll surveyed the views of voters in seven Mountain West states on key public lands issues affecting the region, including proposals to designate new national monuments in the West, establish new environmental and safety standards for oil and gas drilling, and prioritize renewable energy production on public lands.

Central to recent local controversies in Burns, Oregon and elsewhere, the poll—for the first time in its six-year history—asked voters about efforts to turn national public lands owned by all Americans over to state or private control. 58 percent of respondents oppose giving state governments control over national public lands. 60 percent of respondents oppose selling significant holdings of public lands like national forests to reduce the budget deficit. That view was echoed in Nevada, where just 30 percent of respondents identify as supportive of Cliven Bundy, the local rancher who led an armed confrontation with federal authorities in April 2014.

“Charges of government overreach from the ideological fringes are making headlines, but in reality most Westerners in this poll favor greater protection and sensible use of the open lands and national treasures that define the region,” said Eric Perramond, professor in the Southwest Studies and Environmental Programs at Colorado College, and the Faculty Director of the State of the Rockies Project.

The poll also broke new ground in examining public views on the creation of new national monuments—a topic that has often been portrayed as controversial and unpopular in the West. Yet in Utah, a tribal proposal to protect nearly two million acres of existing public lands surrounding the Bears Ears Buttes as a national monument received 66 percent support from respondents. In Arizona, 73 percent of respondents approved of a proposal to protect 1.7 million acres of existing public lands in the Grand Canyon Watershed as a national monument.

According to the poll, monuments created at the end of the Clinton administration, which generated controversy at the time, enjoy wide margins of support today. Across the West, the poll showed overwhelming support—80 percent in favor—for future presidents protecting public lands with a national monument designation.

“These results make clear Western communities care deeply about the public lands that embody the best of our nation’s culture, spirit and beauty,” said former U.S. Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar. “Western voters see our outdoor heritage as integral to our economy and our way of life, and they certainly don’t want to see their public lands seized by ideologues or sold off by politicians in Washington.”

The poll also looked at energy issues at a time when price fluctuations and market changes make the future of oil, gas and coal industries unpredictable. Voters expressed a balanced view when it comes to how national public lands are used by private industries:

  • 52 percent of respondents approve of continuing drilling and mining at the current pace, but with increased safeguards for land and water—a view that significantly outweighs alternatives approaches, including increasing drilling and mining (10 percent), maintaining the current pace without additional safeguards (10 percent), and stopping all drilling and mining (22 percent).
  • 76 percent of respondents want to continue tax incentives for solar and wind energy production.
  • 58 percent of respondents support increasing the royalty fees paid by companies that drill for oil and gas or mine for coal and minerals on national public lands.
  • 80 percent of respondents agree with a proposed Obama Administration rule to require oil and gas producers who operate on national public lands to use updated equipment and technology to prevent leaks of methane gas during the extraction process and reduce the need to burn off excess natural gas into the air.

    Additional key findings include:

  • Ahead of the 2016 elections, 75 percent of respondents say issues involving public lands, waters, and wildlife are an important factor in deciding whether to support an elected public official, compared to other issues like health care and education.
  • 83 percent of respondents believe the drought is a serious issue and in Colorado River Basin states (CO, NV, NM & UT) strong majorities favor using the current water supply more wisely over diverting more water from rivers in less populated areas.
  • 75 percent of respondents support the renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
  • 80 percent of respondents believe the U.S. Forest Service should be allowed to treat the largest and most expensive wildfires as natural disasters in order to have access to emergency disaster funding.
  • 72 percent of respondents say national public lands, such as national forests, national monuments, or wildlife refuges help their state economy
  • This is the sixth consecutive year Colorado College has gauged the public’s sentiment on public lands and conservation issues. The 2016 Colorado College Conservation in the West survey is a bipartisan poll conducted by Republican pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates. Nevada voters were included in the survey for the first time this year.

    The poll surveyed 400 registered voters in each of seven Western states (AZ, CO, MT, NV, NM, UT & WY) for a total 2,800-person sample. The survey was conducted in December and has a margin of error of +/-2.74 percent nationwide and +/ -4.9 percent statewide. The full survey and individual state surveys are available on the Colorado College website.

