This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.
Between 50% and 60% of Coloradans live in housing governed by homeowners associations, commonly called HOAs. Squeezing water devoted to urban landscapes must necessarily involve these neighborhoods.
It’s already happening but, so far, mostly on the edges. A case in point: a small HOA in Greeley called Bittersweet Pointe.
“We keep saying that all the other HOAs are pointless,” Sandy Bertch, president of the board of directors, joked as he led visitors to a hillside on the edge of the HOA’s commons area.
There, three-fourths of an acre of Kentucky bluegrass had been replaced this year by a mixture of blue grama and buffalo grass. With a summer of watering bills now in hand, Bertch estimates that the HOA needs 60% less water to irrigate that section. More turf replacement will occur on the HOA’s 2.5 acres of common ground, Bertsch promised, now that the efficacy of the native grasses has been demonstrated.
The HOA is among the smallest you’re likely to find. It has 11 duplexes, or 22 units altogether, all of whose residents are retired. It is self-managed, unlike most HOAs, which employ property management firms.
Ron Mettler, a retired electrical engineer, was president of the board when he brought up the subject of turf conversion. He got immediate pushback. “Don’t you touch that green grass. That’s why I am here,” said a resident, who has since died.
Finally, last year, consensus was achieved. Costs were crucial. The retirees will save money in reduced water bills and won’t need to mow the difficult hillside as frequently.
Making the decision easier was the city of Greeley’s incentive: $1 a square foot for removal of Kentucky bluegrass in addition to rebates for water efficiency.
Clinching the deal was the shared perception of growing water scarcity. Homeowners agreed that they needed to do their part in lessening demands.
“These two are poster children,” Ruth Quade, Greeley’s water conservation administrator, said of Mettler and Bertsch. “The key to a successful project is having one or two champions, and that is what these two are.”
Replacing Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-weather grasses with native grasses and other less-thirsty species will not solve all of Colorado’s water problems. Nearly 90% of water in Colorado goes to agriculture. Only 7% of the state’s water gets used within towns and cities, and roughly half of that goes to outdoor use for lawns, gardens and other urban landscaping.
So, why does it matter? For one thing, it’s very expensive, and politically fraught, for cities to develop new water sources, usually from distant locations. Treating that water to potable standards is expensive, too. Water used indoors, which is largely contained in pipes, can be recycled. Water engineers calculate that 85% of water used for outdoor landscapes is lost because of evaporation and other causes.
All of this has water providers looking to focus on water devoted to discretionary outdoor use in road medians, business parks, homes and common areas. Experts say this transition to less water-demanding landscapes in urban areas will take many years.
Clearings around castles
How did thirsty bluegrass become the landscaping default, the cultural norm in Colorado and elsewhere?
“Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America,” Michael Pollan wrote in an essay published in The New York Times Magazine in 1989. “In little more than a century, we’ve rolled a green mantle of grass across the continent, with scarcely a thought to the local conditions or expense.”
In his essay, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns,” Pollan shared that when he was a child growing up on New York’s Long Island, his father defied convention and refused to mow the turf at the family’s tract house. The turf grew tall enough to flower and seed, something impossible with mowed lawns. “The lawn rippled in the breeze like a flag,” wrote Pollan.
Neighbors saw something else. Some instructed their children not to play with the young Pollan. Later, when he got a lawn himself, Pollan began mulling the purpose of lawns. In this suburban paradise, he concluded, such individuality was unacceptable.
Pollan and other writers have traced our modern idea of a lawn to the early 17th century. In at least one telling, aristocrats wanted clearings around their castles for defensive purposes. They either had animals graze it or dispatched servants with scythes to keep the grasses low.
“Turf War,” a 2008 essay by Elizabeth Kolbert published in The New Yorker, identifies Andrew Jackson Downing as a seminal influencer as the masses began to embrace lawns. In his 1841 book, “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” Downing, based in New York, took aim at the dowdy rural landscapes of his familiarity. He equated personal self-improvement with gussied-up front yards.
“In the landscape garden, we appeal to that sense of the Beautiful and the Perfect, which is one of the highest attributes of our nature,” Downing wrote. Essential to that perfect garden, Downing wrote, was an expanse of “grass mown into a softness like velvet.”
Others spread the gospel. Frank J. Scott, in an 1870 book titled “The Art Of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent,” wrote that “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.” Frederick Law Olmsted deployed the broad lawns of Central Park and also planted grass in some of our first suburbs.
Technology also played a role. In 1830, a textile engineer in England adapted a carpet cutter to create the world’s first reel lawn mower. After an improved design in 1870, hand-pushed lawn mowers were produced by the tens of thousands annually. In 1893 came a patent for the first steam-powered mower. We were well on our way to the Saturday ritual many people know so well. “Over time,” wrote Kolbert, “the fact that anyone could keep up a lawn was successfully, though not altogether logically, translated into the notion that everyone ought to.”
Kolbert further identified the role of what farmers call inputs. To get potassium and other essential elements to spur growth, farmers over the ages had used everything from human dung to ground-up bones. In Europe, some robbed human graves for the skeletons. On the American Great Plains, bison were shot, their bones piled high and shipped to the East Coast.
Costs of waging war on weeds
In 1909 came an invention in Germany with profound but conflicting implications. Fritz Haber, a chemist who later won the Nobel Prize, figured out an economical way to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen.
One result: explosives and gasses used to help run up the death toll in World War I to 20 million. Another: the ability to create fertilizer that, when applied to fields, enabled the world’s population to expand by several billion more than it probably would have otherwise.
This synthesized fertilizer could also be applied to turfgrass to counteract the seasonal cycle. By tricking the plants into putting out new growth, wrote Kolbert, fertilized grass could become ever-green. Other chemicals could quell the yellow blemishes of dandelions and every other shade of plant deemed a weed. That includes clover, which otherwise has value for fixing nitrogen in the soil. Such is the cost of having unadulterated grass.
By the time baby boomers were mostly toddlers, the idea of a perfect lawn had swept the country, even to the smallest of Colorado towns and cities. Along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Abraham Levitt, the namesake for the Long Island town, declared that “no single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and locality as well-kept lawns.”
In “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” Virginia Scott Jenkins pointed to the export of this idea to deserts of the Southwest and also to the Middle East. “Even the American community in Saudi Arabia has front lawns in the middle of the desert,” she wrote.
Perfection was possible — but at a well-known cost. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” described the risk to human health posed by indiscriminate pesticide use. This, wrote Kolbert, inverted the calculation about the meaning of a well-tended, unblemished lawn. “Instead of demonstrating that a homeowner cared about his neighbors, a trim and tidy stretch of turf showed that he didn’t,” Kolbert wrote.
What then? If shaved lawns of green no longer represent civic virtue, what should take their place? That’s the question now being addressed in Colorado and many other places.
Perfect lawns also bump up against a hard hydrologic reality in Colorado. It is the nation’s seventh-most-arid state, and the story of the 21st century has been of a warming, drying climate.
Cities with growing populations exist in this shifting axis between supply and demand. They’re looking to conserve water in the most-cost-effective ways. To succeed, some of this must necessarily involve homeowners associations.
Homeowners associations have been described as private governments enforcing covenants among homeowners. Colorado as of 2022 had 10,510 HOAs with 2.4 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization. Most are managed by private companies. And, according to detractors, they tend to be stuck in their ways.
Perfection was possible — but at a well-known cost. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” described the risk to human health posed by indiscriminate pesticide use. This, wrote Kolbert, inverted the calculation about the meaning of a well-tended, unblemished lawn. “Instead of demonstrating that a homeowner cared about his neighbors, a trim and tidy stretch of turf showed that he didn’t,” Kolbert wrote.
What then? If shaved lawns of green no longer represent civic virtue, what should take their place? That’s the question now being addressed in Colorado and many other places.
Perfect lawns also bump up against a hard hydrologic reality in Colorado. It is the nation’s seventh-most-arid state, and the story of the 21st century has been of a warming, drying climate.
Cities with growing populations exist in this shifting axis between supply and demand. They’re looking to conserve water in the most-cost-effective ways. To succeed, some of this must necessarily involve homeowners associations.
Homeowners associations have been described as private governments enforcing covenants among homeowners. Colorado as of 2022 had 10,510 HOAs with 2.4 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization. Most are managed by private companies. And, according to detractors, they tend to be stuck in their ways.
Before George Teal became a Douglas County commissioner, he was a member of the Castle Rock City Council for 6½ years. Because the city was heavily reliant on a large but unrenewable underground aquifer, it wanted to encourage low-water landscapes — what it calls ColoradoScapes.
Homeowners associations resisted, said Teal. He cited “just numerous examples” given to the City Council members each year of homeowners being told by their HOAs that they could not rip out their turf. That included his own neighborhood and HOA, Crystal Valley Ranch, one that he describes as consisting of mostly working middle-class people. A change would have required a 65% vote. He similarly cites another HOA, Woodland, which consists of more-affluent residents.
“It became kind of a rallying cry on the council,” Teal said in a recent interview. “What could we do to get HOAs to accept the more water-smart landscape methodologies that were being advocated by our water utility?”
The answer was nothing. Local governments did not have the power to curb HOA powers. It had to be done at the state level.
In 2019, Colorado legislators passed the first of four laws that do so. House Bill 19-1050stipulates that it is contrary to public policy for common-interest communities, such as HOAs, to “prohibit or limit installation or use of drought-tolerant vegetative landscapes, or require cultivated vegetation to consist wholly or partially of turf grass.”
The law did allow HOAs to adopt aesthetic guidelines.
In 2021 came another law, HB21-1229. It required HOAs to allow artificial turf in backyards and also solar panels, once again subject to “reasonable aesthetic guidelines.”
These steps were applauded by Jody Beck, an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. “Extensive green lawns are almost never an appropriate expression of responsible citizenship in the arid West, if by responsible citizenship we mean the conscientious use of limited shared resources,” he said.
In 2022, legislators did not specifically target HOAs and water. Instead, HB 22-1151 instructed the state’s chief water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a program for the voluntary replacement of turf in cooperation with local governments and appropriated $2 million for that work. After administrative expenses, $1.5 million has been awarded to more than two dozen local jurisdictions in Colorado.
Later that same year, legislators were advised that another law was needed to close a loophole in the 2019 law. At least some HOAs had used the clause that gave them aesthetic discretion in reviewing plans to effectively stall or even block turf-replacement projects proposed by owners of single-family homes.
Proponents have cited abundant anecdotal evidence. The most-direct evidence came from a survey conducted in 2021 by Western Resource Advocates in cooperation with the city of Greeley. The survey was intended to reveal the primary barriers keeping residents from replacing some or all of their grass with water-wise landscaping. Cost? Expertise? Aesthetics?
Nothing was asked by the survey about HOAs, but when allowed the opportunity to describe the challenges, 41 of the 720 who completed the survey cited their HOAs.
A step in the right direction
This year’s bill had bipartisan support. “In practice, we see barriers to people who want to replant their front yards with more water-conserving plants,” said state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Democrat from Longmont, when introducing the bill, HB23-178, at a legislative committee hearing.
Another bill sponsor, Sen. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, who represents seven Western Slope counties, cited demands on the Colorado River. “This will not save all of Colorado’s water, but it is a step in the right direction.”
The bill requires that HOAs must select at least three preapproved water-saving landscaping templates that residents can follow. Residents and HOAs can choose to go for other designs, but at least three options must be preapproved. There’s no real excuse for saying no.
Part III. How bluegrass lawns became the default for urban landscapes Some Colorado HOAs have started moving the needle, while state legislators prod others into water-wise landscapes; plus, a history of how we arrived at a certain idea of landscape perfection.
Part IV coming. The outliers of the native grass movement. Some Coloradans have taken it upon themselves to remove their thirsty turf, and a non-profit is helping them do it.
Part V coming. Do we really need bluegrass in road medians? And Aurora, Castle Rock and Denver push for sharper limits on what can be installed in the first place.
The state’s most significant organization representing HOAs didn’t bother to show up to testify one way or another. The bill passed with minor opposition grounded in questions of local control.
Teal, who testified in both legislative committee hearings, said he would have preferred local control. But, given the sweeping powers of HOAs, he believed the state had to step in order to aid municipalities. “Water conservation and water reuse have become primary goals of the town of Castle Rock and, I think, soon will become one of our primary policy goals here in (Douglas) County as well,” he said.
Robert Greer, a Denver attorney, helped draft the bill that he says closed the loophole in the 2019 law that was big enough to “drive a solar system through.”
He was driven, he said, most powerfully by a desire to create urban landscapes that accommodate pollinators of the natural ecosystem. His sentiment is part of a broad and powerful undercurrent in Colorado’s push to replace Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and other imported cool-season varieties. It’s not all about saving water.
Also testifying was Chris Marion, who began work in 2017 as a water conservation specialist. After getting a master’s degree in sustainability planning from the University of Colorado Boulder, he founded a company called 3.0 Management. It provides management for about 40 HOAs in metropolitan Denver.
Marion sees an opportunity for HOAs and other places with large expanses of turf to rethink their landscapes. Irrigation systems installed 40 to 50 years ago need replacement or updating, Some HOAs are poorly funded for replacement of leaking pipes and so forth.
“It’s not only the cost of water, but the associated maintenance costs of older grass,” he said.
Something else is going on, a shifting cultural norm. The impetus for expanses of Kentucky bluegrass that we see today was “simple, cost-effective landscaping, which was primarily bluegrass.” Now, said Marion, younger generations in particular have become at least aware of “the concept of personal ecological footprints.”
That shift in attitudes is now being integrated into governance of HOAs.
Lessons from Fort Collins
In Fort Collins, Colorado’s fourth-largest city, with a population of 170,000, residents of the Oak Ridge VII homeowners association were informed in 2018 that they would have to pay $18,000 more annually for water.
When the tap fee for the commons area owned by the 52 members of Oak Ridge VII and two other HOAs had been assessed several decades ago, it assumed a maximum volume of water. Water use for that commons area had been rising, exceeding the maximum. Homeowners had to figure out how to use less water or pay the greater fee.
The 10.1-acre commons area consists of expansive lawns interspersed with trees that turn bright with warm colors during the fall. It also has a soccer field and a 1.4-acre detention area designed to hold stormwater. Water can get 1 foot deep when it rains, as it did prodigiously this year. In previous drier years, though, Kentucky bluegrass required irrigation to maintain its well-coiffed look.
In 2019, HOA directors approved conversion of the bluegrass to buffalo and blue grama grasses. A survey of homeowners found that 80% supported the shift. Later, another problem area — a small south-facing hill that was difficult to irrigate and mow — was also replaced. Water use for the park has declined to 3.1 million gallons per year — the original projected need when the subdivision was created 30 years ago — from 4 million to 5 million gallons per year.
The full cost of the landscaping work of $86,000 was defrayed by $57,000 in grants from Northern Water, the bulk water provider, and the city of Fort Collins. “We never could have done it without the grants,” said Susan Gilbert, a homeowner who championed the shift.
“People have loved it,” said Gilbert during a walk through the park. A pollinator park along the concrete pathway, buzzing with bumblebees, has been particularly popular.
Weeds can be a problem in conversions, and this was no exception. The HOA had its landscaper apply herbicides in some spots.
“Everybody gets a little jittery when we do spraying,” said Milan Hanson, president of the HOA’s board of directors.
“During the first year or two, I think every native grass conversion looks pretty bad,” he added.
Tony Koski, a professor of turfgrass sciences at Colorado State University and described by many as the guru of water-wise landscaping in Colorado, condones the use of herbicides as essential in landscape conversions, but he counsels care and transparency.
The need for herbicides diminishes as the native grasses become dominant over the course of about three years. But homeowners planting native grasses should expect to see the new turf brown more quickly in the fall and green up more slowly in the spring.
Still, Oakridge residents have seen enough to think about converting other places to native grasses.
What caused the increased water use? It’s not uncommon, said Frank Kinder, water-efficiency manager for Northern Water. The agency distributes Colorado River water to providers along the northern Front Range.
“People are watering earlier and watering more during a year to keep up the appearance,” said Kinder. “The landscape may take up to 120% of the previous amount in order to keep looking like what people want it to look like.”
HOAs undertaking conversions can have different motivations: costs, concerns about climate change, a desire for landscape diversity or easier maintenance. “Bluegrass takes a lot of work to meet certain expectations,” said Kinder.
Key lessons from Fort Collins and Greeley HOAs are that turf replacements take time and are most easily accomplished with partnerships. Key in both cases, too, were grassroots champions.
Very likely, you will also begin to see more and more cool-weather turf converted to low-water landscapes in Colorado’s HOAs. That’s exactly what some of those who helped draft some of Colorado’s recent laws intended. Call it a grassroots movement.
Next: Colorado allows sales of only low-flush toilets to better conserve limited water. What role should the state have in reducing water use allocated to urban landscapes? A task force has been studying the state’s options and opportunities.
Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org
CRES has been busy in recent years trying to advance Colorado’s clean energy agenda. The most compelling evidence of success is a law that tilts the table on natural gas. It’s wonky stuff but terribly important if Colorado is to attain its carbon reduction goals.
About the time that CRES hit a speed bump when it hired a full-time executive director, Colorado also slowed its pace in energy innovation. Gov. John Hickenlooper, who had spoken at the CRES 2010 annual meeting in Montrose, was popular but was seen by many in the environmental community as sluggish. Too, the Legislature was divided politically during his years in the governor’s mansion. Always, bipartisan legislation is best. In important cases it’s useful to have majorities.
Those majorities arrived in the 2018 election along with the election of Jared Polis as governor. Wealthy from shrewd investments and with sharp political instincts, Polis had announced his gubernatorial campaign in Pueblo at Solar Roast Coffee. If elected governor, he said in his Main Street announcement, he would push Colorado to 100% renewables by 2040. He breezed to victory. Renewables had gone mainstream.
A month later, Xcel Energy officials staged a public announcement in the sunshine-splashed atrium of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They proclaimed their intent to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from electrical generation by 2030 and expand that to emission-free electricity by 2050. A week later, directors of Platte River Power Authority, the utility serving four northern Colorado cities, announced an even more ambitious target: 100% renewable energy by 2030. Holy Cross in 2020 adopted the same goal for its service territory in the Vail-Aspen-Rifle area but without conditions.
In the early months of 2019, Colorado legislators adopted a deluge of bills built around the idea of pivoting rapidly to renewables. Amid solar panels in Arvada, Polis signed a law that formally created the framework for building what Ritter had long before described as a New Energy Economy.
CRES has tried to flex more muscle in this friendly atmosphere. Singularly important has been the CRES policy committee. The 12 to 15 members meet by conference call or video about an hour weekly during the legislative session and bi-weekly during other months. The policy committee has a diversity of voices and opinions but tends to consist of the wizened elders. For example, while 10 out of 12 people participating in the MCRES chapter are under age 40, the inverse holds true for the policy committee.
Policy members take on responsibility for researching individual topics, helping decide whether CRES wants to get engaged and how. In some cases, this involves meeting with legislators, other times in giving testimony to legislative committees. CRES has also had a more robust presence in proceedings of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
Rebecca Cantwell has been a member of this committee. She has worked policy from several sides. She had worked for Tim Wirth when he was a U.S. representative from Boulder and adjoining areas, then became a Denver journalist for 16 years. While at the Rocky Mountain News, she covered the evolution of communications technology, a task that gave her a deep understanding of how the PUC operates. From 2002 to 2005, while supervising political coverage for The Denver Post, she noticed the vigor of the grassroots movement in support of an energy transition.
“I remember actually advocating internally at The Denver Post of the importance of this effort,” she says. “Clearly the passage of Amendment 37 in 2004 set Colorado on a renewable energy future more than any other single event.”
By then, she was chafing in her capacity as an observer. “I wanted to stop telling about what other people were doing and actually work on progress,” she says.
That motivation put her on a winding path that included editing a magazine published by Smart Energy Living Alliance, a stint at the Colorado Energy Office, and then beginning in 2012 several years as director of what is now the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, or COSSA.
Cantwell had become familiar with CRES after meeting Larson at a wind energy conference in 2005. While at the solar trade group, she worked to implement a solar thermal roadmap developed in conjunction with CRES that laid out steps needed to make solar thermal a larger presence in Colorado. The roadmap had value at the Legislature and elsewhere, she says, even if it failed to produce much public policy for quite a while.
Vince Calvano shepherds the CRES advocacy work, tracking legislation and PUC matters in spreadsheets, no small undertaking any time of year but especially when the General Assembly is in session. He had studied earth sciences at Penn State. There, he had an advisor, William Easterling, who had helped write one of the International Panel on Climate Change reports. “I learned how much of an issue global warming was, and I wanted to be part of the solution,” says Calvano.
He then worked as a geophysical technician for a year and a half before returning to Colorado—which he had visited while as an undergrad – to attend law school in Boulder, graduating in 2008. Now he believes he is part of the solution through his pro bono work for CRES.
Like all others interviewed for this history, Calvano sees CRES having an importance primarily on the margins. One important edge is how CRES can influence the position of other environmental groups or even the Colorado Energy Office. Other parties in negotiations “can be more concerned with the give and take with Xcel and holding back,” he says. The extra voice provided by CRES, through its persistence, can push them to take stronger stands.
Social cost of methane
The most compelling recent evidence of CRES influence can be found in HB21-1238. It effectively requires state regulators to consider the costs of pollution using a different set of metrics. It did this by revising the methodology used by the PUC to determine the cost-effectiveness of demand-side management programs of public utilities selling natural gas. Like many big ideas, it had a long gestation period.
Laurent Meillon, a member of the CRES policy committee, began pushing the principles behind the bill nearly a decade ago. Frank, the CRES executive director, had introduced him to then-State Sen. Gail Schwartz. She understood the inadequacy of the metrics used by state regulators in evaluating effectiveness of demand-side management programs, says Meillon. She understood that heating of buildings needed to “change a lot, away from cheaply priced fracked gas and toward clean solutions with no hidden costs.”
Schwartz accomplished much during her time in the Colorado Senate but could not get the bill she fashioned with Meillon’s assistance approved before she was term-limited.
Next, Senators Mike Foote and Chris Kennedy took up the legislation, but they also could not get it passed. In 2020, the legislative majority was there for Foote, a Democrat, then something got in the way. “It was literally on the Senate president’s desk to be introduced in March of 2020 when we went into covid lockdown,” he says. Foote, after being term-limited, passed along the idea to Rep. Tracey Bernett, then a new representative from Boulder County. In addition to her engineering background, Bernett has a master’s in business administration from Harvard.
State Sen. Chris Hansen co-sponsored the bill. It passed without great difficulty.
Meillon cites literally dozens of organizations and individuals. He credits the Colorado Solar and Storage Association (then called COSEIA) with breaking the intellectual ground two years before he seized the issue.
“I know I can sound like stereotypical PR messaging when I say that it was a team effort, yet I really mean it,” says Meillon. “Sure I drove this with my persistence, yet nothing would have happened without all these people helping and pushing as best they could.
Among those in CRES who urged him, he says, were Cantwell, Becky English, and Leslie Glustrom. He also singles out Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office in the Polis administration.
Lehr also had a role in Meillon’s account, as he “had been talking publicly about the ‘pernicious role of the discount rate against clean energy’ for 10 years before we even got started and first made me aware of it.”
Foote, who now provides pro bono expertise as an attorney representing CRES in PUC matters, describes Meillon’s case as exceptional for CRES.
“To have a sustained presence at the PUC and/or the Legislature takes funding and paying people, but their funding is light and they don’t pay people,” says Foote of CRES. “It all depends on who is volunteering and what they have the time and passion to do.”
In this case, Meillon was able to bring the expertise and advocacy of CRES and its members. “I know it would not have been a bill had he not kept the idea alive,” says Foote.
“There was a lot of talk at council about it being a bold decision, but I don’t see it that way. Not only is it what we need to do, but we have all the tools to do it cost effectively.” — Mayor Ian Billick
Crested Butte, that most lovely of Colorado mountain towns, now vibrant in summer flowers and always in the bold colors of Victorian storefronts, has now entered into the fractious national debate about natural gas.
The municipality decided Aug. 3 that it will no longer allow natural gas in new buildings. Major remodels will be required to be electric-ready. It’s the first jurisdiction in Colorado to take this action.
Others may soon follow, posing the question of whether Colorado will soon get more rambunctious in its debate about how to effectively achieve the reduction in emissions identified in a 2019 law. That law specified economy-wide emission reductions of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
Buildings must necessarily be part of this drawdown, and that puts the focus on natural gas, which provides space and hot-water heating for more than half of Colorado buildings. Cars last 15 years or longer, but upgrades of buildings often don’t occur for decades.
The Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Roadmap adopted in January 2021 identified emissions from buildings as a relatively small but vital sector. “Even though the emissions reductions from these actions will be relatively modest in the near term,” the roadmap says, “they will grow to become very significant in the period after 2030.”
Berkeley in November 2019 became the first municipality in the United States to ban natural gas in new construction. Since then 80 other towns, cities, and other jurisdictions have followed, first in California but then in other states, too.
In response, 23 states—including five of the seven states bordering Colorado—have adopted laws that prohibit such local regulations. That’s a ban on bans, if you will. An effort was underway in 2020 by oil-and-gas interests in Colorado to put a similar ballot measure, called preemption, before voters. The effort was withdrawn after negotiations with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Colorado legislators in 2021 instead passed several bills that collectively start squeezing natural gas from buildings without blanket bans. The most important of these bills, SB21-264, requires the four regulated utilities that sell natural gas in Colorado to submit clean-heat plans beginning in 2023.
This clean-heat requirement along with other laws adopted in 2021 nudge Colorado’s four regulated utilities that deliver natural gas toward helping their customers convert their homes and businesses from natural gas to electricity. Xcel Energy, the largest, sells both gas and electricity, so the loss of gas sales will be offset by increased electricity sales. Atmos, the supplier of natural gas to Crested Butte, does not sell electricity, so it will have to cut its emissions in other ways.
Crested Butte might seem an unlikely trailblazer. It’s smallish, with 1,334 full-time residents. The conventional wisdom holds that the big liberal bastions wade into changes first, which then get gradually introduced into the more rural outposts. But neither Denver nor Boulder, though they have started squeezing emissions from buildings in significant ways, have gone quite as far.
Denver, for example, requires heat pumps for space heating and heat-pump water heaters for existing buildings — but not homes — at the time of system replacement, starting in 2024 to 2027. That’s not an explicit ban on natural gas, although it may come close,
The most important aspect of Crested Butte’s example may be its colder climate. It sits at 8,909 feet. Other places that are actually lower in elevation lay claim to the dubious distinction of record cold, but Crested Butte knows chill, an average low of 6 below during January, its coldest month. Town officials, after examining the available technology, including air-source heat pumps, concluded that nobody will suffer in this transition to building electrification.
If it can work in Crested Butte, surely it should work in Castle Rock or Colorado Springs or any number of other places.
Mark Reaman, the editor of the Crested Butte News, called the measure “largely symbolic in the sense it will not save the world. Not even close,” he wrote in a column titled “Symbolism Matters.” “But it could send a message and set an example to those living and visiting here. It is tangible action applicable at the local level.”
Crested Butte, he added, “is one of those towns that punches above its weight given the people it draws and the attitude that doing something locally matters.” His offered the metaphor of a seed now planted “that might grow beyond our little garden.”
To get an understanding of how Crested Butte got to where it is and how it fits with the bigger picture now evolving in Colorado, Big Pivots conducted an e-mail interview with three people:
Ian Billick is the mayor of Crested Butte. He ran on a platform of climate change action and housing. He is also a biologist who manages the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where scientists from across the country gather during summers to study climate change and other topics at an elevation of 9,000-plus-feet.
Christine Brinker is the senior buildings policy manager for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. She has been deeply involved with helping draft the state legislation and local policies that seek to pivot Colorado’s buildings to fewer emissions.
Mike Foote is a public-interest environmental attorney from Boulder County who served in the Colorado Legislature from 2013 to 2021. As a Democratic legislator, he co-sponsored legislation in 2019 that set Colorado on its march to realize deep, deep decarbonization of its economy – buildings being a particularly knotty problem to solve.
Big Pivots: As mayor of Crested Butte, Ian, can you identify a precise moment when the vision began to take place of eliminating natural gas in new buildings and those with major remodels?
Ian Billick: Several years ago, and before I joined the council, Crested Butte adopted an aggressive climate action plan. New building codes are issued every three years and given how much buildings contribute to carbon emissions, it made quite a bit of sense to consider electrification in adopting the new code.
Pivots: Let’s talk about that aggressive climate action plan. Crested Butte in around 2007 joined a great many towns and cities in adopting a resolution favoring renewable energy. It was my impression that nothing much then happened, perhaps because nobody knew where to start. What explains the more muscular approach?
Billick: A combination of an experienced town staff that has identified meaningful leverage points and a Town Council that has collectively made climate action a top priority. Also, improvements in building technology, including air source heat pumps, along with increases in natural gas prices, make electrification more cost effective, independent of climate impacts.
Pivots: Striking to me was the relative lack of discussion about the adequacy of alternative technologies to natural gas. Was there concern that air-source heat pumps would be unable to perform satisfactorily in Crested Butte’s relatively cold climate?
Billick: The efficiency of air-source heat pump technology declines significantly with colder temperatures. However, the technology works much better in very cold temperatures than it did even a few years ago and can be effectively combined with supplemental heat systems. It’s an example of how recent improvements in technology have made this move possible.
Pivots: The adequacy of the technology was not a major talking point? And do I understand that you had the support of local building contractors?
Billick: We did not spend a lot of time talking about the adequacy of the technology. We had a consultant, August Hasz, with the Resource Engineering Group, which has substantial experience building fully electrified housing in similar, high-altitude, cold environments. We also had local builders who have built successfully here without natural gas express their support. For me, that was very compelling.
Pivots: Let’s explore both of these. What other high-altitude, colder environments? And your local builders – if they are comfortable with the new technology, what do you think that says about places like Vail or Summit County?
Billick: Resource Engineering Group cited projects in Basalt Valley and Telluride. An affordable housing project recently opened in Gunnison that is all electric.
Pivots: You have cited analysis by Rocky Mountain Institute that electrification will usually reduce costs. Is that comparison of gas vs. electric in the completed building? Or is that in cost savings over time?
Billick: One thing we learned is that the cost-benefit analysis of electrification versus natural gas is complicated; you can’t say that one technology will always be cheaper. But RMI has found that in many circumstances both up-front costs as well as lifetime costs will be cheaper with electrification. For example, there are costs to hooking a home up to natural gas that are avoided with full electrification.
Pivots: How many unbuilt lots? Any potential annexations? What application might you see in remodels? Would this have been a harder decision had there been more real estate involved?
Billick: We have about 60 unbuilt lots. Additionally, we have an affordable housing project involving 60-80 units coming online, which will be built to the new code. We have no annexations in the pipeline. Major renovations will trigger a requirement that buildings be electric ready. For me, the decision was not influenced by the number of units involved. There was a lot of talk at council about it being a bold decision, but I don’t see it that way. Not only is it what we need to do, but we have all the tools to do it cost effectively.
Pivots: Your law allows an exemption. Please explain.
Billick: We allow commercial kitchens to use natural gas for cooking.
Pivots: The Crested Butte News reported the major pushback was from those who urged a go-slower approach. For other towns considering following in the footsteps of Crested Butte, how would you describe that pushback? And why did the council reject that go-slower approach?
Billick: We had a working group analyzing this option through the spring, including holding a question and answer session for the public. The CB Town Council had a work session, as well as two public hearings. By the final public hearing while some disagreed with the policy, no new information was emerging, nor did council feel that it was missing any information. We had the information we needed to make a decision, so we moved forward.
Pivots: I was struck by the fact that the council was unanimous. Can you explain the unity on this? Does it extend to other decisions?
Billick: The council works very well together, but we don’t always agree. The council has been very clear, however, that climate action is a priority that is shared across the board.
Pivots: What repercussions beyond Crested Butte do you hope your town’s actions will have?
Billick: If we can make it work in an environment as extreme as Crested Butte, it is possible to make it work across the country.
Pivots: Christine, when do you think we will hear about the next local government in Colorado to limit or ban natural gas in homes and buildings?
Christine Brinker: Most likely in the next few months. While they may not outright prohibit natural gas, they will likely take steps to either gradually move away from it or at least reduce some of the negative impacts. For example, some local governments in the northwestern metro area are working together on a policy that would give builders a choice between either all-electric or, on the other hand, natural gas with extra energy efficiency.
Having said that, Crested Butte’s example will surely give these and other local governments the courage to take stronger climate action and take bolder steps toward all-electric new construction.
Pivots: Colorado has adopted several laws in the last two years that seek to reduce emissions from buildings. How would you describe the general approach?
Brinker: The approach has been to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis while at the same time trying to orchestrate the transition in a way that protects our workers and families. Recent bills had extensive negotiations and “stakeholdering” with builders, building owners, labor, local leaders, equity groups, and more, because ultimately, the policies need to be workable, practical, and impactful for as many Coloradans as possible.
From a policy standpoint, the original 2019 law set an overall emissions reduction goal 90% by 2050, and individual bills since then are going sector-by-sector to help reach those goals. That’s where these bills governing buildings fit.
Pivots: How does the law passed in May, HB22-1362, titled “Building Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” define the paths forward for local jurisdictions? Do you see various paths for different communities?
Brinker: That law sets the floor, the minimum, for resilient and energy-efficient construction when local governments update any other building codes. This is in recognition that many homebuyers and renters don’t have the ability to choose efficient and healthy homes – they have to “take what’s out there.” Better energy codes make sure homes and buildings are built right at the outset.
Notably, the law still allows natural gas — but requires that new construction at least include the wiring for future all-electric appliances like heat pumps. And it allows local governments like Crested Butte to go above the minimum if they want.
Pivots: Air-source heat pumps remain fairly expensive. Do you see this changing?
Brinker: The costs of the technology have fallen significantly in recent years while performance improved. The next stage of cost reduction will partly come from contractors here getting more familiar with the latest heat-pump technology, something being helped along by trainings from Xcel Energy and others.
Also, heat pumps have a new batch of incentives available because of how much they help our air quality and climate – including rebates from Xcel Energy and other utilities, a 10% tax credit from the state, and tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act.
Pivots: As a former state senator, Mike, I would like your read on the political implications of this ban adopted by Crested Butte. Colorado’s policy so far has been a firm but still gentle squeeze of emissions, both methane and carbon dioxide, from buildings. The clean heat law, for example, stipulates that consumers will always retain choice.
Does the mandate by Crested Butte put the Polis administration into a place it would prefer not to be? Or are the numbers in Crested Butte just too small to be consequential?
Mike Foote: Local governments in Colorado have significant autonomy when it comes to their building codes. Crested Butte’s actions are consistent with that tradition of local control. Certainly some state actors and the oil-and-gas industry will take notice of it.
It is highly unlikely, even after this fall’s elections, that there will be a successful effort in the legislature to limit the ability of local governments to do what Crested Butte did. Some gas proponents have advocated for a statewide “energy choice” ballot measure that would prohibit localities from requiring non-fossil energy in their codes. This is sometimes called a “ban on bans.” At some point that effort could get more traction if the industry decides to fund a statewide campaign. The threat of the industry going to the ballot is always there, but it shouldn’t dissuade local governments from taking climate action in my opinion.
Pivots: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed to pass a statewide law that would ban natural gas by 2027. Assuming Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is reelected this fall, can you envision him attempting to do the same? Why or why not?
Foote: We haven’t seen Governor Polis propose a policy like that during his first four years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some members of the General Assembly were thinking about it. The fact of the matter is new gas usage must be substantially curtailed within this decade for us to avoid the worst effects of climate change. There are not too many easy options left to achieve that, at least in Colorado.
To be very clear, this is the biggest energy story of the year in Colorado, in my read.
State legislators in 2021 adopted several laws that will, in various ways, begin squeezing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.
Now comes the implementation as the three commissioners from the Public Utilities Commission do their required public engagement in meetings held in various locations in Colorado. All available evidence suggests to me that this will come close to fist-swinging before it’s all done, at least of the wordy type. From what I hear, it already has.
I attended the second of the six meetings, the one at Montbello Community Center in Denver. It was a bilingual meeting structure designed for consumption by people who had mostly never heard of the PUC much less clean heat plans.
SB 21-264, which we’ll call the clean-heat law, requires Colorado’s four privately owned natural gas utilities – Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos and Colorado Natural Gas – to reduce greenhouse gases 4% by 2025 and then 22% by 2030. This is compared to emissions of 2015.
How can they do this? The law provides four ways for the utilities to do so in the heat-clean plans they must submit:
1) Demand-side management programs, especially including improved energy efficiency.
2) Beneficial electrification, meaning that gas use in buildings for space and hot water heating is replaced by electricity. One way of doing that is through addition of air-source heat pumps or, in original construction, ground-source heat pumps.
3) Improved efforts to reduce methane leaks from the natural gas infrastructure.
3) Recovered methane, such as from landfills, to supplement the methane extracted from wells;
4) Green hydrogen, which means made from renewable resources and after (but not natural gas);
5) Pyrolysis of tires, the recycling of tires to extract heat and energy, as is being considered at Fort Morgan.
The latter two are likely more difficult than the first three.
The PUC commissioners have until December to draw up the rules governing the review of these clean-heat plans.
I see four very, very big issues here:
First, this is a lot of work in a short time. “A heavy lift for utilities,” John Gavan, the PUC commissioner who presided at the Montrose meeting, said.
A Black Hills representative at the Montrose meeting said that the required reduction coming on top of demand growth means that instead of a 4% reduction it’s more like a 25% reduction. Nigh on to impossible, said Mike Harrigan, the Black Hills rep.
Second, the gas utilities are being required to radically change their business models and, in the case of three of them, to essentially make themselves less relevant. Xcel Energy will sell more electricity as it sells less gas. For Black Hills, which sells both gas and electricity, the trade-off is not as easy. It sells gas in Aspen, for example, but not electricity.
One of the attendees at Montrose summarized it in this way: “Let me get this straight,” said David Combs, speaking to the Black Hills Energy representatives. “The products you sell, you make money on, you’re trying to reduce and you’re giving people money to use less of it?”
There always has been a strange tradeoff between regulated utilities. They enjoy monopolies in their service territory in return for regulation. This was once reliable money. Utilities are now being required to be far more inventive.
Third, builders and real estate developers have been enjoying a subsidy as they build new subdivisions, the gas lines that are laid being subsidized by existing natural gas customers. At the end of the day, this may be the defining issue. High-spirited filings with the PUC began in December 2021.
Fourth, there are equity issues here as we squeeze out natural gas, replacing it with electricity. Who will pay for the aging natural gas systems? Like so many things, it’s likely to be those who can least afford to pay.
I mentioned the Montbello meeting. It was designed to reach out to an area that met the definition of a disproportionately impacted community. I can’t disagree, but I must say that I felt very marginalized. I struggle to hear well normally, and the choice of room configuration left me with my back to the speakers and trying — and almost entirely failing — to hear the English translation of what was being said in Spanish. My impression was that the meeting was designed with the intent of honoring the law, and it did achieve that. But one meeting alone will not achieve the real purpose with this particular group.
A meeting in Grand Junction was somewhat boisterous, I heard, which did not surprise me. The first filings of opposition to clean-heat plans in the PUC docket in this case were submitted by real-estate agents and others from the Grand Valley and Montrose. Weeks later they started arriving from places like Aurora.
Again, as Gavan identified in the Montrose meeting, the key issue here is the subsidy for gas lines to homebuilders. Nobody likes to lose their subsidy.
Sandy Head, executive of the Montrose County Economic Development Corp. told the Press that the cost of extending a gas line to a new house was previously $250 to $300 but will now cost $800.
This led to charges that it would become too expensive to live in a place like Delta County – which, with the exception of now pricey Paonia, remains one of Colorado’s least expensive places to live west of I-25.
Also balled up into this issue is the high cost of natural gas and the failure of Xcel Energy to adequately prepare itself for what happened in February 2021. Xcel ended up paying $600 million extra for high-priced natural gas. But there’s also the issue of Texans going without power – which some people, apparently, still think can be blamed on the dependency on wind turbines. (It was a part of the problem, but only a small part).
“We’re not going to shut off fossil fuel generation in the form of gas overnight,” Gavan replied, as per the Montrose Press account. “No, our plan is to add another gigawatt of combustion technology to back up renewables. It’s a balancing mix. As we transition, the resource mix will change. It will become very different, more intelligent.”
Colorado legislators in 2021 passed a suite of laws that in various ways give state agencies new marching orders that this energy transition will reconcile past wrongs and put people on an equal footing. But there’s a lot to sort through in this.
Now comes the part where the rhetoric about a just transition of the energy economy — paying special attention to disproportionately impacted communities and rectifying past wrongs with the word “equity” in mind — gets tested in the field.
In late July and early August, the three members of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission will take turns hosting six meetings from Lamar to Grand Junction, places selectively chosen because of evidence of disproportionate impacts from energy.
The meetings serve a dual purpose. The commissioners are gathering thoughts about how the state’s four regulated gas-distribution utilities will start changing how we heat buildings and water in order to reduce emissions. They are required to submit what are called clean-heat plans.
The four gas utilities —Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos Energy, and Colorado Natural Gas — must show how they will be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 4% by 2025 and 22% by 2030, based on a 2015 baseline.
But the commissioners are also very deliberately meeting in cities that have been identified by mapping tools as having, or being proximate to, disproportionately impacted communities.
Get accustomed to hearing that phrase, now used so often it has been reduced to an acronym in many documents: DIC. Among other things, the commissioners want to better understand how to define equity (as distinct from equality) and what constitutes a DIC community.
It’s an early milestone in Colorado’s difficult and still new process, one parallel to others underway in several states around the country.
Pushing their investigation are five laws passed by Colorado legislators in 2021 that collectively seek to put the hands of those communities on the steering wheel in ways that they have not before.
SB 21-272, “Modernize the Public Utilities Commission,” tells the PUC that it must adopt rules that “consider how best to provide equity, minimize impacts, and prioritize benefits to disproportionately impacted communities and address historical inequalities.”
What are disproportionately impacted communities? This law provides a glimpse:
“Certain communities, both in Colorado and internationally, have historically been forced to bear a disproportionate burden of adverse human health or environmental effects, as documented in numerous studies, while also facing systemic exclusion from environmental decision-making processes and enjoying fewer environmental benefits,” says SB21-272.
The law cites a 2021 report from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. The project, called Mapping for Environmental Justice, attempted to paint a holistic picture of intersecting environmental, social, and health impacts in individual states, including Colorado.
The study found that “communities of color breathe nearly twice as much diesel pollution and are 1.5 times more likely to live near a Superfund site than white communities. The disparity holds across an array of environmental hazards: from wastewater releases to air toxins, Coloradoans of color are consistently exposed to more pollution.”
This same law, SB 21-272, instructs the PUC to “identify disproportionately impacted communities” and host meetings and in other ways invite input from them to ensure that they will have at least proportionate access to the benefits of retail customer programs, incentives and investments.”
The PUC must go through a rule-making process that governs how the PUC reviews plans by utilities —including not just energy utilities, but also transportation and other sectors it regulates.
The goal is to deliver equity – which will be defined later – in programs and incentives that serve low-income customers and disproportionately impacted communities.
The second law of relevance, SB 21-264, the “Clean Heat Bill,” requires Colorado’s four natural gas utilities to start figuring out how to reduce fossil fuel combustion from buildings. It gives the largest gas utilities, including Xcel, various ways to achieve a 22% reduction in emissions by 2030. They can, for example, help customers convert to electricity through use of air-source heat pumps. Utilities are required to submit clean-heat plans.
This clean-heat bill also has an environmental justice component. That law also calls out the “historic injustices that impact lower-income Coloradans and black, indigenous, and other people of color who have borne a disproportionate share of environmental risks while also enjoying fewer environmental benefits.”
As the PUC goes about creating the rules for evaluating clean-heat plans, it must hold at least two meetings in disproportionately impacted communities.
In planning six meetings, not just two, the PUC obviously aims for a robust compliance with the letter of the law. The PUC has gone a step beyond, and we’ll explain that later in this article.
Yet a third law, HB 21-1266, called the “Environmental Justice Act,” takes direct aim and, unlike the others, delivers more explicit instructions for the Air Quality Control Commission – an agency within the state’s health department – to engage with disproportionately impacted communities.
The law incorporates demographic factors but delegated to a new Environmental Justice Action Task Force the work of defining what exactly constitutes a disproportionately impacted community. The law also added transition to a more equitable clean energy economy to the mission of the Colorado Energy Office.
Two more laws deserve mention.
SB 21-246, Promote Beneficial Electrification, requires investor-owned utilities to file plans with the PUC that must include “programs targeted to low-income housing or disproportionately impacted communities with at least 20% of the total beneficial electrification program funding” directed to those communities and income levels.
HB21-1105 modified the eligibility standards for low-income programs.
Why did all of this come together in 2021?
Ean Tafoya, of GreenLatinos, who is co-chair of the new task force, says the thinking had been growing for years of the need to “redress” inequities.
In 2019, the first year that Democrats gained a majority in both chambers, as well as the governor’s mansion, the legislators who might have carried the bills were too new to the General Assembly to be effective.
Then came the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, spurring national protests, including in Denver. This was just months after the covid pandemic descended, hitting minority populations harder.
Those things “helped to galvanize the creation of a more formidable environmental justice coalition,” says Tafoya. This pressure seems to have created “more political room for the politicians to move forward.”
Tafoya also says that this powerful new environmental justice coalition wouldn’t settle for legislation that in early drafts didn’t initially include equity provisions.
In this, he refers to major bills driven by Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver and two Boulder County legislators, Sen. Steve Fenberg and Rep. Tracey Bernett, as well as Rep. Alex Valdez and Rep. Meg Froehlich.
A bill that started out as SB 200 was recreated in SB 1266 with Faith Winter as a primary author. She did not respond to several requests for an interview.
The Environmental Justice Act is sweeping. It requires the Air Quality Control Commission to adopt rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas operations. It also requires that commission to adopt rules to reduce emissions from the industrial and manufacturing sector in Colorado by at least 20% by 2030 relative to 2015 levels.
Environmental justice, though, is front and center in the law. It requires the Air Quality Control Commission to promote outreach to disproportionately impacted communities by creating new ways to gather input from communities across Colorado, using multiple languages and multiple formats.
The law also created the task force of which Tafoya is a member with the responsibility to make recommendations to legislators of “practical means to address environmental justice inequities” by Nov. 14.
That task force has met four times beginning in December, and it also has five subcommittees that meet monthly.
Pueblo’s Jamie Valdez, who is also on the task force, describes it as a “very difficult process.” But the goal is to avoid compromising as has occurred in the past.
Members have received much testimony “that there has not been enough consideration or responsiveness to community and too much to industry,” he says.
The table has been tilted heavily to a discussion between industry and regulators, to the exclusion of others, says Valdez, who is paid staff and a community organizer for southern Colorado on behalf of Mothers Outfront, a mothers-funded environmental justice organization whose mission is to work for a livable climate for all children.
Equity and equitable
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has also been moving along. The commission held a workshop in February to get insights from participants about how to implement the environmental justice component of HB21-264, the law that requires the meetings in disproportionately impacted communities. In March, the PUC asked the states’ four natural gas utilities – Xcel, Black Hills Energy, Atmos, and Colorado Natural Gas – to identify three ideas for meeting locations.
Xcel identified Grand Junction, metro Denver, and Pueblo. Black Hills identified Montrose, Rocky Ford, and Yuma. Atmos Energy identified Greeley, Lamar, and Craig.
The utilities were advised to consult a data-rich mapping tool created by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment called EnviroScreen. This was a result of the Environmental Justice Bill. When I first looked at this a year ago, I found it primitive. It showed the Wildridge neighborhood north of Avon and the Singletree neighborhood of Edwards to be in an environmentally impacted tract. (That all of us should be so unfortunate as to live in such areas.)
A review for this article shows a sophisticated tool, if still not complete. A tutorial explains it was created “to help identify the relative health burdens and environmental risks facing different communities across Colorado.”
On June 1, the PUC hosted a session on equity initiatives. Kelly Crandell, of the PUC staff, explained the SB 21-272 requirement to promulgate rules that seek to “provide equity and minimize impacts and prioritizes benefits to disproportionately impacted communities that have experienced historical inequalities.”
During the next few months, she said, the PUC commissioners and staff will be focusing on learning things that can be used to shape these new rules, the ones being drawn up to govern how the PUC evaluates plans by utilities.
Crandell carefully distinguished between equality and equity. With the equality, the idea is to provide something to everyone equally. So, your residential rates for electricity will be the same as your neighbors’.
Equity as Crandell explained it has a historical dimension. It recognizes that things may need to change so that others can participate, that actions of the past such as redlining must be acknowledged to properly rectify going forward.
