“Water is the conversation. It will be the centerpiece of our agenda this year,” said newly elected Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie, setting the tone and elevating water issues for Colorado’s 2023 General Assembly.
It’s no secret Colorado’s rivers and streams are suffering and our state’s challenges are a good example of water crises gripping the American West. Parched rivers; stressed farms, livestock and fish; and more frequent floods and wildfires are all symptoms of the disruption wrought as climate change impacts our region and already strained water supply.
Colorado’s lawmakers and other leaders have a responsibility to ensure Coloradans have the tools we need to proactively respond to drought and its impacts — on the legislature’s opening day, Senate President Steve Fenberg made it clear water will be among the high priority items the General Assembly takes on. And Speaker McCluskie concurred, saying: “Colorado has to be seen as a leader in this space.” Gov. Jared Polis’s proposed 2023 budget has already highlighted support for addressing our state’s water challenges. Last year the federal government injected a once-in-a- generation allocation of public funds to support water needs in the West. Now action is needed within the Colorado legislature to increase funding and capacity to establish both immediate and long-term drought security and to protect clean drinking water alongside river and watershed health.
We’re excited to see the Governor’s budget request for a historic $25.2 million to advance implementation of the state’s water plan, providing capacity to meet increasing demands, to combat the effects of climate change, and to support the health of our rivers. It’s important to note: these state funds are vital for unlocking matching federal dollars, dollars that are expected to be leveraged for approximately $100 million worth of water project grants across the state — a 4-to-1 return on investment. By engaging local communities, investing federal funds in needed infrastructure projects, and empowering millions of people to take action to conserve water, Colorado will make significant progress toward responding to long-term climate trends.
Flows in the Colorado River have decreased by more than 20% in just the past 20 years, which is why improving the struggling Colorado River system has been, and remains, the top priority for Water for Colorado. A healthy and vibrant river system serves as habitat for wildlife, increases resilience to floods and wildfires, enhances the quality and availability of water and forage for livestock, bolsters critical rural recreation economies and provides numerous ecological services that protect our sources of clean drinking water. With increasing threats of extreme weather events, healthy and functioning streams are critical to ensuring resilient communities, and a thriving state. This is why we are supporting efforts by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to pass legislation clarifying stream restoration projects can proceed without unnecessary red tape; and also why we support Governor Polis’s budget request to increase Colorado’s ability to leverage federal funds and assist with the crisis we are facing on the Colorado River.
Water policy is no longer a niche issue. Water conversations are happening at every level of state leadership — from the Governor’s office, to the General Assembly, to the Attorney General’s office — and across issue areas this session, making national headlines week after week. For example, as Governor Polis and the General Assembly seek to address land-use patterns and the affordable housing crisis, they are inserting water use into the conversation as a vital element. Integrating land use, development planning and more flexible water management can be another area on which our state leads.
The focus on water needs to be wide-ranging, but it also must be consistent. The time is now for Colorado to implement innovative policies that keep rivers flowing and proactively respond to drought conditions. In doing so, we will be a leader, showing other states how to do more with less, supporting the health of our river systems, and securing our state’s long-term vitality in the face of a hotter, drier future.
As Speaker McCluskie told us, the work ahead on water may be “the most challenging work the state has ever done.” While this is likely true, it may also be the most
rewarding — we can tell our children and grandchildren they live in a more resilient state because of the work conducted this session.
In his 2023 State of the State, Governor Polis reminded us “water is life in Colorado and the (W)est, it’s as simple as that.” The consequences of inaction this session are too great to consider. Failing to protect our water resources is not an option. Luckily, Colorado has the opportunity to not only protect our water resources in the near-term, but lead the charge toward longer-term drought resilience and climate resilience. It’s incumbent upon our lawmakers to secure Colorado’s water future. We look forward to working together to do so.
Abby Burk is Western Rivers Regional Program Manager for Audubon Rockies. Jessica Gelay is the Colorado Government Affairs Manager for Western Resource Advocates. Audubon Rockies and Western Resource Advocates are both members of the Water for Colorado Coalition.