    State infographic for Colorado via State of the Rockies Project 2016 Conservation in the West poll.
    State infographic for Colorado via State of the Rockies Project 2016 Conservation in the West poll.

    #ColoradoRiver: The latest newsletter from the Water Information Program is hot off the presses

    CLick here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    Connor: Find a Fix or We Will

    At the 70th Annual Conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA), Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor implied that if the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada can’t find a fix for their Colorado River’s problems, the interior secretary will find it for them. In an Arizona Daily Star article, Connor referenced the need to prevent Lake Mead from falling to dangerously low levels. Should this be the case there would be huge cutbacks in water deliveries to the agricultural sector, cities, and Indian tribes.

    According to the Star, the lake has dropped more than 120 feet since 2000. It’s expected to close 2015 at 1,082 feet elevation. The first shortage in the river would be declared at 1,075 feet and Connor indicated that the risk is now up to 30 percent that Lake Mead will drop to potentially dangerous levels in five years. The article also indicated that by next year’s CRWUA conference, Connor hopes the states will have reached agreement and that Interior Secretary Jewell will come to celebrate, either that or contingency plans will need to be implemented.

    The Colorado River Basin is divided into upper and lower portions. It provides water to the Colorado River, a water source that serves 40 million people over seven states in the southwestern United States. Colorado River Commission of Nevada
    The Colorado River Basin is divided into upper and lower portions. It provides water to the Colorado River, a water source that serves 40 million people over seven states in the southwestern United States. Colorado River Commission of Nevada

    Snowpack news: Basin High/Low graphs for #Colorado

    Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

    #Snowpack news: South Platte Basin drops into avg. category, N. #Colorado SWE flat-lining

    Westwide SNOTEL January 10, 2016 via the NRCS
    Westwide SNOTEL January 10, 2016 via the NRCS

    From the Las Cruces Sun-News (Diana Alba Soula):

    Snowpack is building in the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico — a positive sign so far this winter for Doña Ana County water users.

    Snow levels — which turn into spring runoff that feeds the Rio Grande — are thus far tracking above average for this point in the season, boosted by a bumper El Niño weather pattern that tends to bring more precipitation to the Southwest.

    A Jan. 1 federal report showed that snowpack in northern New Mexico that impacts the Rio Grande sat at 134 percent of a median average, 63 percent higher than a year ago. And snow levels in southern Colorado were at 126 percent of average, a 56 percent increase over the same time last year, according to the report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service…

    Farmers, in particular, rely heavily upon the runoff, which makes its way into Elephant Butte Lake and Caballo Reservoir north of Doña Ana County. In recent years, that runoff has been scarce, resulting in slim river-water irrigation allotments by the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. At least part of the problem, irrigation officials have said, is that a given level of snowpack in recent years hasn’t been yielding as much runoff each spring as it would have in the past.

    That trend has Phil King, EBID’s consultant water engineer, with mixed views about what this snowpack will mean for southern New Mexico.

    “It’s the best year we’ve had in a while, but our standards have gotten really low the last few years,” he said. “There is optimism, but I’m guarded. The fact we’re doing better than 3.5 (acre)-inches, doesn’t mean we’re doing well.”

    King referred to the irrigation district’s water allotment for 2013, considered the worst in nearly a century of local irrigation history. In 2015, Doña Ana County growers received an allotment of 11 acre-inches per acre — the highest since 2010, when farmers got 2 acre-feet per acre.

    The district considers a full allotment to be 3 acre feet — 36 inches — per acre. An acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons, enough to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot or 12 inches.

    Carryover water from last year that’s already in Elephant Butte Lake forms the basis for the irrigation season. And King said the amount of water being held for EBID would yield about an irrigation allocation, even without any new runoff that will be added this spring.

    On Friday, Elephant Butte Lake contained 331,990 acre-feet of water, about 17 percent full. That is 26 percent more than a year ago, according to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation…

    Separately, the Rio Grande Citizens Forum of the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission will hold a public meeting Jan. 21 at the USIBWC Headquarters First Floor Conference Room, 4171 N. Mesa, Bldg. C-100, El Paso, according to a meeting announcement from the agency. An item on the agenda is the impact of El Niño on the Rio Grande. A river levee certification process and floodgate repair are other topics. For information, call 915-832-4794 or e-mail mario.montes@ibwc.gov.