“It’s challenging to an agency such as ours because conversations more traditionally operated in the vein of equality,” she said.
The legislation, she explained, had three dimensions: 1) recognize why certain communities have suffered, such as because of redlining practices; 2) procedural inequalities. How can the PUC make its process more accessible to the public; and 3) broadly prioritizing the benefits of new energy programs to disproportionately impacted communities.
Different sorts of meetings
Most interesting of these meetings may be at Montbello, located in northeastern Denver on the north side of I-70. It will use a new format of outreach.
There, community members will be paid to attend and share their thoughts. The meeting will be led by the Denver Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. That municipal agency has been hosting community meetings. In this case two community-based organizations have been enlisted to put it together.
“The event will include a listening session on energy priorities within these neighborhoods in addition to a discussion about clean heat plans,” the decision notice issued by the PUC on July 6 says. The event will be presented in both English and Spanish.
Ah yes – the clean heat plans. The natural gas utilities must figure out how to reduce emissions from buildings. A small bit of this can be accomplished by augmenting supplies of methane distributed to homes for heating and cooking with what is called renewable natural gas, such as that harvested from landfills. But there are many other tools – including beneficial electrification, including the use of air source heat pumps to displace or at least augment natural gas furnaces. They’re still relatively expensive, though, with a payback that in most cases will take at least several years.
Tafoya observes that focus groups have already found that tax credits won’t work for lower-income residents. “It’s clear that people want down-payment assistance, not just tax credits.”
Colorado is far from alone in trying to look at utility decisions through the new lenses of equity. A report called “Advancing Equity in Utility Regulation” issued in November 2021 by Berkeley National Laboratory notes an effort in California in 2020 requiring “environmental justice” to be part of the state’s mission. New York and Washington also adopted legislation in 2019, the latter state charging the utilities commission with “ensuring that all customers are benefiting from the transition to clean energy.”
In 2021, Massachusetts, Oregon, Illinois, and Maine all passed somewhat parallel legislation along with Colorado.
July 21: Greeley, Greeley Recreation Center, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
July 21: Denver, Montebello Recreation Center, 5-7:30 p.m.
July 27: Grand Junction, Colorado Mesa University Center, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
July 28: Montrose, Montrose Event Center, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Aug. 4: Pueblo, Bessemer Community Room at Steelworks Center for the West, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Aug. 4: Lamar Cultural Events Center, 4:30-6 p.m.
The 5 bills: SB21-272 “Measures to Modernize the Public Utilities Commission.” Requires PUC to identify disproportionately impacted communities (DICs) and to reach out to let them help create new rules.
SB 21-264, “Clean Heat Bill.” Requires natural gas utilities to begin decarbonizing gas distributed to buildings. Requires PUC to hold at least two meetings in DICs.
HB 21-1266 “Environmental Justice Act.” Instructions specifically to Air Quality Control Commission.
SB 21-246, “Promote Beneficial Electrification.” Requires 20% of program funds be used for low-income households or disproportionately impacted communities.
HB21-1105, modifies eligibility standards for low-income programs.
Today [July 6, 2022], Governor Jared Polis traveled across the Eastern Plains to hear directly from farmers, ranchers, and local leaders working to boost Colorado’s agriculture economy and to protect Colorado’s water.
This morning, Governor Polis, administration officials and community members visited Julesburg Gauge on the South Platte River to discuss water issues.
“It was great to be in Sedgwick, Phillips, Yuma, Kit Carson, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lincoln, and Elbert counties hearing directly from producers and discussing how our administration is working together even more to protect Colorado’s water, grow Colorado’s thriving agriculture industry, and support our hardworking farmers and ranchers,” said Governor Polis.
Gov. Polis was then joined by the Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg, and toured Vision Angus, a local family owned ranch and farm in Phillips county that has been passed down for four generations. Vision Angus is a second year recipient of the Agricultural Workforce Development Program which aims to keep developing the next generation farmers and ensure our agriculture industries continued growth.
Governor Polis then headed to the South Republican State Wildlife Area and was joined by board members and other officials to discuss groundwater conservation in Yuma county. The Republican River Basin is supported by SB22-028, which was signed by Gov. Polis creates groundwater compact compliance and sustainability fund water conservation efforts in order to protect our water supply and retain irrigation systems in the river basins across Colorado. The Polis-Primavera administration is fighting to ease the effects of climate change induced drought seen across the state.
Governor Polis then visited the Eads Fire Department in Elbert county and met with first responders to discuss the Polis Administration’s continued support for first responders, including legislation that Governor Polis signed into law this year to provide additional resources and support for volunteer firefighters.
Governor Polis then traveled to Kit Carson county to visit the Old Town Museum. The museum is a historic site that has been restored to display the history of the Colorado Plains and local agriculture.
Governor Polis later traveled to Cheyenne county to sit down with local leaders and county commissioners from Cheyenne and Kiowa counties to discuss soil health and drought resilience efforts. Cheyenne Conservation District will receive support from SB22-195, a bipartisan law signed by Governor Polis which allocates additional annual funding for conservation districts across the state.
Governor Polis then visited two recipients of the Colorado Proud grant, Grant Grains and the Cleantec Mushroom Facility in Lincoln and Elbert counties, and where he discussed the administration’s support for producers and discussed tax relief for farmers including a bipartisan bill the Governor signed into law in the form of SB21-293.
U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland issued an order in November declaring “squaw” a derogatory term and established a task force to rename more than 600 geographical sites across the country that have the word in their names.
“Squaw” — a racist and sexist term for Native American women — is just the latest target for renaming as the United States continues to reconcile historical names and events to modern sensibilities. Haaland also called for the creation of a complementary Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names to solicit, review and recommend changes to other derogatory geographic and federal place names.
“Place names are very powerful,” said Sara Jackson Shumate, Ph.D., a human geographer and the director of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Center for Individualized Learning. “It’s important to rethink our landscapes and what we are valuing through these geographical names.”
The federal Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force convened by Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency, has recommended 28 sites in Colorado for renaming. All of those sites incorporate the word “squaw.”
The task force works closely with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which gives final determinations for standardizing the names of geographic and natural features. The board is a federal body created in 1890 that was established to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the federal government.
“You can’t erase history,” said Adriana Nieto, Ph.D., associate professor chair of Chicana/o Studies at MSU Denver. “Changing geological names doesn’t change our history; it reframes it. Reframing history is important because it points out the holes. Naming important places should be a way to remember or learn about important people and events. It changes what we talk about.”
Nieto said she’s hopeful the conversation is now happening at the national level. “It means it won’t go away easily like it has at a local level,” Nieto said. “A lot of credit goes to Secretary Haaland, who has created an opening for a conversation and brought the significance of names to the public eye.”
Jared Polis established the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board last year to evaluate proposals concerning name changes, new names and name controversies of geographic features and public places in Colorado.
In September, the board made its first recommendation: to change the name of Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek County to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain. Pronounced mess-taw-HAY, the name honors an influential Cheyenne translator known as Owl Woman.
Other discussions at the state level include renaming Negro Creek and Negro Mesa in Delta County to Clay Creek and Clay Mesa, respectively; changing the name of Redskin Mountain in Jefferson County to Mount Jerome; and renaming Mount Evans as Mount Blue Sky, the name the Arapaho people call themselves.
Mount Evans was named for Territorial Gov. John Evans, who oversaw the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, in which volunteer soldiers attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho village, killing approximately 750 people.
Jackson Shumate is hopeful that renaming such a well-known site might spur conversations about past and current values.
“People vacation at these sites. If we start renaming places like Denali (from Mount McKinley) and Mount Evans, it creates an inflection point to begin a critical conversation about our past and what we value as Americans and Coloradans,” Jackson Shumate said. “Do we want the [a] peak in Colorado to be named for a territorial governor who was forced to resign because of his part in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre and its subsequent coverup or something we can all be proud of?”
Mount Evans’ name change may soon be a reality. On Tuesday, the Clear Creek County commissioners recommended changing its name to Mount Blue Sky. The recommendation will go to the state Geographic Naming Advisory Board and Polis before a final decision.
Last June, Colorado legislators passed Senate Bill 116, which prohibits the use of American Indian symbols and names by Colorado public schools beginning this June. Schools that do not come into compliance by June 1 face a $25,000 monthly fine.
“These efforts are steps, albeit baby ones, in the right direction,” Jackson Shumate said. “This is scratching the surface of what really needs to change, which is how we think about and relate to one another, but it gets us moving in the right direction.”
Legislators are considering how to nudge emissions from buildings, clean up Front Range air, and bring agriculture into the decarbonization effort
Conventional wisdom holds that politicians shy away from major initiatives in election years. Some think that is at play in Colorado this year. After all, inflation is at work, energy prices are rising, and analysts predict a rough election year for Democrats in Congress.
But if Colorado’s 2022 climate and energy legislative agenda certainly won’t match that of 2019, nor of 2021, it’s shaping up as an impressive year to advance the work on achieving economy-wide decarbonization goals of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
“This is probably not going to be a session filled with transformation legislation on climate change as 2019 and 2021 were, but there are some really good bills,” says Jacob Smith executive director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 40 local governments.
Legislators are considering bills that seek to advance Colorado’s efforts to reduce emissions associated with buildings, clean up the crappy air quality along the northern Front Range, and bring the agriculture sector into the decarbonization effort.
Others address microgrids, the potential for carbon storage, and funding for the state’s Office of Just Transition, the agency crafted in 2019 for coal communities and workers to reinvent themselves.
Legislators in 2019 adopted a remarkable set of bills that essentially pivoted Colorado’s energy system in a way that had never been done. Most prominent were the economy wide decarbonization goals.
Only 2004, when Colorado voters adopted the first renewable energy portfolio standard, comes close to the same pivot in energy.
The 2019 tsunami was made possible by heightened worries about climate change but also a shift in the Colorado Senate that gave Democrats majorities in both chambers. This came concurrently with the arrival of Jared Polis as governor after his campaign on a platform of 100% renewable electricity by 2040.
Then came 2020—and the covid shutdown, followed by the flood of even more powerful bills in 2021, including several that targeted methane from extraction to end-use in buildings. At least one of the ideas adopted in 2021 had been first proposed in 2007 but never got close to the finish line.
Now is catch-up time, a filling in of the gaps.
“Last year we essentially had two legislative sessions in one, and we accomplished a lot, and now we need to work on the implementation of it,” says Mike Kruger, chief executive of Colorado Solar and Storage AssociationThat won’t require as much legislation,” he points out. “That’s more regulatory work.”
Still, even as they waited the governor’s signature on many of the 30-plus bills that had been passed, state legislators indicated they knew there was still major work ahead. State Sen. Steve Feinberg, then the majority leader (and now the Senate president), said a major priority in the 2022 session would be legislation to improve air quality along the Front Range. Sen. Chris Hansen said he was thinking about how to integrate agriculture into Colorado’s decarbonization.
In September, Hansen revealed at a fundraiser that he intended to introduce legislation that would set interim decarbonization targets for Colorado. Those new targets—for 2028 and for 2040—are intended to create a steady trajectory for Colorado’s decarbonization efforts, to avoid the tendency to punt the decarbonization can down the road until a last-night cram session before the test.
When did Hansen decide this was needed?
“I think it was part of what I do essentially every summer and fall, which is really try to think about the important gaps, where they are and which ones, if you were to address them, you’d get the most bang for the buck when it comes to decarbonization,” said Hansen in an interview.
“So I’m always trying to think about that supply curve, of carbon abatement opportunities, let’s do the cheapest, easiest ones as fast as we can. And that is really kind of driving my policy development process.”
Meanwhile, in Boulder, State Rep. Edie Hooton was thinking about microgrids, and in Longmont, Rep. Tracey Bernett was thinking about both air quality and buildings.
This new authority has been called the “transmission builder of last resort.” It’s preferable that utilities build transmission, but if they don’t, Colorado may have reasons for wanting the transmission. This may become important as Colorado looks to build out renewable energy in more difficult places currently lacking transmission.
One such place is the San Luis Valley, rich with solar potential, among the best in the nation, but lacking transmission capacity. Louis Bacon, who owns large land amounts in the area of La Veta Pass, the logical corridor for export, blocked plans by Tri-State Generation & Transmission in years past.
Another potential application is from Craig to Wyoming, the better to integrate Colorado’s electric resources into a regional transmission organization, or RTO, and tap the resources of other areas.
A third application may be in the cases of small utilities who need transmission but do not have the capacity to build it themselves. The vulnerability of Holy Cross Energy, for example, was exposed in 2018 when the Lake Christine Wildfire came within one already-burning wooden transmission pole of being able to provide power to Aspen during the July 4th weekend, typically one of the busiest of the year in that resort community.
The law specifies that the 9-member board is to consist of:
2 members appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate;
the director of the Colorado Energy Office or his/her designee;
3 members appointed by the president of the Senate;
3 members appointed by the speaker of the House
The law also requires expertise among the appointees. For example, one must represent the interests of organized labor, another must have knowledge of renewable energy development, and one must represent the interests of commercial or industrial customers of electric utilities.
Those appointed to 4-year terms are:
Chris Caskey melds science and business in innovative new ways. He has a Ph.D. in applied chemistry from the Colorado School of Mines and worked at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for a few years. It gets more interesting yet. He now operates Delta Brick Co. and has a lead role in Vessels Coal Gas, the company that operates the methane-to-electricity operation near Paonia. His resume is far more diverse than even this suggests. Oh, and he assisted a man attacked by an octopus.
Karl Rabago is the principal of Rabago Energy, a consulting firm. Before 2019 he directed the Pace Energy & Climate Center. His experience in energy goes back decades and includes such diverse stints as being a public utility commissioner in Texas to being an energy program manager for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Roger Freeman is an attorney who specializes in energy and environmental law. He is the chair of the board of directors for the Colorado Solar and Storage Association among other organizations. His father, the late Dyson Freeman, was a seminal thinker in the energy transition, and Roger Freeman has had pieces published in both the Sacramento Bee and in Big Pivots.
Michelle Zimmerman directs development at SunShare, with previous experiences in the renewable energy sector.
Rich Meisinger is the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 111. He told Public Utilities Fortnightly Magazine in 2020 that the union has 4,225 members.
Leia Guccione is an engineer and now is the managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Electricity division.
The RMI website says this: “Leia currently leads a body of work to inform utility regulators of policy solutions for a clean energy future, as well as provide them with unique process design and facilitation as they develop and execute reform initiatives to implement these solutions.”
Oh, and before joining RMI, she served in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer. She continues to serve in the Navy Reserves.
Kathleen Staks has is the director of Western Freedom, a group advocating for a regional transmission grid and briefly before that had a public relations firm. Staks was most recently director of external affairs for Guzman Energy, a new and disruptive wholesale power provider. Before that, she was executive director of the Colorado Energy Office during the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper. She also held other posts in Colorado state government.
Will Toor manages the Colorado Energy Office. He has the authority to designate another individual from within his agency to be part of the authority’s activities. A physicist by training with a Ph.D., Toor previously worked for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, managing that organization’s transportation program, and before that was a Boulder County commissioner and mayor of Boulder. His life’s travels included spending part of one very cold winter in Moffat County as a sheepherder.
Tom Figel is the senior director of policy and business development at GRID Alternatives, a national organization devoted to the renewable energy transition as a way to drive economic growth and environmental benefits in communities most impacted by underemployment, pollution, and climate change. He manages the community solar program and leads utility relations and advocacy efforts for GRID Colorado. He has prior experience in marketing, strategy, and utility relations for software and battery storage startups.
Nebraskans know every drop of water is precious. Agriculture is our top industry. It makes up 20% of our economy, and it generates one in four jobs in our state. Access to water makes this possible. We have the most irrigated acres of cropland in the country. Three of eight acres of farmland in Nebraska are irrigated.
Fifty years ago, far-sighted Nebraskans set up a system of water management, including our Natural Resources Districts (NRDs), that has allowed us to manage our water based on river basin. This has allowed our state to maintain the Ogallala Aquifer within one foot of where it was in the 1950s.
By contrast, Colorado has mined their water. The Ogallala Aquifer under Colorado has dropped nearly 15 feet since the 1950s. Now, Colorado is aggressively planning new developments that threaten Nebraska’s water resources. Last year, Colorado released their South Platte Basin Implementation Plan. It was updated last month and now includes 282 total projects to meet their growing demands. Altogether, these projects cost an estimated $9.8 billion.
Thankfully, 100 years ago Nebraskans negotiated an agreement with Colorado over the use of South Platte River water. The South Platte River Compact (Compact) was signed by Nebraska and Colorado in 1923 and ratified by Congress in 1926. It entitles Nebraska to 120 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from April 1st through October 15th (irrigation season) and 500 cfs of water from October 16th through March 31st (non-irrigation season). Under the Compact, we can only claim our non-irrigation season water entitlement by building a canal and reservoir system—known as the Perkins County Canal—along the South Platte River. Until we build the canal, Colorado has no obligation to deliver the water.
As Colorado’s desire for water grows, they’re acting as if Nebraska’s non-irrigation season water rights under the Compact don’t exist. In 2016, the Colorado Legislature passed HB16-1256, the South Platte Water Storage Study, into law. Its purpose was to identify water storage options along the lower South Platte River. Colorado wants to make sure no water “in excess of the minimum legally required amounts” gets to Nebraska. In the study’s final report, Colorado clearly assumes that Nebraska’s legal requirement is only the 120 cfs during irrigation season. Since we haven’t built the canal, Colorado is not planning to deliver any water to us during non-irrigation season. Zero.
The good news is that the Compact gives Nebraska undeniable authority to construct a canal to claim our non-irrigation water flow. It even gives us legal entitlement to land in Colorado to build it. Senator Dan Hughes, of District 44, has prioritized LB 1015, authorizing the Department of Natural Resources to design, construct, and operate the Perkins County Canal and reservoir system. My budget recommendation to the Legislature includes $500 million for the project. This is a bargain compared to the nearly $10 billion Colorado is preparing to spend on their water resources.
Our proposed canal has caused a stir in Colorado. In response to our plans, a legislator in Colorado introduced SB22-126 earlier this month to prioritize water storage projects in the South Platte Basin. Colorado’s leaders believe that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” I am concerned that even though Nebraska has clear entitlements to South Platte River water under the terms of the Compact, it will be difficult for us to claim what we are owed once municipalities in Colorado become reliant on the water.
There’s no doubt that Colorado plans to take the 500 cfs of water guaranteed to Nebraska during non-irrigation season under the Compact. On February 7th, a coalition of water districts gave a presentation to the Colorado Legislature on ways to shore up South Platte River resources. The presentation indicates that Colorado only recognizes its 120 cfs delivery commitment to Nebraska during irrigation season. In other words, the presentation assumes Nebraska is not entitled to receive a single drop of South Platte River water for almost half the year.
We must take action now to protect this water from being taken. Our ag producers rely on it for irrigation. Communities along the Platte River use it for drinking water. The water is critical to power generation in Nebraska, and our natural habitats along the Platte depend on these water flows.
People have asked, “why not slow down and discuss reworking the terms of the compact?” Any renegotiation would take time to hammer out. It would require approval from the Colorado Legislature and Nebraska’s Unicameral. What are the odds of that happening anytime soon? Keep in mind: delays only benefit Colorado. Remember, Colorado is trying to accelerate their work along the South Platte River. Pausing our plans, while they move full steam ahead, would put us at risk. The longer we delay, the more we risk losing access to the water we’re due.
This month, I’ve held town halls across the state to inform Nebraskans about our water rights with Colorado. There has been overwhelming support for moving forward on the canal. People understand that the price of inaction is far higher than the funding needed to secure our water rights. I’ll encourage you to do what I asked of them: contact your state senator to let them know your thoughts on LB 1015. The passage of this bill is a necessary first step.
Fifty years from now, Nebraskans will look back on this generation. Will they say we had the foresight to secure our water resources? Or will they say this generation failed?
If you have questions about the proposed canal, write me at email@example.com or call 402-471-2244.
Colorado’s agriculture industry saw COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror in 2021 and focused on securing a future for farmers and ranchers. As if low commodity prices and rising input costs weren’t enough, ag folks – especially in the livestock sector – saw themselves beset by even more challenges.
Colorado’s livestock industry staged a statewide celebration in March as thousands of Coloradans feasted on beef at an estimated 100 events across the state.
The events were held as a protest against Gov. Jared Polis’ proclamation recognizing the national MeatOut observance on March 21. MeatOut is a national movement to reduce or eliminate animal protein from Americans’ diet.
Sterling’s Meat-In event was conceived by Jason Santomaso, hosted by Sterling Livestock Commission Co. and the Santomaso family, and drew approximately 2,400 people to dine on all-beef hamburgers and bratwursts. They also bid on a wide range of items to raise funds for the Santas of Sterling Miracle Letter program. The event raised in the neighborhood of $130,000, some of which the Santas turned back to help a family in need.
At the time, Gov. Polis was already trying to mend fences after backlash from his MeatOut proclamation. On March 12 the Colorado Livestock Association was notified that Polis had signed a proclamation naming March 22 Colorado Livestock Proud Day.
The governor had another opportunity to support the livestock industry in Colorado, and didn’t hesitate to grab it. At the end of March, as if to nail down his credibility among stockmen, Polis issued a strongly-worded statement opposing the proposed Protect Animals from Unnecessary Suffering and Exploitation initiative, nicknamed PAUSE, saying it would destroy the state’s livestock industry and devastate Colorado’s economy.
Livestock producers claimed that, if passed, PAUSE would criminalize many widely accepted animal husbandry practices necessary for successful livestock production. The question, officially known as Initiative 16, passed muster with the state’s Title Board, but that decision was appealed by a coalition of agricultural organizations. In June, the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously struck down the initiative, saying it didn’t meet statutory requirements.
Landowners suffered another setback at the hands of the Colorado General Assembly when Colorado’s conservation easement fix bill failed get needed support.
Senate Bill 21-033, Sponsored by Sterling’s Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, would have created a new state income tax credit for certain taxpayers who were denied state income tax credits for conservation easements donated between 2000 and 2013 if the IRS allowed a federal income tax deduction for the same donation.
The bill would have helped landowners who donated development rights on their properties by setting aside $149 million from the state treasury to pay for the conservation easement tax credits rejected by the Colorado Department of Revenue more than a decade ago.
Sonnenberg and his allies had shepherded the bill, seen by many as the last chance to correct a gross injustice, through six committee hearings and a Senate floor vote before it arrived in the House Appropriations Committee to be referred to the House floor for final vote. On the last day of the legislative session, however, Democrats on the committee killed the bill with a 7-4 party line vote…
Water continued to be an issue of contention in 2021 with two steps forward and one step backward. The forward steps were in the formation of a partnership between the Parker Water and Sanitation District and the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District to develop a new water right in the lower South Platte. But a lawsuit filed against the LSPWCD, if successful, would probably end that partnership.
In September, LSPWCD and PW&SD issued a joint press release announcing the formation of the Platte Valley Water Partnership, a joint water supply project to use a new water right that the two entities own along the South Platte River near Sterling.
The project will make use of new and existing infrastructure to store and transport water for agricultural use in northeastern Colorado and municipal use along the Front Range. The partnership involves the phased development of the water right. The early phases would involve a pipeline from Prewitt Reservoir in Logan and Washington counties to Parker Reservoir, which supplies the City of Parker. Later developments would see a 4,000 acre-foot reservoir near Iliff on land owned by Parker, and a 72,000 acre-foot reservoir near Fremont Butte north of Akron. A pipeline, pump stations, and treatment facility will also be built as part of the project.
Two months later, however, a Colorado taxpayer group filed a class action lawsuit in the 13th Judicial District Court in Logan County to try to overturn a mill levy increase by the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. The increase was primarily to help pay the District’s share of the cost of developing a new water right and building infrastructure for the Platte Valley Water Partnership project.
The Public Trust Institute, a Colorado-based public interest law firm, and the National Taxpayers Union Foundation of Washington, D.C., filed the lawsuit on behalf of an ad hoc group of taxpayers in Logan, Morgan, Sedgwick and Washington counties. Jim Aranci of Crook, Charles Miller, Jack Darnell and William Lauck of Morgan County and Curtis Werner of Merino are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Besides the water district, the defendants include the county treasurers of the four counties, who collected the taxes and handed the funds over to the district.
The suit was filed, the plaintiffs said, because although LSPWCD voters relieved the district of the requirements of the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, the district still promised to go to the public for a vote to raise taxes. They maintain that raising the district mill levy from 0.5 mill to 1 mill violates that promise.
