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Colorado lawmakers have given initial approval to a bill that would provide millions of dollars to help two major water-short farm regions reduce water use and comply with legal obligations to deliver water to Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and New Mexico.
On Feb. 10 the Colorado Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved [SB22-028 Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund: Concerning the creation of the groundwater compact compliance and sustainability fund] that creates a Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund to help pay to buy and retire farm wells and irrigated acreage in the Republican and Rio Grande basins in northeast and south-central Colorado. Colorado and federal tax revenue would bankroll the fund, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board would distribute the money based on recommendations from the Republican River Water Conservation District and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, with approval by the state engineer.
The fund is needed, according to proponents, to help reduce groundwater use that is depleting surface water flows in the Republican River and threatening Colorado’s ability to comply with a compact among Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. It is also intended to help drought-stressed aquifers in the San Luis Valley recover and to meet aquifer sustainability standards required by the state in the Rio Grande Basin.
To achieve those goals, 25,000 acres of irrigated land must be taken out of production in the Republican basin, and 40,000 acres in the Rio Grande, by 2029. David Robbins, general counsel for both districts, noted that, “Both districts have received letters from the state engineer indicating that if they fail in the task they will receive orders shutting down the wells in each basin, which will have dramatic and very difficult consequences for everyone in both basins.”
The bill’s proponents hope to take advantage of a one-time funding opportunity—federal Covid-19 stimulus dollars under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). The General Assembly created the Economic Relief and Recovery Cash Fund last year to receive ARPA dollars and transferred nearly $850 million into it; investment in water infrastructure is among the eligible uses. It also established an Economic Recovery Task Force to recommend how to spend those funds. Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, who is also General Manager of the Rio Grande district and a co-sponsor of the bill, has requested $80 million from the task force to support the bill. The governor’s budget includes $15 million as a starting point.
Neither district is looking for a handout. The Republican has already assessed its water users $148.5 million to retire irrigated land, purchase or lease surface and groundwater, and pipe groundwater to the river near the Nebraska border to meet Colorado’s water delivery obligations. Aaron Sprague, a member of its board of directors, said the district had retired 42,000 acres of irrigated land since 2006 and thought they were in compliance, but then a court stipulation signed in 2016 by the three states, requiring 25,000 acres additional acres be retired, “effectively moved the goal posts on us.” The district has retired 3,000 acres of that additional land so far. Sprague figures the economic impact of well shutdowns to be $2.2 billion annually on local, regional and state economies.
Although the Rio Grande is also part of an interstate compact among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, the issue there is reducing groundwater pumping to sustainable levels pursuant to state law. What constitutes sustainability is different in the shallow and deep aquifers that underlie the Rio Grande’s San Luis Valley, but it basically boils down to balancing inflows and outflows—precipitation, which averages less than 7” per year in that region, and return flows equaling groundwater withdrawals. As in the Republican basin, the Rio Grande district has taxed its farmers $69 million since 2006 to take irrigated land out of production and cut groundwater pumping, with 13,000 acres retired and well pumping reduced by a third in that period.
But 3,000 wells and 170,000 irrigated acres are at risk if the Rio Grande doesn’t meet the 2029 deadline. How would that affect the valley? Simpson emphasized that, “Irrigated agriculture in the San Luis Valley has about a $1 billion annual impact on our community…the culture, the economy were all built around it.”
So how much would it cost and where would the money come from? David Robbins suggests that each district would need at least $50 million “over and above” what they already have spent to achieve compliance. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, another co-sponsor whose district includes the Republican River Basin, said he wasn’t sure $150 million total would be enough. “When commodity prices are where they are,” he noted, “it’s much more difficult to retire acres.” Corn now is selling at over $6/bushel, its highest level in years, making irrigated acreage more valuable.
The bill will go next to the Senate floor for debate. It has strong bipartisan support and is identical to a bill recommended by the interim Water Resources Review Committee last fall. But as Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, committee chair, pointed out, there is no appropriation attached. “This bill just creates an entity,” she cautioned, “and then we’ve got the real hard work to do of making sure we find money to put into it.”
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at email@example.com.