The district argues that it was authorized to levy up to 1 mill when it was created in the 1960s, but had never done so because it wasn’t needed. Now that it’s needed, the district says, the 1964 statute forming the district supersedes TABOR and levying the full mill without a vote is legal.
As J.T. Shaver, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, strolls through the Hutchison Ranch, a legacy cattle farm in Salida, Colorado, it’s what he doesn’t see that excites him most.
Last year, the trees here were so dense you couldn’t see more than 20 feet away. The 11,713-foot peak of Methodist Mountain was obscured by piñon-juniper trees. Now, the trunks are pleasantly spaced out, letting in beams of sunlight. The ground is scattered with wood chips and stumps, feeding a healthy new bed of grasses.
“This looks completely different than this time last year,” Shaver says. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”
The landscape’s evolution was the result of a weeks-long treatment organized by Shaver’s office to help this 5,800-person town prepare for wildfire. By thinning the dense thickets of trees, any fire that does reach the ranch shouldn’t burn hot and fast in the crown of the trees. Instead, it should run along the ground with less intensity, burning more naturally. “We’re mimicking the behavior of a wildfire that would have occurred prior to European settlement,” Shaver’s colleague, Josh Kuehn, explains.
Over the past decade, Chaffee County’s once sleepy population has steadily grown as people seek refuge from the busier Interstate 70 corridor. In 2017, county leaders convened a master planning process but were surprised to learn that residents’ No. 1 concern wasn’t small business sustainability or housing prices or even traffic. It was wildfire.
“We knew about the beetle kill epidemic and saw that our forests were in poor health,” says Kim Marquis, project and outreach coordinator for Envision Chaffee County. “The first step to growth planning was taking on our wildfire risk.”
At that point, Chaffee County had been spared from the intense fires ravaging the state in recent decades, although the 2019 Decker Fire would soon burn just two miles south of Salida. But residents had embraced the frightening reality that few places in Colorado are safe from fires. Climate change and the decades-long drought have been fueling bigger and more dangerous fires, leaving devastation up and down watersheds.
The county assembled stakeholders, including state foresters, federal officials, local landowners and farmers, to work proactively to improve forest health. Aurora Water also joined the talks, since a fire near Salida could potentially pollute the headwaters of the Arkansas River, one of Aurora’s primary water sources. The partners thoroughly mapped the area, highlighting the properties and forests most at risk if a fire did come through the Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.
While local landowners could take their own preventative measures like shoring up buildings and removing dead trees, the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) also received funding for a more holistic treatment. The Methodist Front Wildland Urban Interface Forest and Watershed Health Restoration Project, funded through a RESTORE Colorado Program grant, along with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Salida and Poncha Springs, and a county fund, will treat 478 acres of public and private land, masticating trees to thin out the crowns and encourage healthier vegetation. Eventually, with the participation of enough landowners, the fuel break will stretch five miles, creating a buffer between the forest and the ranches, townhomes and small farms in Salida.
From the top of a hill on the Hutchinson Ranch, it’s easy to see why the treatment is essential. There are visible gaps between the trees on the ranch land, even though the trees don’t look overly manicured. Meanwhile, the untreated land just south is dense and wild, a potential path of destruction to a new condo development. In the distance, the Arkansas River that feeds Front Range communities is visible.
And to the west, just above the newly thinned forest, is a barren, charred burn scar from the 2019 Decker Fire, a chilling reminder to Shaver of how close Salida came to devastation and why it’s more essential than ever that the town prepare for the new era of fires.
How Fires Went From Healthy To Hazardous
The Decker Fire, which burned nearly 9,000 acres, came in an unusually calm year in the midst of a decade that has reshaped how Coloradans see fire. Since 2012, six megafires, defined by the National Interagency Fire Center as fires larger than 100,000 acres, have burned in Colorado. 2020 saw the state’s three largest recorded fires to date—Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch—and some 700,000 acres burned, more than 540,000 of which burned in those three fires alone. And the CSFS’s 2020 Forest Action Plan projects a 50% to 200% increase in the annual area burned in the state by 2050.
There’s no single factor making Rocky Mountain fires more intense. Bark beetle infestations swept through tens of millions of acres of forest in the West over the past two decades, leaving large stands of dead trees. A century of federal policy that squelched out all fires rather than letting them burn naturally led to a buildup of fuel stores in forests. Climate change is creating warmer and drier conditions, and an earlier snowmelt has extended the fire season.
Chuck Rhoades, a research biogeochemist at the USFS’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, says those “compound disturbances” have created a pattern of fires that are burning more intensely and in places and seasons that experts wouldn’t predict. Fires that once would have been a natural tool to clear dead fuel and encourage seeds to sprout are now a major threat to communities. Some, including Cameron Peak and East Troublesome, have ravaged high-elevation forests where fires used to be rare. A 2021 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountain region are burning more than at any point in the past 2,000 years.
That, Rhoades says, means land managers and cities are seeing impacts outside the scope of anything they’ve prepared for—with ripple effects throughout the environment.
“We often think that where we were before will help us predict where we’re going,” he says. “But there are a lot of question marks out there. It forces a little humility in that we can’t understand what we’re going to get next.”
One known, however, is that the higher-intensity wildfires are putting more Coloradans at risk as the state’s population booms. In 2020, the CSFS estimated that half of the state’s population lived in Colorado’s 3.2 million-acre wildland-urban interface area, known as the WUI, where human development intermingles with fire-prone vegetation. By 2050, CSFS says that area could triple in size to encompass more than 9 million acres, or more than 13% of the state.
The risks are especially profound for watersheds. As more intense fires clear out thick older trees, shrubs and grasses grow back in their place. Without dense roots and pine needle cover, the forest floor that typically acts as a sponge for snowmelt and precipitation is turning fragile and rocky. Those are prime conditions for erosion and flooding, with streams and rivers accumulating water faster and earlier than usual. According to USFS research, the risk of flooding and debris flow is higher for at least 3-5 years post-fire, often longer, and those floods can be as much as three times more severe than they would be otherwise.
Runoff from burn scars can run black, laden with ash, debris, nutrients and heavy metals from burned soil and biomass. If those contaminants reach utilities’ water infrastructure, they can clog water filters or settle in reservoirs, possibly fostering algal blooms and taking up valuable reservoir space.
The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history until 2020, each burned along the Upper South Platte River, immediately upstream of Strontia Springs Reservoir, which accommodates about 80% of Denver Water’s raw water supply and 90% of Aurora’s supply. The fires exacerbated erosion in the watershed, leading to sediment-laden flows that dumped debris and contaminants in the reservoir. More than a decade later, the reservoir’s capacity to store water remains reduced, and water quality is still impacted from sediment flows, even after $27.7 million worth of dredging, removal and recovery work. Last year’s fires caused water utilities across the state to shift their operations to protect their source water.
It’s clear, then, that the risks of fires no longer stay in the forest. Partnerships have sprung up from Boulder to Durango to protect valuable watersheds and water infrastructure, forcing water district managers to become just as interested in what happens to the forest around headwaters as what goes into their customers’ pipes.
“We all share a mutual natural resource interest, whether it’s the forest or the fish of the water,” says Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District in Cortez. “As a water provider, we want to keep offering the same quality water we’ve had for 100 years down here. Now instead of thinking as a water protector, we’ve become part of the watershed protection.”
All Hands on Deck
In 2020, the Colorado State Forest Service released its updated Forest Action Plan, identifying some 2.5 million acres—roughly 10% of the state’s forests—as being “in urgent need of treatment.” The highest priority forests were in the Front Range’s Arapaho-Roosevelt and Pike-San Isabel forests and in the San Juan Forest around Durango. “We have to prioritize those areas where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck,” says Weston Toll, watershed program specialist for the CSFS. Still, he says, with so much of the state at risk, “we’re paddling against the current.”
The Forest Action Plan’s priority map reflected a range of factors, including where fuel had built up, how close fires could get to human development, and the impact on wildlife and water. But those areas didn’t all line up with valuable headwaters, despite some water managers’ arguments that any waterways must be protected. Nor does the map give much direction on how to square the widespread needs with limited resources.
Wildfire mitigation used to be defined by what some experts call “random acts of restoration,” individual projects on small plots of land depending on the owner’s interest and availability. A National Forest might have dead trees removed and fuel treated for insect infestation, but neighboring land might be left untreated, doing little for the overall region’s safety.
Now, the USFS and others are promoting a philosophy of shared stewardship, bringing together a variety of partners ranging from federal land managers, local water districts, utilities, logging companies, recreationists and private landowners to collaborate on responsible forest management.
Toll says the state may still be paddling against the current, but “it helps to have everyone paddling in the same direction, which wasn’t happening until five or 10 years ago.”
Take the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative (RMRI), a partnership co-convened by the USFS and the National Wild Turkey Federation that has brought together federal, state, local, private and nonprofit partners across Colorado for three targeted restoration projects. Tara Umphries, shared stewardship and RMRI project manager for USFS, says that leads to projects that focus on “consecutiveness,” crossing both physical boundaries and different partners’ priorities.
“Everyone brings their own expertise and their perspective to the table and has their own ideas on how to get this landscape work done,” Umphries says. “A watershed doesn’t just reside on Forest Service land and it doesn’t just provide benefits for one entity or user. To look at a discrete piece of land or a single agency for a solution, historically, has not yielded the results we need.”
RMRI was founded in 2019 as an evolution of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Shared Stewardship Strategy, which works across public and private lands on landscape protection. RMRI touts the four values shared by its partners: restore forests and habitat, protect communities, support recreation and tourism, and ensure clean and secure water.
In the first showcase project in Southwest Colorado, RMRI partners have done a variety of projects in and around the San Juan National Forest, including treating the forest land for dead trees, creating fuel breaks, clearing trails for recreation users, and conducting prescribed burns. At the end of 2020, RMRI partners had worked on more than 26,000 acres of forest, including high-priority areas around the Dolores River and the 381,000 acre-foot McPhee Reservoir.
“If we don’t have clean and secure water for people and our natural resources, you can’t get through much else,” says Jason Lawhon, southwest project manager for RMRI. “That’s often the place we start. Here in Southwest Colorado, water is the most important value.”
Lawhon says that bringing in those partners who can focus on the watershed impacts, whether they’re irrigators or district managers, has helped expand the scale of what the USFS could do alone through additional funding and strategy. “A lot of what we do is identify a project that’s already moving in the right direction, then we help it take the next step,” he says.
Curtis, who manages McPhee Reservoir, says the water managers’ role in Western communities makes it easy for them to act as “conveners,” bringing together federal, industrial and municipal partners. The reservoir, which provides irrigation water for 75,000 acres of land and supplies several towns and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, sits on the edge of the San Juan National Forest and would be at severe risk should a fire occur. Curtis says the reservoir has so far avoided serious sediment loading and flooding, and he wants to do as much as possible to keep it that way.
“Everybody out here has forest management plans and they all have implications for us as a water district,” Curtis says. While the Dolores Water Conservancy District can do tree thinning and other protection immediately around the reservoir, it takes more partners to fund and execute the work needed to keep the full headwaters area safe.
Besides RMRI, the Dolores Water Conservancy District is part of the Dolores Watershed and Resilient Forest (DWRF) Collaborative in Southwest Colorado, which includes the San Juan National Forest, five local water districts, conservationists and timber companies. The collective came out of a collaboration between Montezuma County and local timber companies to work on forest health. Organizers say the involvement of private companies is key to its success—not only does it bring their financial power to bear, but the timber industry can also use trees that are felled, providing additional financial incentive to doing the work.
Holistic forest management also requires the help of private landowners whose property borders or includes the most at-risk forests. Blake Osborn of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University says there’s no “established protocol” for how to take care of private lands like there is for public areas, leaving many landowners frustrated and clueless. In 2017, Osborn started the Watershed Assessment and Vulnerability Evaluation (WAVE) to help landowners get technical assistance and craft recovery plans, leaning on the USFS’s Good Neighbor Authority, which allows state forestry agencies to partner with the USFS to tackle projects on federal land.
The key, Osborn says, is that the plans can be tailored to the specific lands and owners’ priorities, whether that be heavy tree cover for privacy or a clean waterway stocked with fish. WAVE can also help connect private partners with the bigger public partners to ensure a truly holistic approach. Although no two landowners have ever shared identical goals, he says, the takeaway message is always the same.
“Something we’re always trying to communicate is that the risks cascade down the watershed, and issues up high may not materialize until you’re down at the city level,” Osborn says. “But everyone has their priorities at every point on the watershed. With such an interconnected system, putting some money on a project up here may help protect people miles away.”
After the runoff from the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires poured sediment into Strontia Springs Reservoir, officials at Denver Water realized they could be spending less money and having a bigger impact by focusing on preventing fires and flooding before the effects reached their infrastructure. The utility formed the From Forests to Faucets partnership with USFS, a multi-year effort to fund forest health projects to boost resilience in priority areas within Denver Water’s collection system. In 2017, the program was expanded to include state and local authorities to stretch Denver Water’s forest health work to non-federal lands.
Fuel breaks around the Dillon Reservoir watershed funded by the program are credited with protecting nearly 1,400 homes near Silverthorne during the 2018 Buffalo Fire, despite red-flag drought conditions.
“There was this exciting realization that there were a lot of mutual benefits in funding these projects,” says Madelene McDonald, watershed planner at Denver Water. “Forest restoration projects not only bolster source water protection, but also improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation access, and can protect communities in the wildland urban interface.”
Northern Water also has a forest health program, the Colorado-Big Thompson Headwaters Partnership, working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, USFS, CSFS, the National Park Service, and the Western Area Power Administration to protect headwaters areas. It’s the kind of work that, two or three decades ago, might have seemed outside the scope of a water provider focused on bringing clean, safe water to its ratepayers, but has now become an accepted cost of doing business.
Even though the nature of fire has changed, the prevention strategies look similar to what foresters have done for more than a century. Clearing out dead fuel—either by cutting trees or prescribed burns—cuts off the material that would burn in a fire and keeps blazes from becoming as severe. Rather than suppressing all fire, under the right conditions, officials can manage fires in secluded locations that have started from natural means, like lightning strikes, and, during wetter years when winds are low, let them burn naturally.
Another key prevention strategy is the use of prescribed burns, where foresters deliberately set and manage a fire under specific weather and forest conditions. Considered one of the most effective mitigation strategies, prescribed burns can efficiently clear out fuel, mimicking a natural, healthy fire. However, Toll notes, those burns do come with risks, like the potential to get out of control and negative air quality impacts from added wildfire smoke.
“The risk is always going to be there no matter what, so the question is whether it’s worth taking that risk under the conditions that have a high likelihood of success,” Toll says. “[Prescribed burns] also have an educational component by showing that not all fire is bad.”
But it is also incumbent on communities to do their own preparation. That can include building codes that require fire-resistant building material or defensible space requirements to clear fuel from some established perimeter around buildings. Colorado does not have a state wildfire code or model ordinance, despite recommendations from a 2014 task force, but communities like Boulder and Colorado Springs have regulations governing new homes in at-risk areas.
Counties have developed their own mitigation and evacuation plans for areas in the WUI. Others are adapting their own emergency plans to account for the widespread effects of fires, including the greater risks of mudslides and sediment deposits. Chaffee County, for example, updated its wildfire community plan to account for community expansion into the WUI and the greater threat of fires to produce a document that didn’t just guide county-level mitigation work, but also individual landowners’ preparations.
“There’s a big educational component, but seeing a disaster happening right in our faces prepares people,” says Marquis of Envision Chaffee County. “We’re asking people to join this honestly heroic story to protect the community.”
Addressing all of the CSFS’ Forest Action Plan’s priority areas is estimated to cost $4.2 billion, money that state agencies and local partnerships just don’t have. USFS spent $1.8 billion in fire suppression, fighting and responding to wildfires nationally in fiscal year 2020, but just $431 million on treatments to reduce fuel buildup through its Hazardous Fuels program, according to national spokesperson Babete Anderson. According to National Interagency Fire Center data, other federal government programs spent $510 million on fire suppression in 2020. According to a Colorado Department of Public Safety report, Colorado’s 2020 fire season cost the state an estimated $38 million in suppression costs and required another $248 million in federal funds. Those state figures don’t include suppression costs footed by local agencies or the costs of property loss, infrastructure damage, watershed impacts, or economic losses. Nor do they account for other private, local, county or federal wildfire expenses.
As of press time, Congress was still negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure bill and reconciliation bill. If passed, the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill includes about $8 billion for wildfire risk reduction and forest restoration, including $90 million a year for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Landscape Restoration Partnership Initiative to support forest and grassland restoration secured by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. The bill also spends $600 million to raise federal firefighter wages.
Fire departments and forest managers can also cobble together money from grants from a variety of federal sources. In 2021, the Colorado legislature passed SB21-258, which authorized $25 million for wildfire mitigation, recovery and workforce development. In a statement, Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs said the bill would “quickly move resources to on-the-ground projects and mitigation teams,” a step up from previous efforts that “have lacked the coordination, landscape-scale focus and robust state investment required to properly address the size and behavior of catastrophic wildfires.”
Even with those funding sources, it can be a challenge to prioritize spending in areas with the biggest benefit, or even address the widespread impacts of fires. Studies have shown that up-front mitigation saves costs on fire suppression, but even that is daunting when the needs are so vast.
“There’s just a disconnect between what we spend money on and the protection of watersheds and communities,” says Carol Ekarius of Coalitions & Collaboratives (COCO), a group that has been leading the way to foster collaborative conservation and restoration in Colorado headwaters and nationally. Ekarius’ work began more than two decades ago, as coordinator for the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), after the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire. When other regions also experienced burns in the 2000s, they reached out to CUSP for advice—COCO formed to mentor those organizations. “A fire could burn on federal land but the post-fire impacts are on the downstream communities,” says Ekarius.
Combining efforts through partnerships like RMRI can make every mitigation dollar go further, as can matching grant programs from the state and federal government. Summit County voters in 2018 passed a $1 million annual fund for wildfire mitigation backed by a mill levy rate adjustment. The timber industry has played an increasing role, with the state offering loans to encourage loggers to produce wood products—everything from lumber to pellet fuel—from forests that need thinning or dead trees that can be cleaned up and put to use.
In a 2019 issue paper, the International Association of Wildland Fire said that it is important to “frame a narrative” around fire that “looks to longer-term landscape outcomes.” That argument, the group wrote, “will eventually have to be won based on economics, as the suppression and recovery costs will by far exceed costs required to educate communities, undertake mitigation works and improve land use planning controls.”
Shaver, the Salida forester, says his community seems to understand that narrative and is on board with the cost of mitigation, knowing that the worst risk could be coming during any upcoming fire season.
“Sometimes there’s a feeling that you wish a fire would come through to validate the work,” Shaver says. “But a lot of people say they feel safer, and that in and of itself makes the work successful. Feeling safe is a win whether or not anything ever burns.”
Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Chris Arend):
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced today the launch of the Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program and highlighted the special collaboration with their partners, the Department of Corrections (DOC), State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT).
Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program (COSWAP) was created after the devastating 2020 fire season by the Colorado legislature through the bi-partisan supported SB21-258. COSWAP is designed to quickly move state stimulus funds to start on-the-ground work on fuels reduction projects including funds for landscape scale strategic wildfire mitigation projects in strategic wildfire prone communities in Colorado.
“Colorado is one lightning strike, one unattended fire, and one drought season away from our next mega fire, said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The devastating 2020 fire season taught us that the status quo of our forest health and wildfire mitigation programs were no longer going to cut it and our state and federal partners needed to do more, and quickly.”
“Thanks to the leadership of Governor Polis, bi-partisan support in the Colorado legislature, and strong inter-agency collaboration, we have launched the Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program, identified priority areas, and are going to be moving funds to on-the-ground projects and deploying hand crew teams from CDOC and the Colorado Youth Corps within months of legislation being signed”, Gibbs added.
The COSWAP is housed under DNR in coordination with the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) and the Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) in the Department of Public Safety. It includes a special collaboration with State Wildland Inmate Fire Teams (SWIFT) within the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Colorado Youth Corps Association (CYCA) to be deployed as hand crew teams to jump-start critical on-the-ground forest health and wildfire mitigation work throughout Colorado.
“We are excited about the opportunity to partner with DNR to not only provide an important public service through this mitigation work, but also to offer incarcerated individuals an opportunity to gain skills, save money, and prepare for a successful re-entry into the community once their sentence is complete,” said DOC Executive Director Dean Williams. “Many of these crew members have responded to some of the largest natural disasters in the state and they find purpose and dignity in the work they do. With the increased risk of fires in Colorado and across the nation, we know that this partnership with DNR will help provide critical support.”
Since its inception in 2002, SWIFT crews and fire mitigation teams have been involved in relief for most of Colorado’s biggest disasters. From the devastating Northern Colorado floods to the recent Cameron Peak (2020) and Morgan Creek (2021) Fires, these teams have helped to safeguard land, life and homes. There are currently 95 incarcerated individuals who are working in the SWIFT program. The Department anticipates increasing the number of crews to include 160 incarcerated individuals to help meet project needs.
In addition to fighting fires, the crews are trained in sustainable mitigation development and maintenance following the standardized methods of construction commonly used by state, federal and local land management agencies. The crew members bring knowledgeable and willing hands to the task.
“Developing partnerships with agencies such as Dept of Natural Resources, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado State Forest Service, Dept of Corrections and local counties is critical in accomplishing forest health and fire mitigation goals within Teller County. And let’s not forget private land owners whether they own 1 acre or 500 acres. Collaboration is the key to accomplishing such large projects,” said John Geerdes, Executive Director, Coalition for the Upper South Platte. “Coalition for the Upper South Platte is a non-profit that is primarily grant funded and focuses on pre-fire mitigation, forest health, post fire rehabilitation and more. We have used SWIFT crews in the past when our work called for hand crews rather than mechanical thinning. They have always done an outstanding job for us and I look forward to ways we can use them in the future under this new program.”
A key aspect of the COSWAP was the formation of a Rapid Fuels Reduction Assessment (RFRA) team which was a unique partnership composed of experts from the Department of Natural Resources, Colorado State Forest Service, Division of Fire Prevention and Control, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, and the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University.
The team was instigated by a bi-partisan letter from state, federal, and federal representatives asking for federal resources and partnership to address Colorado’s pressing forest health and wildfire mitigation challenges.
The RFRA team conducted a comprehensive risk analysis to identify the most strategic landscapes in the state for wildfire mitigation and fuel reduction projects.
Strategic Focus Areas include: Boulder, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, La Plata and Teller counties, plus Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative focal areas.
The pilot project at Dome Rock State Wildlife Area highlighted an important initiative for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to conduct forest health projects that will benefit important wildlife habitat while also providing important thinning and mitigation work to protect local communities at risk.
“This work at Dome Rock will improve the habitat for bighorn sheep that lamb in the wildlife area,” said Cody Wigner, CPW Area Wildlife Manager for the Pikes Peak region. “Thinning will open up the forest canopy and create greater visibility for the sheep and other wildlife. That will make them more comfortable and more likely to use the wildlife area because they can spot predators more easily. Improved habitat means more wildlife which is the ultimate goal for our state wildlife areas.”
SB21-258 was a result of priorities set out in the Colorado Recovery Plan by the Governor and the Colorado legislature, allocating a total of $25 million of stimulus funds to immediately address Colorado’s forest health and wildfire challenges. The $17 Million for COSWAP project implementation included more than doubling DOC SWIFT crews and significantly increasing Colorado Youth Corps forest health mitigation work throughout Colorado. A large portion of funds will also go to landscape-scale wildfire mitigation projects conducting critical work such as reducing hazardous fuels, forest thinning, developing fuel breaks and clearing evacuation routes. All funds must be obligated by June 30, 2023.
Additional SB21-258 funds gave long-term sustainable support to the Colorado State Forest Service Forest Restoration & Wildfire Risk Mitigation (FRWRM) Grant Program, a complimentary fund and new investment for CSFS Forest Business Loan Fund to support Colorado timber businesses. Additionally the bill called for an organizational assessment of state wildfire mitigation programs which also will be led by staff from DNR in partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service and Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
“This partnership represents the best of the Colorado spirit, putting young people to work while protecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of Coloradans,” said Scott Scott Segerstrom, Executive Director, Colorado Youth Corp Association. “This investment from DNR will help build the next generation of wildland firefighters, grow our outdoor recreation economy, and respond to the existential threat of climate change. Young people serving in their local communities for the benefit of all is something for which every Coloradan can be proud.”
Led by Berkeley, several dozen jurisdictions in California and other states have forbidden new natural gas connections to buildings. Colorado has embarked on a gentler, more complex but still firm approach to reducing emissions from buildings.
The state’s path is outlined in a 62-page decision issued by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on Oct. 1. The decision explains why existing regulations governing Xcel Energy and the three other investor-owned utilities must be revised but also expanded. The utilities deliver natural gas to heat homes, warm water, and for cooking.
PUC commissioners and staff will be addressing “really big questions and really big challenges,” says Justin Brant, co-director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project’s utility program. He calls this effort “ground-breaking,” a description echoed by others.
Other states – particularly California, Massachusetts, and New York, but also Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington – have been having broad conversations about the future of natural gas utilities and decarbonization of buildings. And in Europe, some countries, particularly the Netherlands, have created a framework for decarbonizing gas networks across the country. But none have gotten very far yet. With the work now underway, Colorado ranks among the nation’s leaders, Brant and others say.
Utilities must reduce the carbon intensity of the fuels they provide 22% by 2030, which they can do by providing alternative fuels. Another strategy is to improve efficiency of buildings, so that they require less natural gas to warm.
Transportation and electrical generation are the top two sources of climate-warming pollution, according to the “Colorado Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap.” But “fuel use in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings is not far behind,” added the document.
A pie chart in the document suggests that buildings, both commercial and residential, cause about 10% of the state’s emissions.
Decarbonization of electricity is already well underway. Coal combustion as a source of Colorado’s electricity dropped from 68% to 36% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2030, utilities plan to close all but one coal-burning unit in Colorado. Xcel Energy wants to operate that final coal plant, Comanche 3, at only one-third of capacity.
Colorado also has 23 natural gas-fired plants that generate electricity, but they are expected to be used selectively as electric utilities expand their use of renewables to at least 75% and conceivably 100% in the coming decade.
Buildings, with their dependence on natural gas or, in rural areas, propane, pose arguably a far greater challenge. Unlike a handful of coal plants, there are perhaps a million buildings in Colorado. Nor is this as simple as trading in a car with an internal-combustion for one with an electric motor—not that that is particularly simple, at least not yet.
Technologies exist, among them air-source heat pumps, as an alternative to gas-burning furnaces ordinarily found in basements. The replacements will be costly, though.
Easier will be to cease installing natural gas pipelines, stoves, and hot-water heaters in new buildings. That has started to happen, but most of the 30,000 or more houses built each year are connected to natural gas pipelines. That compounds the problem, as depreciating the infrastructure can take decades.
“The issues are complex and they are new, as no one in the world has decarbonized a gas system, but that is what needs to happen one way or another,” says the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Mike Henchen, who specializes in building decarbonization.
“This is a big transition that nobody has done yet,” he says. The goal will be to create a transition that works for everyone. “We want the system to be decarbonized, but we don’t want to do it in a way that raises people’s bills. That might require some creative solutions that go beyond what we typically see.”
Colorado’s approach to decarbonizing buildings was defined by two laws adopted in June.
SB21-264, sometimes called the clean-heat law, requires the state’s four regulated gas utilities to submit clean heat plans that show how they will reduce emissions 22% by 2030 as compared to the 2015 baseline.
The law assigns responsibility to the PUC to oversee this process governing the private gas utilities with an Oct. 1 deadline for launching the rule-making process. Municipal utilities that provide gas will be governed by the state’s Air Quality Control Commission. The AQCC has until September 2022 to kick off its process. Yet another provision applies to the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry.
A second law, HB21-1238, orders regulated gas utilities to institute demand-side management programs to reduce need for natural gas, such as by improved insulation in homes or other efficiency measures. In evaluating such programs, the PUC must use metrics that favor work that, if more expensive in the short term, provides long-term savings.
[Two] other bills also address building energy use. SB21-246, the beneficial electrification law, directs the PUC to oversee energy saving targets by regulated electric utilities that use efficient electric equipment in place of less efficient systems that burn fossil fuels. HB21-1286 addresses energy performance of buildings 50,000 square feet and larger.
Three of the five laws order that the social costs of carbon and methane be used in evaluations of programs by utilities.
PUC commissioners and staff will have to work through many issues while consulting with environmental groups, consumer advocates, and the utilities themselves.
One major issue will be that of stranded assets. If we’re going to abandon some of the existing natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure, who pays? Do natural gas customers pay for that infrastructure that is no longer needed but which hasn’t been fully depreciated? Or do the electricity customers pay for this transition through their rates?
This transition challenges the existing business model of gas utilities. Installation of pipelines to new housing developments and other buildings typically assume a payback of up to 50 years, explains RMI’s Henchen. Existing customers, through their rates, subsidize this extension of natural gas lines to new customers.
A closely related question is why do we add natural gas infrastructure, including the pipelines that underlie most residential streets, if we’re going to start abandoning them?
Colorado gas utilities during the last decade has added an average of 20,500 residential, 7,000 commercial, and 350 industrial customers of natural gas per year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It now has 1.8 million residential gas customers.
Hydrogen will also be part of the discussion. Can green hydrogen, made from water and renewable energy, displace natural gas? Can it be blended with natural gas? Or can hydrogen made from natural gas and the carbon sequestered underground be used? A study, “Opportunities for Low-Carbon Hydrogen in Colorado: A Roadmap,” by the consulting firm E3 recommends developing a pilot project.
Costs will invariably be an issue. The clean heat bill, SB21-264, caps the increase on customer bills caused by this transition at 2.5%.
Among those already carefully monitoring the proceedings is the Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate. The state agency has the statutory responsibility to represent residential, small-business, and agriculture consumers in proceedings before the PUC.
“It’s huge,” Cindy Schonhaut, the director of the agency, says of this building decarbonization effort now underway. The challenge, she says, will be “how can we decarbonize our natural gas system in a way that is cost-effective and that minimizes imposing costs on consumers?”
Consumers will pay for this transition, says Schonhaut. “It’s a question of how much.”
Schonhaut also points to a dramatic shift in the business model of gas utilities. The utilities currently must deliver natural gas to new customers in their service territories. This conflicts with the goal of decarbonization.
Too, she sees a safety issue that differentiates this natural gas transition from electric resource planning. “For example, abandoning a pipeline isn’t a matter of simply turning off the valves, because gas will remain in the pipe,” she explains. If a contractor using a backhoe broke a pipe, there could be mayhem. Decommissioning pipelines will involve many questions.
Looming over this decarbonization are rising prices of natural gas. In September, prices surged above $5 per million Btu, about double the price of six months ago, and the highest September price since 2008, Inside Climate News reported.
Not least in the months and years ahead will be the question of what happens to the natural gas utilities themselves as they decarbonize. The journey will perhaps be most difficult for Atmos Energy and Colorado Natural Gas, the two investor-owned utilities in Colorado who do nothing but sell gas. Two others, Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, sell both gas and electricity, if not always in the same places.
“They have invested millions of dollars in the ground in Colorado, as has happened across the country,” explains SWEEP’s Brant. “If we are to meet the state’s roadmap decarbonization goals, there will be a need to change the business model of natural gas. Underlying a lot of these decisions will be how do you do that in an equitable manner?”
Both the gas utilities and the PUC commissioners have been preparing for this process even before the laws were adopted in 2021.
In September 2020, Black Hills Energy issued a 109-page analysis conducted by the Gas Technology Institute titled “Assessment of Natural Gas and Electric Decarbonization in State of Colorado Decarbonization Sector.”
That analysis argued for a core focus on energy efficiency, with a special emphasis on creating tight building envelopes, to help reduce energy use. But the analysis warned of rising overall energy costs by electrifying and warned of the intense energy use of space heating.
“There is no evidence wind or solar resources can address prospective seasonal energy-intensive space heating electricity peaks during Colorado winters,” the Black Hills study concluded.
Xcel Energy in November 2020 also issued a report, “Transitioning Natural Gas for a Low-Carbon Future.” That 27-page paper urged a go-slower approach, one devoid of mandates, because of the need for technological breakthroughs plus the need for time to create the electrical infrastructure needed to replace natural gas on a broad scale.
The paper was one for all eight states in which Xcel operates. In Colorado, it lost that argument about mandates. But perhaps it scored points in the pacing.
The PUC commissioners have also been prepping themselves. Beginning in November 2020, they heard from experts in such diverse topics as leak detection, coal-mine methane, and hydrogen pipeline gas in an effort to better get their minds wrapped around the challenge of methane, the primary constituent of natural gas.
Commissioners have been told that baseline information that will be needed for evaluating progress remains scarce. Even basic definitions have yet to be worked out.
Environmental groups are eager to begin wrestling with the challenge.
“As daunting as these issues appear, it’s really important to take them on now,” says RMI’s Henchen. “There are steps that make sense to get us started, like cutting back on spending on expanding the gas system, targeting funding to help the most vulnerable customers shift to cleaner and more stable alternatives than gas, and piloting new approaches to ‘non-pipe solutions’ instead of replacing old pipes with new pipes.”
After nearly a year’s worth of meetings, a work group has not reached a consensus about what Colorado should do to prevent investors from profiting off of speculating on the state’s water.
A report released last week by a group of water managers, policy experts and users — who were convened to explore ways to strengthen current anti-speculation law — lays out a list of concepts but does not give clear direction to state legislators about which concepts to pursue.
“Due in part to the drawbacks that the Work Group identified for each of the brainstormed concepts in Section 5, and a lack of consensus, the Work Group does not recommend any of the concepts for implementation,” the report reads.
The work group was made up of representatives from across water sectors, including Front Range municipal-water providers, Western Slope agricultural-water users, nonprofit organizations and others. At the direction of state lawmakers, the work group looked into how legislation could be enacted or amended to crack down on investment water speculation. The group defined investment water speculation as the purchase of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from the increased value of the water in a future sale.
The lack of consensus or recommendations underscores how difficult it is to answer the thorny question at the heart of the issue: How can the government balance protecting a public resource from profit-seeking investors without infringing on private-property rights?
“The lack of consensus is informative in and of itself,” said state engineer Kevin Rein, who co-chaired the work group. “That tells the (Water Resources Review) Committee a lot right there.”
Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning they must use the water for what it was decreed, such as irrigating crops. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights and change what the water is allowed to be used for by getting the approval of the water court.
This system creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A New York City-based private equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water from the Colorado River to the farmland of Fruita, Mack and Loma. Concern about WAM’s activity in the Grand Valley was a main reason that legislators convened the anti-speculation work group through 2020’s Senate Bill 48.
Of the 19 concepts presented in the report, eight were identified as having the potential to reduce investment water speculation on a large scale. These include taxing profits from the sale of water rights; eliminating agriculture tax benefits when water is removed from the land; encouraging local governments to police speculation through their 1041 powers; and creating a right of first refusal for a public entity to purchase water rights for long-term irrigation use for public benefit.
The most ambitious of the concepts, Concept J, is creating a statewide process to identify and prohibit investment water speculation. State Rep. Dylan Roberts, who represents Eagle and Routt counties and sits on the Water Resources Review Committee, said this concept has a lot of merit.
“I think it’s clear there are a lot of ways people could slip through the cracks of our current system if they did want to speculate in water,” he said. “If we created a statewide process, we might get a better handle on some of this activity that’s happening and find ways to work on a case-by-case basis to prevent it.”
All of the concepts had major drawbacks, the most common of which were high implementation costs and potential impacts to all water users, even those who are not speculative investors. According to the report, the drawbacks also include potentially reducing the sale price of water rights and, therefore, their value as property, which presents a risk to the current owners of irrigation water rights.
“The Work Group wants to stress to the Committee the complexity and nuance of the problem identified in SB 20-048 and the fact that any concept that would be effective in reducing or preventing Investment Water Speculation also comes with significant drawbacks,” the report reads.
Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a member of the work group, said one reason the group couldn’t come to a consensus was because some members were uncomfortable with concepts that peered too closely at water-rights transactions between willing buyers and sellers.
“I do think the (concepts) that are most likely to be met with the least amount of opposition from existing water rights holders might be those that don’t penalize the private-property transaction itself,” Fleming said. “Don’t focus on the transaction. Focus on how the water is used or not used to figure out if there is speculation going on. Even then, it’s not an easy task.”
Although the work group couldn’t find consensus, Fleming and Rein said that doesn’t mean they were unsuccessful. The 66-page report presents a lot of information and the group now leaves the issue in the hands of the Water Resources Review Committee. The report is on the committee’s agenda for discussion at the Colorado Water Congress summer convention next week in Steamboat Springs.
“I think the simple fact that there aren’t consensus recommendations doesn’t mean the report doesn’t contain good information; I think it does,” Fleming said. “It’s up to the legislature at this point whether they want to pick anything up.”
Roberts said the committee should carefully consider all eight of the concepts that have the potential to reduce investment water speculation on a large scale. He called the report comprehensive and said he was not surprised that the work group could not come to a unanimous agreement, especially when members represented so many varied and sometimes conflicting interests.
“I commend them for giving us everything that they considered even if they didn’t reach consensus,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s not their job to formally propose changes in law; that’s the job of us at the legislature now. I’m glad we have this resource.”
This story ran in the Aug. 18 edition of The Aspen Times.
As a result of Audubon’s engagement, leveraged with our partners, Big Beaver Creek and White River will quickly receive needed water and all of Colorado’s rivers will retain their water quality protections. All thanks to you! In this drought-stricken year, these victories are true causes for celebration. Read on to learn what your actions accomplished for rivers and the birds and communities that depend upon them.
Water Quality Antidegradation
Birds and people rely on clean water from healthy rivers. High-quality water in our rivers, streams, and wetlands is critical to the long-term health of our ecosystems, wildlife, communities, and economies across Colorado, from urban neighborhoods to headwater streams.
In late spring of 2021, we called upon our Colorado network to sign a petition to stop a proposed rule change by the Water Quality Control Commission (Commission) that would have allowed more pollution in Colorado’s rivers and streams. Because of the impact this potential rule change would have had on rivers, birds, and disadvantaged communities, we needed your engagement like never before. And you responded.
Audubon Rockies broke all our previous engagement records by collecting 2,735 unique signatures and combined with our coalition to total more than 4,700 signatures! During the June hearing, the Commission received unprecedented levels of public comments. Sixty people signed up to speak. Many impassioned public speakers showed up to oppose the proposed rule changes and to support their “home waters.” All but one of the comments opposed rule changes due to potential impacts on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color; recreation in urban streams; and the right to clean water.
The Commission listened to you and delayed making any decision to amend the antidegradation rule until 2031. Current water quality protections will stay in place for at least the next 10 years!
We still have work to do with the Commission to ensure our rivers and streams are protected from harmful rule changes that could increase pollution. We must also resist industry’s pressure to establish a stakeholder process in which only their high-paid lawyers and consultants have the means to participate.
With advocates like you, we know we can continue to make progress. Healthy flowing rivers support our environment and all water uses and users.
Instream Flows on Big Beaver Creek and White River
After a multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort to expand Colorado’s existing program to loan water to the environment, an instream flow bill (HB20-1157) was signed into law by Colorado Governor Polis in March of 2020. Audubon’s network submitted 1,463 action alerts to state legislators to support this bill, which ultimately benefits our environment, wildlife, and local economies.
HB20-1157 expanded the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s short-term water loan program to benefit the environment. The bill provides a 100 percent voluntary, flexible, and expedited or longer-term option for water users to divert less or no water during dry years, allowing for more water to stay in a river. The statute’s “emergency” or expedited option is in motion for the first time!
On July 21, 2021, the Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously to approve an expedited temporary instream flow lease to support 43 stream miles of benefits to Big Beaver Creek and White River in Rio Blanco County. In this extreme drought year, water is needed in these waterways quickly. Due to your engagement and support, a quick and responsive option to support environmental stream flows is a reality.
Colorado thrives when our rivers do. The decisions we make about water and river health impact all of Colorado—birds and people alike. Audubon’s legacy is built on science, education, advocacy, and on-the-ground conservation. We bring all of this together through you: our network. This combination of expertise and engagement makes Audubon an effective force for bird and freshwater habitat conservation. Thank you for standing with us.
Polis signs latest $20 million infusion for Colorado Water Plan as hotter, drier climate grips Southwest
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has signed off on increased funding for water development projects that state officials regard as critical to meet growing demands. But the state’s plans to secure more water from rivers here are colliding with the hotter, drier climate that’s hammering the Southwest, where Colorado River reservoirs are at record-low levels.
Federal authorities warn hydropower electricity for millions of people (and their air conditioners) could be jeopardized if water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead — now both about 34% full — fall much lower. That’s partly why water officials from seven states met in Denver this week to size up perils before their next round of negotiations over how states deal with diminishing water.
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming (the Upper Basin states along the Colorado River) are facing pressure from Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, California) to use less water — even though the 1922 Colorado River Compact legally entitles them to use more — to try to save the downriver reservoirs.
“There’s a reality that we do have a shrinking water supply and we’re all going to have to figure out new ways to reduce our use. We try to stay out of any state’s business, but we also realize there’s not enough water for the Upper Basin to use its full allotted water under the compact,” said Bill Hasencamp, the Colorado River resources manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people in the Los Angeles area and San Diego…
Colorado leaders over the past six years have awarded more than $500 million in grants and loans for 323 projects in carrying out the state’s water plan — which calls for $100 million a year through 2050. Polis last week signed the latest monetary infusion into law: HB21-1260 for $20 million more to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to go toward increased water storage capacity and supply. The bill provides $15 million for loans and grants and $5 million for the regional “roundtable” panels that have planned 500 local water development projects.
Polis also signed off on SB21-189 to spend $1.2 million more in construction funds for the implementation of the overall $20 billion water plan, which was launched in 2015 to ensure enough for a productive economy — from cities to farms to the recreation industry — while preserving healthy rivers through efficient water use and carefully designed water projects. Two in progress would siphon significantly more water out of the Colorado River basin — an expanded reservoir for Denver and enlarged Moffat system that diverts west-flowing water to the northern Front Range…
“We are already actively talking about and experiencing cuts, which have been particularly painful in this very dry year,” [Rebecca Mitchell] said, referring to the state’s allocation system that forces junior water-rights holders to use less in dry times. “These are historically low conditions and we need basin-wide solutions that we work on together.”
State officials in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contend they’re entitled under the 1922 compact to use as much as 2 million acre-feet more water. But those shares are based on century-old calculations for how much water the river can provide — 15 million acre-feet a year — rather than the 12.3 million acre-feet average total flow since 2000.
Contingency plans for enduring severe droughts are expected to force mandatory cutbacks next year in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) celebrated with Governor Polis and legislative leaders on signing legislation into law, which will provide $20 million in state stimulus funding towards the Colorado Water Plan, the state’s collaborative framework for addressing water challenges.
“This investment in our water is a significant boost for the Colorado Water Plan. Our water supply is highly variable, and our demands are growing, all while much of our state deals with a lingering drought. The Water Plan sets a vision and allows our state to plan better for Colorado’s water future,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado DNR. “We greatly appreciate the strong support of legislators, water providers and other partners for this needed and timely funding to help us address our water challenges head on.”
“We are so grateful for the legislature’s support in funding critical water projects around the state that will help us all meet our future needs. This funding is not only important for water supply, but also for ensuring that we have a healthy environment, productive agriculture, and robust recreational opportunities,” said CWCB Director Becky Mitchell.
CWCB awards Water Plan Grants to agricultural water projects, conservation and land use planning efforts, engagement and innovation, environment and recreation projects, and projects that enhance water storage and supply. The upcoming deadlines for grant applications are July 1 and December 1.
Funding dedicated to projects at the local level are intended to assist Colorado water users in addressing their critical water supply issues and interests. Grants must be approved by at least one of Colorado’s nine basin roundtables and are then forwarded to the CWCB for final approval.
On the same day, Governor Polis signed Senate Bill 21-189, the annual CWCB Construction Fund Projects Bill, which includes funding for a variety of CWCB programs and projects including satellite monitoring systems, the floodplain map modernization program, weather modification permitting, and funding for Water Education Colorado, among other programs.
This month has been bill-signing season for Colorado Governor Jared Polis, after a frantic and historically productive General Assembly session. On June 24 alone, Governor Jared Polis signed 18 pieces of legislation into law during signing ceremonies in Denver and Boulder.
Among them were several bills meant to boost Colorado’s economy, improve energy efficiency, protect clean air and address some of the water issues resulting from climate change.
HB-1286 Energy Performance For Buildings – the rule requires the owners of large buildings to improve energy efficiency, and, in connection with that effort, to collect and report on energy-use benchmarking data and comply with rules regarding performance standards related to energy and greenhouse gas emissions and modifying statutory requirements regarding energy performance contracts. Sponsored by Reps. C. Kipp, A. Valdez and Senators K. Priola, B. Pettersen.
HB21-1284 Limit Fee Install Active Solar Energy System– The bill focuses on solar energy, setting moderate limitations on the aggregate amount of fees that may be assessed by governmental bodies for the installation of active solar energy systems. Representatives A. Valdez. and K. Van Winkle, and Senators C. Hansen, and K. Priola.
SB21-264 Adoption of Programs Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions Utilities – The bill defines a “gas distribution utility” (GDU) as a gas public utility with more than 90,000 retail customers. It requires each GDU to file a clean heat plan (plan) with the public utilities commission (PUC). A plan must demonstrate how the GDU will use clean heat resources to meet clean heat targets (targets) established in the bill. The targets are a four percent reduction below 2015 greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels by 2025 and 22 percent below 2015 GHG emission levels by 2030. Sponsored by Representatives A. Valdez, T. Bernett, and Senator C. Hansen.
SB21-072 Public Utilities Commission Modernize Electric Transmission Infrastructure – with the expansion of electric transmission facilities to meet Colorado’s clean energy goals and the creation of the Colorado electric transmission authority, this bill requires transmission utilities to join organized wholesale markets. It allows additional classes of transmission utilities to obtain revenue through the co-location of broadband facilities within their existing rights-of-way. Sponsored by Representatives A. Valdez, and M. Catlin, and Senators C. Hansen, and D. Coram.
HB21-1238 Public Utilities Commission Modernize Gas Utility Demand-side Management Standards – The bill updates the methods used to determine the cost-effectiveness of demand-side management (DSM) programs of public utilities selling natural gas at retail. It requires that the calculation of future benefits reflects the avoided costs to ratepayers resulting from reduced consumption of natural gas. Representative T. Bernett, and Senator C. Hansen.
Later that afternoon in Confluence Park, Polis signed into law HB21-1260 , a General Fund Transfer Implement State Water Plan. The bill allocates $20 million from the general fund to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to be spent to implement the state water plan as follows:
$15 million, which is transferred to the water plan implementation cash fund for expenditures and grants administered by the CWCB to implement the state water plan.
$5 million, which is transferred to the water supply reserve fund for CWCB to disperse to the basin roundtables.
It was sponsored by Representatives A. Garnett and M. Catlin, and Senators Kerry Donovan, and C. Simpson.
Governor Polis also signed two bills that directly relate to the state’s water challenges in the face of accelerating climate changes: HB21-1242 , this bill creates the Colorado Agricultural Drought And Climate Resilience Office – The office will be empowered to provide voluntary technical assistance, non-regulatory programs, and incentives that increase the ability to anticipate, prepare for, mitigate, adapt to, and respond to hazardous events, trends, or disturbances related to drought or the climate. On July 1, 2021, the state treasurer shall transfer all unobligated money in the agriculture value-added cash fund to the newly created agriculture drought and climate resiliency cash fund. It was sponsored by Representative B. McLachlan, and Senator Kerry Donovan.
SB21-189Colorado Water Conservation Board Construction Fund Project – Among the many water-related projects this bill funds, it appropriates the following amounts from the Colorado water conservation board (CWCB) construction fund to the CWCB or the division of water resources in the department of natural resources for the following projects:
Continuation of the satellite monitoring system, $100,000 ( section 1 of the bill);
Continuation of the Colorado floodplain map modernization program, $500,000
Continuation of the weather modification permitting program, $350,000 ( section 3 )
Continuation of technical assistance for federal cost-share programs, $300,000
It was sponsored by Senator Kerry Donovan, and Representatives M. Catlin, and K. McCormick
A recap of water in the 2021 Colorado legislative session.
Water—Colorado’s most precious resource for birds and people—was a central issue for legislators in the 2021 legislative session. Lawmakers approved more than $53 million in new bills for water-related projects. We all depend on healthy, flowing rivers. Amid brutal drought conditions on the West Slope, the Colorado Water Plan update, watershed and wildfire resilience needs, Audubon’s engagement amplified water awareness for legislators and partners across the state. Read on for highlights of what we accomplished together.
Water Funding Wins
Colorado Water Plan
Birds and people need clean, reliable water, and that is linked to funding. Audubon’s network submitted more than 900 action alerts to legislators to support HB21-1260, General Fund Transfer to Implement State Water Plan. HB1260 allocates $15 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund and $5 million to basin roundtables.
Do you have an environmental project, study, or planning idea ready to go? If yes, now is the time to apply. With these additional funds to the Water Plan grant fund, matches have been reduced to 25 percent for studies and planning, and the standard 50 percent match for construction projects remains. Grant application deadlines for 2021 are July 1 and December 1.
Watershed and Wildfire Resilience
The historic wildfires of 2020 and concerns over a strong 2021 wildfire season elevated watershed and wildfire resilience as top priorities. Two bills passed to help address these needs: SB21-054, Transfers for Wildfire Mitigation and Response, which allocates $9 million total with $4 million to CWCB Watershed grant program, and SB21-240, Watershed Restoration Stimulus, which distributes $30 million to the CWCB Watershed Grant program to protect watersheds from wildfires through study and restoration.
Agriculture and Drought Resiliency
Colorado’s ranchers and farmers are struggling through yet another dry year. The Western Slope has suffered a drought three of the last four years. The birds, other wildlife, and communities that depend on agricultural landscapes are struggling too. Audubon and our partners supported three bills to help with agricultural drought resilience and improve soil health.
HB21-1242, Create Agricultural Drought and Climate Resilience Office, allots $500,000 to the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) for the new Drought and Climate Resilience Cash Fund.
SB21-235, Efficiency Programs Stimulus, distributes $5 million total with $2 million for soil health grants to CDA.
SB21-234, Agriculture and Drought Resiliency, allocates $3 million to the Drought Resiliency Fund for uses providing financial and technical assistance to transport hay or feed from areas outside of Colorado, supports recovery of grazing lands post-fire/drought, and provides technical assistance to help producers prepare for future droughts.
The success of water funding clearly demonstrates to our state lawmakers that water is a priority issue for Coloradans. We hope policymakers will continue to focus on ensuring our natural infrastructure of watersheds, rivers, and wetlands are protected to meet our state’s environmental and community needs for generations to come.
Decision-maker Water Awareness
In May, Audubon Rockies and Business for Water Stewardship concluded the 2021 morning water legislator webinar series. Audubon and Business for Water Stewardship want to express deep appreciation to presenters and attendees of the water legislator webinar series. Over three sessions (The Value of Colorado’s Water, Water Connections, and Water Quality), more than 230 legislators, staff/aids, and informed members of the public attended the live sessions.
Collectively as a state, from residents to decision-makers, we need to lean in, learn more, and participate in the decisions around our water resources. The decisions we make about water and river health impact all of Colorado—birds and people alike.
The state of Colorado has passed a bill that sets the groundwork for the exploration of blockchain technology for water management. State lawmakers approved the law that also studies other emerging technologies such as remote sensors, satellite systems and unmanned aerial vehicles.
House Bill 21-1268 was passed by both chambers of the state’s legislature and was sent to Governor Jared Polis, and once he appends his signature, it becomes law. The governor recently floated the idea of the state accepting taxes in digital currencies someday. “I’d love to set that up and wouldn’t it be great to be the first state to do that?” Polis said.
The bill was co-sponsored by 45 legislators. It states that it’s in the public interest to authorize and direct the University of Colorado and the Colorado Water Institute to “conduct feasibility studies and pilot deployments of these technologies and to report to the general assembly on the potential of these technologies to improve Colorado water management.”
The use of these technologies will improve the monitoring and management of both surface and groundwater. They will also reduce inefficiency and waste as well as allow all parties to have more confidence in the data gathered.
It then lists the technologies that it will direct the university to explore, one of which is blockchain. It advocates for the use of “blockchain-based documentation, communication, and authentication of data regarding water use; fulfillment of obligations under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation, including augmentation plans; and water conservation.”
On or before July 15, 2022, the university shall provide live testimony and a written report on the progress of the feasibility studies and pilot deployment, the bill states.
The Water for Colorado Coalition today celebrated the passage of HB21-1260, which allocates $20 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and Basin Roundtables for implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan.
The bill, co-sponsored by House Speaker Alec Garnett, Rep. Marc Catlin, and Sens. Kerry Donovan and Cleave Simpson, passed both the state House and Senate with unanimous approval, illustrating continued, widespread support for water funding in Colorado. The bill will provide the CWCB $15 million for grant projects — like the ones featured here — that will benefit water users and rivers through conservation and education efforts across the state. It also allocates $5 million to be distributed directly to Colorado’s nine Basin Roundtables.
In response to the passage of HB21-1260, the Water for Colorado Coalition issued the following statement:
“We are thrilled by the unanimous approval of $20 million to support critical state water priorities, and applaud the Colorado General Assembly for their continued prioritization of water conservation needs. These funds will bolster ongoing water projects and programs and pave the way for new grants, allowing the state to increase resilience to climate change, safeguard flowing rivers, and support thriving communities. We look forward to working with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Basin Roundtables, and local communities as these funds are distributed to ensure that our rivers and water continue to meet the needs of all who rely on them.”
Colorado has some of the United States’ most ambitious climate goals, targeting 50% remissions reductions in 2030 and 90% emissions reductions by 2050. These goals are bolstered by sector-specific policies enacted in 2019 including legislation requiring the state’s dominant utility Xcel to cut emissions 80% by 2030, along with tax credits and partnerships to build charging stations and accelerate the zero-emission vehicle transition.
But new research shows the state’s existing policies, excluding those that are planned but not enacted as part of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap, will only reduce emissions 18% by 2050 – falling far short of Colorado’s climate ambition.
As debate intensifies around Colorado’s next steps on climate policy, new modeling from Energy Innovation and RMI shows implementing stronger policies, many of which are included as part of the state’s GHG Roadmap, can be a climate and economic boon. Ambitious decarbonization of the state’s electricity, transportation, industry, building, and land-use sectors can help limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius while adding more than 20,000 new jobs and $3.5 billion in economic activity per year by 2030 – and up to 36,000 jobs and $7.5 billion annually by 2050.
Cheap clean energy empowers decarbonization – but policy still needed
Colorado embodies the clean energy transition accelerating across the U.S. – a state where fossil fuels once underpinned energy supply and economic activity, but where fast-falling clean energy prices have made decarbonization the cheapest option.
Those favorable economics have made Colorado’s climate ambition possible, but the state is now embarking on the tougher task of determining how to achieve its emissions reductions goals..
Colorado could reap billions in economic growth from its climate ambition
So how can Colorado meet its climate action goals and build a clean energy economy? New modeling using the Colorado Energy Policy Simulator (EPS) developed by Energy Innovation and Colorado-based RMI outlines a policy package that can decarbonize the state’s economy and put it on a pathway to achieve the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommended target of limiting warming to 1.5°C – while generating sustainable economic growth. Some of these policies overlap with those outlined in the state’s GHG Roadmap.
The free, open-source, peer-reviewed Colorado EPS empowers users to estimate climate and energy policy impacts on emissions, the economy, and public health through 2050 using publicly available data. All model assumptions, key data sources, and scenario development used by the EPS are documented online for full transparency. EPS models have been developed for nearly a dozen countries and several subnational regions, including California, Minnesota, Nevada, and Virginia. The Colorado EPS is one of at least 20 planned state-level EPS models being developed by EI and RMI…
Fortunately, the Colorado EPS finds implementing stronger policies across the state’s electricity, transportation, buildings, industrial, land-use, and agricultural sectors can put it on a 1.5°C -compliant pathway that meets Colorado’s emissions reductions goals. The associated air pollution reductions would also prevent 350 deaths and more than 10,000 asthma attacks per year by 2030, and more than 1,400 deaths and nearly 44,000 asthma attacks per year by 2050 – even with a conservative estimate, these monetized health and social benefits reach $21 billion annually by 2050.
This low-carbon transition would supercharge the state’s economy, generating more than 20,000 new jobs and $3.5 billion in economic activity per year by 2030, and adding nearly 36,000 new jobs and more than $7.5 billion to the economy per year by 2050. These jobs would be created by building new solar and wind projects, retrofitting buildings, installing vehicle charging infrastructure, and more. Increased economic activity would come from new jobs paying wages 25% higher than the national media wage, as well as savings from reduced expenditures on volatile fossil fuel supplies.
A policy pathway for Colorado to achieve its climate goals
The 1.5°C policy package introduced by the Colorado EPS incorporates all existing state policy that has been enacted into law, legally enforceable power plant retirements, improvements in building and transportation energy efficiency, and electric vehicle adoption; it then goes further to address the state’s unique emissions profile.
While electricity and transportation lead emissions in most states, industry generates the largest percentage of emissions with 32 percent, primarily from oil and gas production. A mix of electrification, energy efficiency, hydrogen fuel switching, and methane leak reduction drive industrial emissions reductions under this 1.5°C Scenario. Several regulations have been proposed and legislation has been introduced in the state legislature to address these sectors, particularly methane leak reduction and beneficial electrification.
Rapid decarbonization of the state’s electricity sector is foundational to reducing emissions across all other sectors as an increasingly clean grid powers electrification of demand from buildings, industry, and transportation. The 1.5°C Scenario implements an 80% clean electricity standard by 2030 which rises to 100 percent by 2035. This would expand Xcel’s 80% emissions reduction target to cover all state utilities, accelerate the target date from 2035, and make the target legally enforceable – in line with Biden administration efforts to implement an 80% by 2030 clean energy standard. Under this scenario battery storage would increase seven-fold over existing state targets, transmission capacity would double, and additional demand response capacity would increase grid flexibility and reliability.
Colorado is already targeting a 40% reduction in transportation emissions by 2030, which would add 940,000 light-duty electric vehicles on the road. The 1.5°C Scenario would go even further, primarily by requiring all new passenger car and SUV sales be electric by 2035 and all new freight truck sales be electric by 2045. These goals align with ambitious zero-emission light-duty vehicle goals adopted by 10 states as well as the multi-state agreement targeting zero-emission medium- and heavy-vehicles signed by 15 states (including Colorado) and the District of Columbia, would add nearly 1.5 million electric vehicles by 2030, and ensure most on-road vehicles are electric by 2050.
Buildings would be transitioned away from fossil fuels through increased efficiency targets for new buildings and deep efficiency retrofits of existing buildings, along with a sales standard requiring all new building equipment sales be fully electric by 2030 to shift gas heating and cooking equipment to highly efficient electric alternatives.
The state embarks on a years-long effort to protect people, main streets and budgets
Colorado’s state government has made a promise not to leave behind the more than 1,000 people directly impacted by coal closures — and the thousands more indirectly affected, like electricians, truck drivers, security workers and others who serve the mines and plants. It approved the Office of Just Transition in 2019 to help with retraining or relocating coal workers, or paying them to retire early. (The office plans to expand into oil and gas in coming years.)
But this project isn’t something many people in coal-mining areas are even aware of, according to interviews with workers around the state. In fact, it’s only now getting any real resources: a couple employees approved in the 2021-22 state budget; a possible $15 million in seed funding through HB21-1290; and an extra $5 million annually through HB21-1312’s proposed elimination of corporate tax breaks.
“We are not going to insulate the state from change. Let’s be very clear about that,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who works closely at the Capitol on energy policy. “This is not going to be, ‘Hey, we want everything to be like it was in 1975 and it’ll always be that way.’ We have to help communities reinvent themselves, find the next thing.”
“Still trying to get our arms around it”
Colorado currently has seven coal-fired power plants and six coal mines, the largest of which is West Elk in Somerset, just east of Paonia. By 2030, the state expects there will be just one unit of one coal-fired power plant left — Comanche 3 in Pueblo — and anywhere from one to three mines.
It’s Wade Buchanan’s job to oversee the Office of Just Transition and figure out, among other things, how many workers the state will need to help across the 11 counties that are most likely to see the impacts. The state has no working estimate for how many will be indirectly affected by the coming job losses.
Montrose, Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco, Morgan and Pueblo counties are the highest priority, and there are 1,129 coal workers in those places now, the state estimates. The second tier includes 562 people in Delta (home to the North Fork Valley), El Paso, Larimer, Gunnison and La Plata counties…
here’s real urgency in the counties seeing the decline. Take Rick McGaughey, who on May 7 shut down Hays Drug Store, a prominent feature of Paonia’s main drag. For the first time in 115 years, Paonia doesn’t have a pharmacy, and the owners aren’t sure where they fit in…
Unlike other coal towns, this one isn’t dying. Paonia’s housing market is hot as retirees, second-home owners and remote workers have moved in, driving up prices by double from a decade ago. There’s a vibrant agribusiness and tourism scene, with fruit orchards and wineries and ranching…
“This has killed my district”
A hot housing market means stable property tax revenues, but not every town has that. State Rep. Perry Will serves Moffat, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, north of Paonia, and has seen what happens when coal declines and new business and people don’t move in.
“This has killed my district,” the Republican said flatly. He has little hope where he lives for the kind of reinvigoration happening now in Paonia.
In some counties, the coal industry is the largest taxpayer among all residential and commercial plots. It accounts for nearly half of property tax revenues in Moffat County. The state estimates it will take nearly $3.2 billion in new commercial property value — 10 times the value of the Denver Broncos’ stadium — to replace the cumulative tax revenue losses in Colorado’s coal counties.
Other Republicans who mainly represent the affected areas initially scoffed at the idea of an Office of Just Transition, calling it an insult and rejecting that a renewable-energy transition was inevitable. Now they’re coming around, with Will and Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale sponsoring the funding bill. It’s the best available option and fighting the transition has proved pointless, they said.
The few left in the mining business want to stick around — people like Mike Ludlow, president of Oxbow Mining outside Paonia. He’s one of three workers at the shuttered Elk Creek Mine. There used to be 380.
It’ll take several years for those three to restore the former mine site to its original state before closing entirely. His colleague, Doug Smith, stood next to him outside of a large office on site that’s filled with a lot of empty space and photos of the old days…
“This is not a dodge”
For all the fears already realized and families displaced, Colorado is at the vanguard of a national “just transition” effort, which is gaining popularity among unions. Colorado’s is a first-of-its-kind project, said Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the AFL-CIO of Colorado and chair of the Just Transition Advisory Committee…
Much of the $15 million pending in the legislature would be put to stimulate economic transitions in local communities. House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar from Pueblo said Colorado needs to support those communities hiring people like Wade Buchanan to figure out their respective next thing. Rankin said it’s critical the state let the locals lead on that, not the other way around.
Spreading $15 million around the state won’t go far. Even the bill sponsors acknowledge that. A report released Dec. 31 by the state’s Just Transition Advisory Committee made no illusions about the state’s readiness, or lack thereof, to cure coal country.
The social cost of carbon is mentioned twice in the 196-page transportation bill that was introduced into the Colorado’s legislative session in early May. It’s not clear exactly how it will have any more effect than the 55-mph speed limit on one of the interstate highways through Denver. Likely, if this bill passes, it’s part of a bigger puzzle.
But the mention frames transportation differently than ever before in Colorado. Transportation always was about the balance between mobility and the ding to the public treasury, the taxes we pay. This adds a new metric to the discussion, a new dimension of costs.
I wouldn’t advise wading through the 107-word sentence in Senate Bill 21-260 where social cost of carbon is first mentioned. It’s not exactly the sort that Gabriel Garcia Marquez would craft. The gist is that our vehicles pollute, and the pollution has a social cost. It goes on to instruct the methodology of the social cost of carbon be employed, to get an assessment of the environmental costs over time and put into dollar figures. Alone, this does not alter Colorado’s path on transportation, but it does set a new tone.
More telling is “greenhouse,” a word that shows up 42 times in the bill along with 3 mentions of “ozone,” a component greenhouse gas and part of the unhealthy air found along the northern Front Range.
This is a climate bill. It has to be. Transportation will become the No.1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado as the big coal-fired power plants begin closing in 2022. Gina McCarthy, speaking at the recent 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium, called transportation the “big kahuna.” She was speaking from her federal perch as Biden’s climate advisor, but it’s also true in Colorado.
Colorado has taken steps to produce small waves in decarbonization of transportation. Now it needs a big wave, say those involved in transportation efforts, and this is it.
It’s also a congestion bill. I’m guessing I heard the word “congestion” used or alluded to a dozen times when Gov. Jared Polis, legislators, and several others spoke on the interior steps of the Capitol on May 4. Alec Garnett, the House speaker, talked about the ability to immediately tell you’re leaving Utah or Wyoming when entering Colorado. This bill provides for new funding sources that aim to deliver more asphalt and concrete.
The bill is also a compromise, as was best described by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a Republican. He talked about highway expansions he wants to see in Colorado Springs, the widening of Powers Boulevard and more. “These simply cannot be accomplished without a much greater infusion of state and federal dollars,” he said. Suthers, a former state attorney general in Colorado, also said he is a political realist—suggesting compromise is inevitable.
“Transportation can’t be a partisan issue. It’s too important to the quality of life of our residents in Colorado Springs,” he said.
Kevin Priola, a Republican state legislator from the Brighton area, also spoke on behalf of the bill. He’s been a big booster of transportation electrification in Colorado, showing up at a bill signing with Gov. Jared Polis in 2019 near East High School in Denver.
At the Capitol, he spoke about congestion on Interstate 76, now bumper to bumper instead of the occasional car that he saw from his grandfather’s farm when he was a boy. But highway widening cannot be the whole answer. “We can’t just continue to bulldoze mountains and widen lanes,” he said.
Most bills run 10 to 20 pages. This one runs to 196 pages. This is Longs Peak, not Rabbit Mountain outside of Lyons. Or, for those in Durango, Engineer Mountain instead of Perins Peak. It’s sweeping, with a little bit for everybody, most fundamentally new ways to collect revenue. But there’s a distinct shift in direction, a big pivot, if you will.
Are there comparable pivots? Others might point to funding changes of the last 30 years, including 1992, the last time Colorado passed a gas tax increase. A case may be made for 1973, the year when the first bore of the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel Complex was opened, followed by the second bore in 1978.
This is from the May 12, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal. To sign up, go to http://BigPivots.com
I’d make the argument for 1930. That’s the year that the state began plowing snow on Berthoud Pass, a clear recognition of the ascendancy of the automobile. Before, there was no way to drive across the Continental Divide during winter.
Now the pivot is toward electrification and, more broadly yet, decarbonization through a variety of pathways. And, in an odd reversal of my thesis about 1930, it opens the door partway to the idea of a Front Range passenger train. Carl Smith, representing the railway workers’ union, pointed out that rail workers losing their jobs on ferrying coal from mines to markets could transfer their skills to passenger rail.
Elise Jones, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, emphasized electrification of transportation. The bill proposes to put more than $730 million toward electric vehicle solutions. That, she said, represents “one of the biggest investments in transportation electrification by any state anywhere in the country.”
The bill, said Jones, recognizes the scale of the challenge as Colorado seeks to expand the number of electric vehicles – currently 36,000 on state highways – to nearly a million by the end of the decade.
“To support these new EVS, Colorado will need 111 times more charging stations by 2030, and this bill would put a significant down payment on that infrastructure,” she said.
Jones also noted the funding proposed by the bill for all types of electric mobility, from electric bikes and transit to school buses and trucks, but also rideshare vehicles like Uber and Lyft. “It includes money to replace the dirtiest vehicles on the road with zero-emissions buses and delivery trucks.”
Travis Madsen, who runs the transportation program at SWEEP, elaborated on this theme when I talked to him. “I think the bill is an essential piece of achieving Colorado’s climate targets,” he said.
“We need to step up the pace, and this bill will provide some needed juice to get this (transition) moving faster,” he said.
Madsen directed my attention beyond our cars to the fleets of trucks and delivery vehicles. Section 11 of the bill proposes a clean-fleet enterprise within the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment – the agency given the most significant responsibility for creating rules to decarbonize the economy – to provide incentives for the shift in fuels. This new clean-fleet enterprise will be allowed to “impose a delivery fee to be paid” by those getting the goods by delivery of motor vehicle. Nudge, nudge.
A personal aside here: I live on the edge of one of metropolitan Denver’s small but up-and-coming commercial areas. There’s a daily parade of diesel-powered trucks delivering wine, beer, fruits, and all other manner of items to be consumed in the restaurants of Olde Town Arvada. Moreover, I have wheeled around the warehouse districts along I-70 and I-76 on Denver’s east and north side. The size of the fleets of Amazon and others astound me.
But then there’s the issue of how we wheel about on a daily basis. In September 2020 the Denver Regional Council of Governments issued the 2019 Annual Report on Roadway Traffic Congestion in the Denver Region, which noted that vehicles miles traveled per capita had actually declined in 2019, a second straight year. On weekends, the VMT per person was down to 25.4 miles.
Of course, with population growth of 1.4%, there was just as much travel.
Some people seem to think covid will dent this, perhaps permanently. I’m skeptical.
This transportation bill aims to deliver leverage. Section 28 would require the Colorado Department of Transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (think RTD) to “engage in an enhanced level of planning, analysis, community engagement, and monitoring with respect to transportation capacity projects and specifies what that entails and also requires CDOT to conduct a road usage charge study and an autonomous vehicle study.”
To me, this doesn’t say I’ll have to ditch my car. But there’s some jostling here.
Madsen sees this as a crucial section, along with the AQCC rulemaking on transportation emissions that is expected this summer. “I think there’s going to be a lot of push and pull over whether and how Colorado invests in transportation differently to reach the GHG roadmap targets,” he says. He points out that the state roadmap calls for growth in vehicle travel to be cut in half.
In Denver itself, densification is rapidly underway. Some people don’t feel the need to have their own cars. “That will be an important way we can accommodate more people without causing a dramatic increase in everyone driving,” says Madsen.
I’m skeptical—not about the goals, but whether local governments can be nudged into making land use decisions that actually impact greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. I’ve been hearing this conversation for decades with no real gain.
A couple of weeks ago I drove to the western precincts of Arvada amid the rolling hills just short of Highway 93, the road between Golden and Boulder. These huge projects — Candelas and Leyden Ranch—have wonderful open spaces and uplifting views, exactly what people from elsewhere expect in Colorado. (If you don’t mind some wind occasionally).
These housing projects are also absolutely car centric. They’re VMT disasters. In this, they are more typical than not among the 40,000 to 50,000 houses being built in Colorado annually, the number of which have been going up during the last 4 or 5 years.
The bill got its first legislative hearing on [May 10, 2021], dragging on for 7.5 hours in the Senate Finance Committee before being passed, with amendments, on a 4-3 party-line vote. So much for Sutherland’s pitch for bipartisanship.
The social cost of carbon mention remained intact. Colorado first began using that metric as a result of 2019 legislation, which requires the Public Utilities Commission to evaluate electrical generation projects with the federal social cost of carbon, which was then $46 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions. This tilts the table against coal generation, although as a practical matter, the table is heavily tilted toward lower cost renewables. Two other bills being considered by legislators this session would also add social cost of carbon to the PUC matrix when evaluating programs that would reduce natural gas use in buildings and elsewhere.
But the practical effect of social cost of carbon in the transportation bill?
In response to my questions, Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, said the goal of the social cost of carbon is to provide “a consistent approach across relevant agencies. We are ensuring that we are doing cost benefit analyses and accounting using an appropriate social cost of carbon and making sure in multiple pieces of legislation that we use the same social cost of carbon at the PUC, C-DOT, CDPHE, etc.”
Madsen—who took Toor’s job at SWEEP when Toor joined the Polis administration in early 2019—said he thinks the practical effect will depend on a future rulemaking at the Air Quality Control Commission. That may occur later this year.
“The social cost of carbon will help illustrate the value of reducing emissions (either through transportation and land-use planning to reduce overall vehicle travel, or through electrification measures),” he said.
Have a different take on this transportation bill? Happy to publish other viewpoints. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s a gust column from Scott Fetchenhier that’s running in The Durango Herald:
State leaders need to take action to protect the places in Southwest Colorado that we know, love and call home from the pollution that threatens our air, water and climate.
I live in and represent San Juan County, where my constituents and I are reliant on Tri-State Generation and Transmission for our electricity. As the second largest electricity provider in the state, Tri-State is a key player in reducing greenhouse gas pollution in our state, which is why we need Senate Bill 200.
Our rural mountain communities are dependent on bold steps toward climate pollution reductions for our visitor-based, snow-reliant economies. We have seen the impacts of climate change in our county: unprecedented beetle kill, the 416 Fire in 2018 and the Ice Lake Fire in October 2020. Wind-blown dust from the Four Corners lands on our snowpack and causes the snow to melt off more quickly. We often see rain in December and March instead of snow because of higher temperatures.
We know that without big actions to reduce emissions, we will continue to see increasingly severe and frequent natural disasters.
With these impacts in mind, it’s great that Tri-State seems to have heard its members’ calls for carbon reductions of at least 80% by 2030. Last fall, Tri-State announced a commitment to 80% carbon reductions by 2030 from electricity delivered to Colorado customers as part of its Responsible Energy Plan. This Responsible Energy Plan is a big step in the right direction for Tri-State and the communities it serves, and we want to make sure it happens. However, the plan is currently only a voluntary commitment and my constituents need certainty that Tri-State will honor that commitment.
In fact, last fall San Juan County passed a county resolution urging state leaders to hold Tri-State accountable to 80% emissions reduction by 2030. Part of that resolution reads: “The evidence of climate change is impacting daily lives in San Juan County with near-historic drought, unprecedented smoke from fires across Colorado and the U.S., and rapidly increasing temperatures, and the urgency for our electric utility to take bold, immediate steps toward reducing emissions couldn’t be more clear.”
And we’re not the only ones. Four other communities in Tri-State’s service territory have also passed similar resolutions, including the Town of Telluride, Summit County, the Town of Rico and San Miguel County.
Southwest Colorado can better prepare to combat and be resilient to climate change if we know we can count on our power provider to reduce carbon emissions significantly in the next 10 years. I thank Tri-State for its voluntary commitment to 80% reductions by 2030 in response to its member communities’ advocacy, and I ask our state leaders to ensure that Tri-State gets there in a timely and equitable way that allows Coloradans to generate clean electricity locally rather than import coal from other states. SB-200 takes care of that.
Tri-State is one among several utilities and industries that we need to be able to count on to do their part to reduce emissions in Colorado. While I appreciate the efforts that state leaders have underway to reduce carbon emissions, the reality is that Colorado’s utilities are not on track to meet our climate goals. In fact, we are at risk of increasing climate pollution in Colorado in the coming years, especially with the volume of people predicted to be moving to our state in the next 20 years.
To successfully meet the state’s climate pollution targets, we need not only the incentives and rule-makings that state leaders are working on now, but also clear and enforceable targets in each sector of our economy, starting with electricity.
Our mountain communities need to be able to count on utilities like Tri-State to reduce emissions and there is language in SB 200 that will ensure just that. I urge Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Legislature to support SB 200 in order to keep us on track to cut greenhouse gas pollution and protect the communities we all love.
Scott Fetchenhier is a San Juan County Commissioner based in Silverton. He originally came to Silverton to work in the mines as both a geologist and laborer. He owns a gift shop in Silverton and has been in business almost 40 years.
Editor’s Note: Tri-State Generation and Transmission is the provider of most of the power for La Plata Electric Association, the co-op that serves many of our readers.
Sponsored by Senators Kerry Donovan and Cleave Simpson, this bill is focused on allocating $20 million from the general fund to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to be spent to implement the state water plan as follows:
$15 million, which is transferred to the water plan implementation cash fund for expenditures and grants administered by the CWCB to implement the state water plan; and
$5 million, which is transferred to the water supply reserve fund for CWCB to disperse to the basin roundtables.
Ensuring that Colorado can meet its future water needs is critical to maintaining our state as a competitive place to work, play, and live. Colorado has recently faced some of its worst drought years in the state’s history, and predictions are that the growing water demands will continue to strain our limited resources.
The Colorado Water Plan has been established as the state’s framework for solutions to preserve water values to support a productive economy, healthy agricultural sector, and robust recreation industry. But the bill’s sponsors say the state Water Plan is currently underfunded and needs investments to ensure the state’s long-term economy and protection of our natural resources.
How Colorado legislators propose to begin crimping methane emissions in the built environment
If methane were a guest at a dinner party in Colorado, it’d be noticing that the hosts have started checking their watches and begun to make comments about a busy schedule the next day.
SB 21-246 (Electric Utility Promote Beneficial Electrification), introduced last week by Senator Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, is the latest evidence from legislators that they want methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, to begin thinking about moving on. The bill is scheduled to get its first hearing Thursday afternoon at the Colorado Capitol.
Instead of burning natural gas and other fossil fuels in buildings to provide heat, warm water and for cooking, Fenberg’s bill would encourage use of electricity for those purposes. The process is being called beneficial electrification.
“Fossil gas and petroleum products will contribute to supplying Colorado’s energy needs for many years to come,” says the bill, submitted by Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder. “Nonetheless, transitioning to clean electric homes and businesses is a critical strategy for improving public health and safety, saving energy, creating family-sustaining jobs, and helping the state meet its greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets.”
The bill is premised on the expectation of a complete reversal during the next decade in how Colorado’s utilities generate electricity. In 2020, coal and natural gas were responsible for 78% of electrical production in Colorado, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. By 2030, utilities responsible for nearly all of electrical sales expect to be at 80% renewables. Some aspire to even higher levels. Holy Cross Energy has adopted a 100% goal.
That language echoes the Colorado Decarbonization Roadmap that was issued in January by the state’s energy office. Buildings lag electrical generation and transportation among the leading sectors for greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re not far behind. Importantly, we don’t replace buildings every 10 or 15 years, the way we do cars. That’s why those working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions see need to begin work now on fuel switching in homes and other buildings.
The roadmap envisions electricity denting use of natural gas in the next 30 years. Coupled with electrification of transportation and population growth, the increased demand will cause demand for electricity to double, according to a study by the consulting firm E3 that was commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office.
Colorado’s attention to methane comes after a decade of growing concern about methane, both nationally and internationally. The New York Times on Sunday previewed what it called a “landmark United Nations report” that reflects a “growing recognition that the world needs to start reining in planet-warming emissions more rapidly, and that abating methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, will be critical in the short term.
While cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions will remain urgent, “it’s going to be next to impossible to remove enough carbon dioxide to get any real benefits for the climate in the first half of the century,” Drew Shindell, the study’s lead author and a professor of earth science at Duke University (and a consultant on efforts to abate methane from coal mines in Colorado’s North Fork Valley), told the newspaper.
“But if we can make a big enough cut in methane in the next decade, we’ll see public health benefits within the decade, and climate benefits within two decades,” Shindell said.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To get copies, sign up at https://bigpivots.com
Fenberg’s bill is not nearly as ambitious as the coming UN report might suggest is needed. However, it’s bold in that it seeks to shift the direction by nudging gas utilities to offer more carrots to customers to nudge the shift along.
The primary lever for this shift would be adoption of a relatively new metric for evaluating the cost-effectiveness of demand-management programs, something called the social cost of methane. The new metric seeks to apply the real, long-term costs of greenhouse gas pollution to deliberations about utility programs.
In this it’s similar to the social cost of carbon, an attempt to evaluate the real costs of carbon dioxide pollution.
Methane pollution, though, has a much higher price that reflects its short-term heat-trapping properties, about 80 times as powerful over the course of the first two decades, after which it has mostly dissipated. The cost assigned is $1,746 per short ton. The social cost of carbon was set by statute in Colorado at $46. Both, however, are subject to inflation.
Fenberg’s bill falls short of mandating fuel switching. The bill explicitly prohibits the PUC from requiring the removal of gas-fueled appliances or equipment from existing structures or banning the installation of gas service lines to new structures.
Instead, the bill intends for the PUC to push the utilities to offer attractive programs to customers such that they will voluntarily use electricity in new construction or replace gas fixtures such as furnaces and water heaters in existing homes and other buildings.
Several other bills also seek to tamp down emissions of methane and the combustion of natural gas.
Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, has a bill—now being reformulated—that calls for a renewable natural gas standard, somewhat similar to that adopted by Colorado voters in 2004 for electrical generation. The intent of SB21-161 (Voluntary Reduce Greenhouse Gas Natural Gas Utility) is to encourage natural gas utilities with 250,000 customers or more to capture methane from dairies, landfills, and existing and abandoned coal mines in order to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.
HB 18-1286 (Energy Performance For Buildings) would require owners and managers of buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to benchmark energy use and comply with performance standards, tamping down greenhouse gas emissions.
Separately from the legislative agenda, both the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have adopted regulations in the last year that seek to crimp emissions of methane during extraction and transmission.
For the second time in less than a year, state health officials plan to ask lawmakers to fast-track permitting authority over hundreds of miles of streams left unprotected after a 2020 Trump Administration rollback of federal Clean Water Act rules.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s move comes just weeks after a federal court denied Colorado’s effort to prevent the new federal rules from taking effect.
The CDPHE is holding work group sessions and seeking public comment on a proposed bill that is likely to be introduced in the next two weeks, officials said. The CDPHE declined to comment for this article.
Last May Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and won a temporary injunction against the new rules, which would have taken effect in June 2020. But a federal appeals court overturned that decision last month.
As a result, the rules are set to take effect in Colorado April 23. Though many expect the Biden Administration to alter the new rules, once again, state health officials say an interim rule is needed to ensure the state has the permitting authority and the funds needed to protect streams.
Major water interests, such as the nonpartisan Colorado Water Congress, are closely watching the latest legislative effort.
Colorado Water Congress Executive Director Doug Kemper said right now there is too much uncertainty around which streams and which activities will be overseen by federal and state agencies.
“It’s a big deal right now because you don’t really know what activity is covered and what is exempted,” said Kemper. His group has not taken a position on the CDPHE’s initiative, in part because a formal bill has yet to be introduced.
Environmentalists said it’s important that the state moves quickly to assume the permitting authority to protect streams and to allow millions of dollars in construction, dam and road projects to be properly reviewed and permitted.
Industry groups, however, believe new legislation isn’t required right now because the state has some discretion to act already and because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees much of the work on federally protected streams, also has some discretionary authority to review and issue permits.
“We’re concerned that the focus is solely on legislative options,” said John Kolanz, an attorney who represents the Colorado Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. He believes the state could make changes to its own rules, rather than enacting a new law.
“We don’t think it’s advisable to rush through legislation and a complicated rulemaking by the end of the year,” Kolanz said during a public work group meeting hosted by the CDPHE Monday.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership who tracks water quality regulation, disagreed, saying the CDPHE must be given new legal authority quickly in order to adequately monitor and fund stream protection work over the next one to two years.
“The biggest part of this legislation is getting some fees so that the [Colorado Water Quality Control] division can do its job and go out and see what’s happening on the ground,” Kassen said Monday.
At issue is what’s known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. The rule was designed to classify which streams are subject to federal rules and which activities must obtain permits from the Army Corps to ensure those streams are protected even when they are disturbed by home and road building, construction of new storm water systems, and other activities.
But WOTUS has been contested in courts for years over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
It has also been difficult to administer because the U.S. is home to such a wide variety of waterways.
In the East and Midwest massive rivers are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new federal rule only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, are regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states are no longer protected under the law.
If the CDPHE’s new legislative effort succeeds, it would give state health officials the authority to issue so-called dredge-and-fill permits on stream segments no longer protected by the federal law.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Here’s a guest column from Don Coram that’s running in The Montrose Daily Press:
While the cat is away, the mice will play. That is exactly what is going on in the Colorado General Assembly. With all the COVID-19 issues from the last session, the executive branch and regulatory agencies had full control of Government. It appears the regulatory agencies are still trying to flex their muscles.
It has been that agencies used fiscal notes to gain favor or opposition using this analysis of the cost of enacting a bill. Last week I had SB 21-034 in the Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee. This bill was to have the conversation of funding for Colorado’s water future. To bring a little history to the subject, Gov. Hickenlooper directed in the spring of 2013 for the Colorado Water Conservation Board to create a plan for Colorado’s water future. When asked where, does the legislature and general public fit? The director of the Department of Natural Resources told us we did not. Under the leadership of former Sen. Ellen Roberts, she and I drafted legislation to bring the conversation to the designated river basins. Ironically, our largest meeting was in Durango. From those meetings, the Colorado Water Plan was written.
With all the information, the Colorado Water Plan has never been really implemented, because of no stable funding source. So, to start the conversation I drafted and introduced SB-034; it also sat on the shelf for two years prior to introduction. The measure would send to the voters in November of 2022 the question of creating a new enterprise to fund Colorado’s water future. The enterprise would combine the CWCB and the Water and Power Authority to provide grants to water issues, such as treated domestic water, gray water, infrastructure and projects among others.
Now to the source of my frustration. The fiscal note states that CWCB who already has a grant program for funds that are expended from dollars generated by severance tax would require 7.6 new employees and over $1.25 million to implement the first year and more than $1 million annually to continue. The entire ag committee was frustrated by the department’s position on the projected costs. Estimated cost to the average household was $1.59 per month, and annual revenue was in excess of $38.2 million. The bill failed on party line vote, but the message was sent.
SB 21-105 is another example of fiscal note jeopardy. With the passage of Amendment 114, reintroduction of the gray wolf, it stated that a plan for reintroduction shall be completed by Dec. 31, 2023. In addressing the Colorado Wildlife Commission, Gov. Polis seemed to give a strong desire to have wolves on the ground in early 2022. Let me make it perfectly clear, I am not challenging the vote of the people. I just want to ensure CPW does it as prescribed in Amendment 114. Side by side comparisons were shown except for the addition on chickens and alternative livestock. The Blue Book projected first year costs at $344,000 and second year costs at $467,000 Those must be some expensive chickens, because the fiscal note asks for $841,414 in the first year and one FTE and $1,003,945 and three FTE in the second year; $300,000 a year for a meeting facilitator; $600,000.00 to host meetings for two years. That seems to be better and less time consuming than this legislator gig. Once again committee members rail on such asinine projections. Final vote, it failed on a party line vote. There is no funding for the wolf reintroduction. So, tell me whose ox gets gored? Education, transportation, health and environment, department of corrections, governor’s office, or what?
On Saturday, March 20, 2021 Colorado may have had an air quality alert from all the meat that was grilled or served in restaurants throughout Colorado. The Governor’s meatless proclamation certainly had a ripple effect in perhaps setting the record for the most meat consumed in one day in Colorado. I don’t think that was the plan, but my gratitude for all those who stood with Colorado ranchers and farmers.
Colorado Water Legislator Webinar, March 30, 2021, Zoom, 8 – 8:45 am, Mountain Time, Free
This event will be tailored for Colorado legislators, but all members of the public are welcome to join.
Clean and reliable water supplies are essential to our ways of life in Colorado. All of us depend on healthy flowing rivers: agricultural producers, cities and towns, businesses, recreation, and the environment. 2021 is a key year for Colorado water. Up ahead are the update of the Colorado Water Plan, the beginning of the renegotiation around the Colorado River, deepening drought, wildfire impacts, and performance of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans, a temporary yet broad agreement to reduce water use and ensure that Lakes Powell and Mead continue to provide a reliable water supply. One thing is clear. We all play a role in sustaining Colorado’s water future. Join us in discussing its course.
Colorado’s fire-scarred mountainsides, small-town water districts, drought-stricken rivers and ranches, and the Colorado Water Plan will see a one-time cash infusion of $32 million to $75 million under a bipartisan stimulus program approved by Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado lawmakers last week.
The Colorado Recovery Plan, as it is known, sets out a $700 million spending plan that includes funds for transportation, education and small businesses, among others, and also includes:
+$10 million to $25 million for wildfire recovery and risk mitigation;
+$10 million to $20 million for projects identified under the Colorado Water Plan;
+$10 million to $25 million for mountain watershed restoration; and
+$2 million to $5 million for agricultural drought response.
In hard-hit cities such a Glenwood Springs, where last summer’s Grizzly Creek fire came close to destroying its mountain water system, the cash could help the city’s multi-million-dollar effort to rebuild its water treatment plant and other projects.
“The details aren’t clear yet,” said Glenwood Springs City Manager Debra Figueroa, “but we absolutely plan to look into it.”
For groups that have been working for years to establish a permanent source of funding for the Colorado Water Plan’s myriad projects and programs as well as stream and watershed restoration projects, the funding is expected to provide a much-needed boost.
“The good news is that this will reach projects all over the state,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director at Western Resource Advocates and member of the Water for Colorado Coalition. “I think it’s going to be money well spent. It’s one-time, but it’s going to have a big impact for the water plan and drought [mitigation].”
The Colorado Water Conservation Board oversees the water plan.
“We don’t yet have any plans in place to determine how the funding would impact our programs,” said spokesperson Sara Leonard. “Watershed funding is of course needed for post-fire mitigation needs, and we also look forward to working with the legislature on how funding can be put to the best use.”
The recovery plan also allocates millions of dollars for rural communities and the ranches and cattle operations that have struggled during the pandemic and persistent drought conditions.
“Agriculture has been hard hit by the drought, and we do need more money for water projects,” said Gene Manuello, an Eastern Plains rancher near Sterling.
But Manuello said the sprawling spending plan raised questions in his mind about whether the state was spending money too freely.
“I’m a Republican and I am, in general, not in favor of these kinds of government stimulus programs,” he said.
The $700 million recovery program is being funded by a better-than-expected recovery in state tax revenue collections. Last year as the pandemic swept the country, shutting down businesses and government offices, Colorado slashed $3.3 billion from the state budget, anticipating that it would take several years before tax revenues recovered enough to restore state spending.
But the turnaround came faster than expected, allowing lawmakers and the governor to jump-start infrastructure work and job creation in order to help the state recover faster.
Western Resource Advocates’ Miller said the $32 million to $75 million will be useful for dozens of groups and communities.
“I’m very encouraged,” Miller said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s a guest column from John Stulp that’s running in the Sterling Journal-Advocate:
The proposed “Voluntary Soil Health Program,” (HB21-1181), would empower the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) to develop voluntary, incentivized programs for Colorado farmer and ranchers that will support the vitality of agriculture statewide. This bipartisan legislation, HB21-1181, was introduced by State Reps. Karen McCormick (D-Longmont) and Perry Will (R-New Castle),and State Sen. Cleave Simpson (R-Alamosa).
As a longtime farmer and rancher involved with the Prowers Conservation District and who cares about Colorado agriculture and rural communities, I fully support this legislation and encourage others to study and support it as well.
No sector of our economy is more vulnerable to the unpredictable economic climate, weather extremes including drought, dwindling water supplies, and development pressures. These constraints have and are likely to become more extreme, and HB21-1181 can help Colorado farmers and ranchers continue their long legacy of land and soil stewardship that have helped them withstand these pressures to date.
The experience of farmers and ranchers in Colorado and nationwide – and research by CSU scientists – shows that adopting best soil health practices can reduce input costs and at the same time improve soil productivity, drought resilience and, ultimately, increase long-term viability. For these reasons, farmers and ranchers are increasingly adopting best management practices. From 2012 to 2017 in Colorado: No-till acreage increased 5.0%; reduced till acreage increased 38.4%; and traditional “intensive tillage” land management decreased by 21.3%. Over half of the 12,407 Colorado livestock operations practiced adaptive grazing management in 2017.
Nonetheless, farmers and ranchers face barriers to adopting soil health practices. Investing in soil health means upfront costs, but long-term benefits. Additional funding, technical assistance and educational opportunities are needed. Colorado conservation districts have a great history of soil stewardship, but they often have insufficient resources to meet farmers and ranchers needs. Likewise, USDA NRCS programs are competitive and do not fully meet farmers and ranchers needs.
HB21-1181 would help fill those gaps. The voluntary soil health program would complement USDA NRCS programs and help farmers and ranchers better access those resources. The USDA is indicating that soil health is a high priority, and this legislation will position Colorado to better access those federal resources. It would also provide additional resources to conservation districts and counties who want to work with producers on soil health. Programs would also help farmers and ranchers enter established, as well as new and emerging, markets for alternative crops and crops grown using best soil health practices.
HB21-1181 is the result of a multi-year stakeholder process involving Colorado farmers, ranchers, producer groups, scientists, and conservation districts. This bill explicitly prohibits CDA from implementing any type of program that is mandatory or involuntary. To ensure that new programming works for farmers and ranchers, the bill establishes a state soil health advisory committee to develop voluntary and incentives-based programs based on the needs of the agricultural community. These include a grant program, a reduced cost soil health testing program, and other programs supported by the agricultural community.
Most of Colorado land — 51.8 million acres, or 78% — is used for some form of agricultural production. This bill will help keep that land in agriculture. The benefits of these programs will not only go to farmers and ranchers but will have a positive impact on our rural communities and be enjoyed for generations to come. Healthy soil is one of the most practical and available tools for farmers and ranchers to enhance their long-term viability. HB21-1181 will help ensure that resources are available to every Colorado farmer and rancher, regardless of size, who wants to improve their soil health.
I urge everyone who is concerned about the future of Colorado’s agriculture and rural communities to contact your representative and senator in the Colorado General Assembly and encourage them to support this common-sense legislation.
John Stulp is the former Commissioner of Agriculture under Governor Bill Ritter, Water Policy Advisor to Governor John Hickenlooper and a wheat and cattle farmer/rancher in Prowers County.
Here’s the release from Water For Colorado (Ayla Besemer):
The Water for Colorado coalition today lauded Governor Jared Polis’ and the Legislature’s inclusion of up to $50 million in Colorado’s stimulus package for water-specific projects, including watershed restoration, drought recovery and management, and additional support for projects outlined in the state’s water plan. The stimulus funds will invest in communities and put people to work while supporting Colorado’s water security, healthy rivers, and watersheds.
The package includes a one-time allocation of $10 million to $20 million for the completion of projects helping to meet Colorado’s current and future river health and water supply needs, examples of which can be found here. An additional $10 million to $25 million is allocated to watershed restoration following the devastating 2020 wildfire season. These types of projects help prevent runoff in previously burned areas, keeping drinking water supplies and wildlife habitat safe, while creating jobs. Additionally, $2 million to $5 million will be directed specifically toward farmers and ranchers to assist in drought response and preparation, as 99% of the state grapples with drought conditions unlikely to be rectified by winter snowpack.
In response to the release of The Colorado Recovery Plan and its prioritization of water funding, the Water for Colorado coalition issued the following statement:
“We are encouraged to see that statewide water and river projects, watershed health, and drought response are priorities in Colorado’s stimulus package. By elevating water priorities and funding, Governor Polis and House and Senate leaders follow the consistent will of voters across Colorado and emphasize the importance of investing in water as part of Colorado’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. With this crucial influx of state funding, we will also be better equipped to continue working together to increase resilience to a changing climate. We look forward to working with the Legislature and governor to maximize the amount and impact of these dollars.”
About the Water for Colorado Coalition
The Water for Colorado coalition is a group of nine organizations dedicated to ensuring our rivers support everyone who depends on them, working toward resilience to climate change, planning for sustained and more severe droughts, and enabling every individual in Colorado to have a voice and the opportunity to take action to advocate for sustainable conservation-based solutions for our state’s water future. The community of organizations that make up the Water for Colorado Coalition represent diverse perspectives and share a commitment to protecting Colorado’s water future to secure a reliable water supply for the state and for future generations.
Top Democratic and Republican state lawmakers on Wednesday joined Gov. Jared Polis to unveil the broad strokes of a roughly $700 million state economic stimulus plan, most of which is set to go to “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, including repairs to the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels and Interstate 70 bridges
The shovel-ready projects will total $170 million, or about a quarter of all the spending. Hundreds of millions more is set to be spent on other, longer term infrastructure projects, like expanding broadband access and revitalizing main streets in Colorado cities and towns.
The remainder of the spending includes initiatives to invest in rural Colorado, support the recovery of small businesses, workforce training and development, affordable housing development and mental health. There’s also money for child care and support for schools and students…
The announcement comes as President Joe Biden is expected to sign a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus plan, which Congress approved Wednesday. State leaders were awaiting the details of that aid package — which includes billions of dollars for child care, education, unemployment and other needs in Colorado — before finalizing their own spending plan…
The money Colorado lawmakers are using to pay for the state stimulus plan comes from unexpected tax revenue.
The legislature slashed the state’s budget last year by about $3.5 billion in anticipation of an economic downtown because of the coronavirus pandemic. While there was a downturn, the economy has fared better than expected, leaving the General Assembly with more than $1 billion to allocate…
Under the stimulus plan, up to $131 million would go toward boosting agriculture and rural communities, including $20 million to $35 million in competitive grants for rural agriculture infrastructure investments and millions toward forest and watershed restoration projects to protect communities against wildfire.
Other spending priorities include:
$30 million on projects to revitalize community main streets
$60 million to $80 million in matching funds for downtown revitalization efforts and to create more affordable housing options in urban areas
$50 million to $75 million to expand broadband internet access
$30 million to $40 million for existing clean energy programs
Small business support
$40 million to $50 million in sales tax relief for small restaurants and bars
$20 million to $30 million toward lending institutions that cater to “historically underserved” entrepreneurs
$10 million to $15 million in one-time grants to small businesses, with a priority for rural, women, minority and veteran-owned businesses
Community and school support
$10 million to $15 million to rent, lease or buy hotel rooms for unhoused individuals
$8 million to $10 million in seed funding for a program to incentivize local governments to adopt affordable housing development policies
$5 million to $10 million to support child care businesses
$8 million to $9 million for mental health screenings in schools
$10 million to $25 million for forest restoration and wildfire recovery projects and another $10 million to $25 million toward watershed restoration grants
$10 million to $15 million to create new job opportunities as part of the transition away from coal
$15 million to $25 million in grants to local workforce boards
$10 million to $15 million to help provide scholarships for people with some college but no degree
Each proposal will come in the form of an individual bill. That legislation has yet to be released, so the details remain unclear.
Fenberg said he expects stimulus measures to start being introduced in a matter of weeks. Polis is pressuring the legislature to act quickly so that Colorado’s economic revival can begin as soon as possible. He wants the stimulus money to be spent in the next 18 months.
Colorado lawmakers are considering three major water bills that would help finance wildfire mitigation and forest health projects, study underground water storage for future beneficial use, and create a state enterprise to fund drinking and wastewater projects through fees paid by water utility customers.
Wildfire mitigation and forest health
Last year was Colorado’s worst wildfire season ever. The three largest fires on record burned over 600,000 acres. Water providers fear that spring runoff will clog streams and reservoirs with ash and sediment, damaging clean water supplies.
House Bill 1008 is sponsored by Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose. (Editor’s note: Rep. Arndt is a board member of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News). HB21-1008 (Forest Health Project Financing) aims to help fund local wildfire mitigation and forest health efforts to protect watersheds. It would allow counties, municipalities and special districts to band together and form special improvement districts empowered to levy property taxes to fund wildfire mitigation and forest health projects. It would also make those improvement districts eligible for $50 million from a Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWRPDA) bond program, and expand the program’s life by 10 years to last through 2033.
Arndt said districts would be formed voluntarily and noted that any property tax assessments would require voter approval. “The Colorado way,” she said, “opt in.” Catlin, the bill’s co-sponsor, agreed. “This is an opportunity for communities to take some preemptive steps and, if needed, be able to bond through the state to get help and make the payments to take care of the problem.” Keith McLaughlin, CWRPDA executive director, emphasized that “every $1 in fire mitigation efforts saves between $3 and $6 in fire suppression costs.”
The House Agriculture, Livestock, & Water Committee passed the bill unanimously to the House Finance Committee Feb. 22. It will be heard there on March 4.
Underground water storage
Concern with declining water tables and the volume of water leaving the state in excess of compact requirements led Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, a rancher and dryland farmer, to introduce HB21-1043 Study Underground Water Storage Maximum Beneficial Use. The bill would require the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to contract with a state university to study ways to maximize beneficial use of water by storing excess surface flows in aquifers for future use. The study would identify aquifers with storage capacity, funds to pay for storage, specific storage projects, and proposed legislation to implement its recommendations. It would be due to the interim Water Resources Review Committee by Aug. 1, 2022.
While acknowledging the value of underground water storage, some House Agriculture, Livestock, & Water Committee members questioned the need for the study since several similar studies had already been done and at least two large water providers—Denver and Greeley—are already storing water underground. There were also concerns about who would have rights to excess surface flows. Rep. Arndt, committee chair, asked, “Who would get those rights…you can’t just capture excess water?” Rep. Holtorf replied that whoever’s next in line when it reenters the river would gain use to the water; nothing changes the prior appropriation doctrine.
Rep. Holtorf concluded, “I’m not going to say it’s not complicated, but at the end of the day we’ve got to do something to get maximum beneficial use of water that we give away and try to keep it in our state for the beneficial use of everyone.” He had the backing of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Water Congress and Colorado Groundwater Association. The committee passed the bill 9-1 to the House Finance Committee.
Financing water projects
The Colorado Water Plan, adopted in 2015, projects a need to spend an additional $100 million a year for 30 years in state money to fully fund water projects and activities to meet its objectives. Funding to date has come nowhere near that figure, but a bill introduced this session will try to put a dent in it.
SB21-034 (Water Resource Financing Enterprise), sponsored by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, would create the Water Resources Financing Enterprise made up of both the CWRPDA and CWCB board of directors. The new enterprise would provide grants and loans for drinking water, wastewater treatment, and raw water delivery projects. The enterprise could issue revenue bonds to be repaid from fees assessed on drinking water customers of 25 cents per 1,000 gallons of water delivered each month in excess of the first 4,000 gallons. SB21-034 would generate roughly $37 million annually. If passed, it would go on the November 2022 ballot as a legislatively referred measure for approval by voters statewide.
The bill is similar to legislation Sen. Coram introduced last year. That bill was defeated in committee with assurances that it would be studied in greater detail by the interim Water Resources Review Committee. The pandemic, however, wiped out all interim studies. SB21-034 has been assigned to the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee and is scheduled to be heard on March 4.
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.
Cap-and-trade proposed as market mechanism to slash carbon emissions. Air quality commission says not now.
Curtis Rueter works for Noble Energy, one of Colorado’s major oil and gas producers, and is a Republican. That makes him a political minority among the members of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, of which he is chairman.
In his voting, Rueter, who lives in Westminster, tends a bit more conservative than his fellow commission members from Boulder County. But on the issue of whether to move forward with a process that could have yielded carbon pricing in Colorado, he expressed some sympathy.
“I am generally in favor of market-based mechanisms, so it’s a little hard to walk away from that,” he said. at the commission’s meeting on Feb. 19. But like nearly all the others on the commission, Rueter said he was persuaded that there were just too many fundamental questions about cap-and-trade system for the AQCC to embrace at this time. Only Boulder County’s Jana Milford dissented in the 7-1 vote. Even Elise Jones, until recently a Boulder County commissioner, voted no.
Just as important as the final vote may have been the advance testimony. It broke down largely along environmental vs. business lines.
Western Resource Advocates, Boulder County, and Colorado Communities for a Climate Action testified in favor of the cap-and-trade proposal.
From the business side came opposition from Xcel Energy, The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and allied chambers from Grand Junction to Fort Collins to Aurora, and, in a 7-page letter, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Most businesses echoed what Gov. Jared Polis said in a letter: “While a carbon pricing program may be one of many tools that should be considered in the future as part of state efforts to achieve our goals, our assessment of state level cap and trade programs implemented in other jurisdictions is that they are costly to administer, exceptionally complicated, risk shifting more pollution to communities that already bear the brunt of poor environmental quality, have high risk for unintended consequences, and are not as effective at driving actual emissions reductions as more targeted, sector-specific efforts,” Polis wrote.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
The cap-and-trade proposal came from the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF has been saying for a year that Colorado has been moving too slowly to decarbonize following the 2019 passage of the landmark SB-1261. The law requires 50% decarbonization by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
What does a 50% reduction look like over the course of the next 9 years? Think in terms of ski slopes, and not the dark blue of intermediates or even the ego-boosting single-black-diamond runs at Vail or Snowmass. Not even the mogul-laden Outhouse at Winter Park or Senior’s at Telluride.
Instead, think of the serious steeps of Silverton Mountain, where an avalanche beacon is de rigueur.
Can Colorado, a novice at carbon reduction, navigate down this Silverton Mountain-type carbon reduction slope by 2030?
Colorado, says EDF and Western Resource Advocates, needs a backstop, a more sweeping mechanism to ensure the state hits these carbon reduction goals.
California has had cap-and-trade for years, and a similar device has been used among New England states to nudge reductions from the power sector. The European Union also has cap-and-trade.
Following the May 2019 signing of Colorado’s carbon-reduction law, H.B. 19-1261, the Polis administration set out to create an emissions inventory, then began structuring a sector-by-sector approach. For example, the Air Quality Control Commission has conducted lengthy rule-making processes leading up to adoption of regulations in several areas.
Hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used in refrigeration, are being tamped down. Emissions from the oil-and gas-sector are being squeezed. The commission this year will direct its attention to proposed rules that result in fewer emissions from transportation.
Meanwhile, the state has set out to hurry along the state’s electrical utilities from their coal-based foundations to renewables and a small amount of new gas. The utilities representing 99% of the state’s electrical sales have agreed to reduce emissions 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. Only one of those commitments, that of Xcel Energy, has the force of law. Others fall under the heading of clean energy plans. But state officials think that utilities likely will decarbonize electricity even more rapidly than their current commitments. That 80% is a bottom, not a top.
Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office, presented to the Air Quality Control Commission an update on the state’s roadmap. The document released in mid-January runs 276 pages, but Toor boiled it down to 19 slides, which nonetheless took him 60 minutes to explain. It was a rich explanation.
Toor explained that Colorado needs to reduce emissions by 70 million tons annually. The Polis administration thinks it can achieve close to half of the reductions it needs to meet its 2030 target by 2030 through the retirement of coal plants and associated coal mines. Those reductions alone will yield 32.3 million tons annually.
The oil and gas sector should yield a reduction of 13 million tons, according to the state’s roadmap. That process had taken a step forward the previous day when the Air Quality Control Commission adopted regulations that tighten the requirements to minimize emissions from pneumatic controllers. Later this year, the AQCC will take up more proposed regulations.
Replacement of internal-combustion technology in transportation will yield 13 million tons. The Polis administration foresees deep reductions in transportation, partly through an incentives-based approach, even if not it’s not clear what all the components of the strategy look like.
Near-term actions in buildings, both residential and commercial, and in industrial fuel use can yield another 5 million tons annual reduction.
Waste reduction—methane from coal mines, landfills, sewage treatment plants, and improved recycling—will nick another 7.5 million tons annually More speculative are the strategies designed to reduce emission from natural and working lands by 1 million tons.
Add it all up and the state still doesn’t know how it will get all of the way to the 2030 target, let alone its 2050 goal of 90% reduction. Toor and other state officials, however, have expressed confidence that the roadmap can get Colorado far down the road to the decarbonization destination and is skeptical that cap-and-trade will.
“I would agree with the characterization that cap-and-trade guarantees emissions reductions,” said Toor. In the real world, he explains, those regimes struggle to achieve reductions particularly in sectors such as transportation where there are many decisions. The more demonstrable achievement has been in producing revenue to be used for reduction strategies.
“I don’t know that the record supports that they guarantee a true pathway toward reductions of emissions.”
In contrast, the roadmap has identified “highly enforceable strategies” to achieve reduction of 58 to 59 million of the 70 million tons needed by 2030, he said.
Some actions depend upon new legislation, perhaps this year and in succeeding years.
In the building sector, for example, the Polis administration sees “very interesting opportunities” with a bill being introduced into the legislature this year that would give gas-distribution companies targets in carbon reduction while working with their customers. See, “Colorado’s legislative climate & energy landscape.”
“This isn’t something that we are going to solve through just this year’s legislative session and this and next year’s regulatory actions,” said Toor. He cited many potential pathways, including hydrogen, but also, beyond 2030, the potential for cost-effective carbon capture and sequestration.
Later in the day, Pam Kiely and Thomas Bloomfield made the Environmental Defense Fund’s case for cap and trade. They described a more significant gap between known actions and the targets, a greater uncertainty about hitting the targets that they argued would best be addressed by giving power and other economic sectors allocation of allowances, which can then best be moved around to achieve reductions in cost-effective ways.
One example of cap-and-trade actually involves Colorado. The project is at Somerset, where several funding sources were pooled to pay for harnessing of methane emissions from the Elk Creek Mine to produce electricity. The Aspen Skiing Co. paid a premium for the electricity, and Holy Cross Energy added financial incentives. But a portion of the money that has gone to the developer, Vessels Coal Gas Co., is money from California’s cap-and-trade market
Kiely said Colorado’s 2019 law directed the Air Quality Control Commission to consider the greatest and most cost-effective emissions reductions available through program design. That, she said, was explicit authority for creating a cap-and-trade program.
“We think it’s a relatively light (legal) lift,” said Bloomfield. “You have authority to charge for those emissions.”
Further, Kiely said, cap-and-trade will most effectively achieve reductions in emissions and will do so faster than the state’s current approach. It will deliver a consistent economic signal and be the most adaptable. “The program does not have to predict where the optimal reduction opportunities will be a year from now without information about the relative cost of pollution control technologies, turnover rates in vehicles and other key uncertainties,” she said.
Then the questions came in. Kiely rebutted Toor’s charge of ineffectiveness. The most telling criticism of the California program was that the price was too low, she said.
What defeated the proposal—at least for now—were questions about its legality. Colorado’s Tabor limits revenues, and commission members were mostly of the opinion that their authority revenue-raising authority needed to be explored in depth.
Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, said that doing the work to rev up for a cap-and-trade program would require a “massive increase in the division’s staff,” north of 40 to 50 new employees, and the division does not have state funding.
He and others also contended that pursuing cap-and-trade would siphon work from the existing roadmap.
Then there was the sentiment that for a program of this size, the commission really did need direct legislative authority.
Commissioner Martha Rudolph said that in her prior position as director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, she had favored cap-and-trade. Not now, because of the legal, resource, and timing issues.
Elise Jones, the former Boulder County commissioner, voted no, but not without stressing the need to keep the conversation going, which is what will happen in a subcommittee meeting within the next few years.
“This is not now, not never,” said Rueter of the vote. This is conversation that will come up again, maybe at the federal level or maybe in Colorado a few years down the road.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):
The leading Republican in the Colorado House says it’s about time that pumped hydroelectric power plants are considered recycled energy that counts under the state’s renewable energy standard.
One of the reasons why it isn’t already counted as a renewable energy is because, unlike conventional hydroelectric power plants, pumped hydro requires additional power to move water uphill to an upper reservoir so that it can flow downhill to a lower reservoir through a turbine to generate electricity.
House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, told the House Energy & Environment Committee on Wednesday the technology now exists to do that either with traditional renewable energy or at least to make it all work carbon neutral…
McKean said that most pumped hydroelectric plants don’t generate nearly as much electricity as those fossil fuel plants, but they often are used to help keep power costs to consumers down during peak usage times.
The beauty of them is they can augment power during peak times when costs are higher, thus reducing those costs, and use less expensive electricity to pump the water back uphill during non-peak times, such as late at night, he said…
McKean also said the pumped hydroelectric plants don’t require a lot of energy to pump that water uphill, adding that it can be done in a number of ways, including through stored power from solar, wind or rechargeable batteries.
The measure, HB21-1052, which the committee discussed but hasn’t yet voted on, has support from several rural electric associations, the Colorado Farm Bureau and some environmental groups, such as Trout Unlimited, but only if the bill is amended to ensure guardrails are in place to protect aquatic life from being harmed, something McKean said he plans to do…
Currently, there are only five hydroelectric pump storage stations operating in the state, all of which are located on the Front Range or Eastern Plains, according to a database maintained by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That agency also lists 64 conventional hydroelectric plants operating in Colorado, including many on the Western Slope.
Carrots or sticks—or, more likely, what mixture? That will be among the questions as Colorado legislators sort through several dozen bills during the next few months that seek to build on the state’s ground-breaking energy and climate laws from 2019.
Foremost among the 13 energy and climate laws of that session was H.B.19-1261, the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution. The law specified economy-wide carbon reduction targets of 26% by 2025 and 50% by 2030, with even deeper mid-century reduction.
The 2019 session provided only a partially defined pathway to reduction. The legislative session that begins today after a month-long semi-hiatus looks to be a big, big year for expanding the tool kit and defining more explicitly the decarbonization path. Some describe it as the session that will be known for beneficial electrification.
“We have obviously done a lot as a state when it comes to climate and energy issues in just the last two years,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg at a forum last week sponsored by Empowering Our Future. “But we all know it’s nowhere near what we need to be doing.”
Fenberg urged the 200 energy-change advocates on the video-conferenced town hall to use the accomplishments as inspiration even though, later in the evening, he cautioned against expecting a ban on new natural gas hookups in the built environment.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http:bigpivots.com
One giant gain in the last two years has been the rash of announced closings of coal plants. If market forces were already aligned behind those closings, some believe Colorado’s action in 2019 hastened at least some of those announcements. The result of closing coal plants will be a dramatically decarbonized electrical supply by the end of the decade that can then be used to decarbonize other sectors, most notably transportation and the built environment.
Legislators, of course, are facing pressures from several sides. Major utilities generally want to go slower, to maintain traditional models of profit, worried about too much disruption.
Environmental advocates want to go faster and have a strong appetite for massive change. “I think it’s alarming to think that we didn’t get to 26% (carbon reduction, as targeted by the law two years ago) even at the height of the stay-at-home orders,” says Jan Rose, an advocate aligned with several organizations.
Memories of wildfires, even in the coldest, sub-zero days of winter, will provide a backdrop for the session. The smoke was awful but also deadly. In Larimer County, heart attacks and other emergencies spiked during the season of smoke, which there began in mid-August with the outbreak of the Cameron Peak Fire and never completely ended until after the first snows of November.
“I think this last summer was a real wakeup call for a lot of people—and a lot of lawmakers—about what is at stake here and what it will take for us to solve this problem. I have never experienced anything like the physical and emotional turmoil we saw related to our failure so far to get our climate emissions under control,” she says.
“I think there’s a real sense of urgency. We passed some incredible pieces of legislation in 2019, and we made some progress, but we haven’t made nearly enough.”
Mike Kruger, chief executive of Colorado Solar and Storage Association, also points to this heightened sense of urgency. The goal of 50% decarbonization is less than 9 years away. That goal was premised on the best science available about the reductions that will be needed.
“We can’t just bargain our way to a couple of extra years,” says Kruger. “We need to address things now.”
State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from Arvada, warns against moving forward in ways that fail to have a sustainable foundation. She describes broad coalitions that define common ground. “That is what is going to make your policies have staying power. That is what will make them work,” says Zenzinger, a self-described moderate who nonetheless has notched a 100% voting record rating from Conservation Colorado during the last four years.
Big Pivots has identified several dozen proposals likely to be introduced by legislators this week and in coming weeks. Some will be reintroductions of bills that were shelved last year because of the covid-induced shortened session, or even bills introduced repeatedly, if in variant fashion. Others will be entirely new.
The two biggest energy and climate bills will center around transportation and building emissions.
“This legislation session will be very focused on progress in both the built environment and transportation to ensure that we are extending the benefit of the (greening) of electricity and start making progress in other sectors that are lagging behind the power sector,” says Zach Pierce, the special climate and energy advisor to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Transportation has replaced electrical generation as the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado. In his first executive order as governor in 2019 Polis specified a goal of having 940,000 electric vehicles on roads by 2030. Legislation in 2019 provided tools to advance that. But Colorado needs to hurry harder on transportation decarbonization.
Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster, has not revealed details of the big bill that she is said to have been working on. The transportation bill needs to cover a lot of ground. Colorado’s funding for transportation has fallen short for many years as voters have resisted raising the gas tax (or, if you prefer, the “fee” on gasoline). Now, with electric cars starting to rapidly enter the automotive fleet, there’s a further complication about how to make them pay their way.
As Sen. Winter was unable to make a scheduled interview for this story last Friday, my details on this bill are sketchy and second- or third-hand.
There is no doubt that Colorado’s funding for transportation needs an overhaul. And transportation must change if Colorado is to meet its decarbonization goals built on the foundation of climate science.
What I hear is that this bill will try to address the need for revenue from both electric vehicles, or EVs, and internal-combustion engines, or ICEs. How it will do so is unclear. One way may be through increased registration fees. Another thought is to add a fee for electricity used for charging EVs. Still another idea is to apply a road use fee, not a fuel fee. I’m unsure of the mechanics of that, although it’s been talked about for about 30 years.
“We want a tool that keeps up with the times,” says Ariana Gonzalez, Colorado policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
NRDC wants to see legislation that looks at transportation more holistically, she says, “not penalizing people who travel a lot but providing them more options, whether it’s more fuel-efficient vehicles or more mass transit.”
What does this mean specifically? Well, the Gonzalez interview was conducted in the first week of February, and details were sparse. Others interviewed for this story were similarly short on details except to point out that anti-tax (or fee) opponents still have powerful influence in Colorado. And Polis, in a public interview, conspicuously refrained from talking about either taxes or fees.
A carbon-reduction component, however, has to be a central piece of what Winter proposes. Transportation funding identified in the bill must align with the emissions reductions the governor’s roadmap has identified, says Katie Belgard, of Conservation Colorado.
Land use may be part of the discussion, as dispersed settlement tends to result in more transportation. It was discussed in the state’s decarbonization roadmap release in mid-January.
State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, says the transportation bill must deliver “broad-based solutions where each part of the transportation user groups all need to be involved in the solutions.” That package must involve trucks and heavy-duty vehicles, he added.
The Air Quality Control Commission is scheduled to take up transportation this summer as part of its rule-making to achieve decarbonization goals. You can be assured this legislative session will almost certainly produce a big pivot in transportation.
Building emissions will be the focus of a second big bill. Buildings rank fourth in Colorado in responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. They pose an enormous challenge because the turnover rate is so terribly slow. Most of Colorado’s coal-burning plants were constructed from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Now, they’re rapidly being retired. But you can drive from Pueblo to Brush to Craig in a day and see them all. In contrast, Colorado has perhaps a million buildings, give or take, each with its own small power plant, mostly natural gas furnaces for space heating, gas-powered hot water heaters, and gas stoves.
How to tamp down the combustion of natural gas? The intuitive answer might be to stop building tens of thousands more houses each year that require natural gas. That doesn’t seem to be the direction Colorado is headed, at least not soon.
Polis favors incentives, not mandates, and that was also the language of Fenberg at the Empowering our Future session. He would not, he said, be calling for a ban on natural gas.
“For a few reasons,” he went on to explain. “One, I am not sure the bill would pass, and if it is really about transitioning people’s homes to electricity I want a bill that passes. He also suggested that focusing solely on future buildings without considering how to retrofit existing buildings was misguided. Too, a lot of people like to cook with natural gas, even if they don’t care particularly how their homes are heated.”
It is, he added, an item for “further policy discussion. The goal now is to get as many dollars into homes for heat pumps and other decarbonization techniques.”
In other words, incentives, not mandates.
For example, the Polis budget includes $40 million for clean-energy financial programs, including $30 million for green banking, and another $10 million for various other programs.
Even so, there could be a soft mandate. One approach that was being talked about in recent weeks was a performance-based standard for natural gas utilities, a required reduction in emissions from the natural gas sold to consumers by Colorado’s four natural gas utilities, Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos Energy, and Colorado Natural Gas. But then let the utilities figure out how to achieve this.
Also part of the discussion are required energy efficiency upgrades, or demand-side management. Talk of a carbon tax on methane, similar to the PUC’s social cost of carbon, may have been walked back. I hear that from a good source, but I don’t know that for sure. This has been a fluid environment even in the last two weeks. “Lots of stake-holding going on,” a legislator said at a recent meeting.
There will be themes, though. One is about equity. Legislators in 2019 made it clear that equity needed to be part of the conversations as they applied pressure to create this big pivot in Colorado’s energy foundation. Those of lower incomes, which tend to be racial minorities, need to benefit from this transition. This will be part of the conversation in regard to transportation and other bills, too.
Energy Outreach Colorado has been monitoring the conversation about proposed bills with an interest in how well they affect energy affordability, reliability, and accessibility. “There is a lot of transition happening in the energy space, which is exciting, but that speed of transition can often leave people behind when they are not considered upfront,” says Jennifer Gremmert, executive director .
“I think the aggressive goals the state has will require a lot of shifts in generation, transportation and buildings,” she says. “I think there are a lot of very smart people pulling together good solutions, and we’re looking forward to the process of debate and consideration.”
Another element running through many of the energy and climate bills will be the role of evolving technologies. There’s much talk about hydrogen, for example, but also battery storage. What mix of carrots and sticks will be needed to help induce technological innovation and adoption while remaining agnostic about what the solutions look like?
Even in the shaping of bills, the enormous clout of Colorado’s major utilities and oil-and-gas interests can be detected. Xcel Energy, for example, urged a far slower approach to building electrification, even if it will theoretically benefit by selling more electricity to replace lost gas sales. It cites various concerns, including whether the transmission can be created to deliver the renewables sufficiently fast as needed to supply both electrified transportation and electrified homes.
On Thursday, Feb. 18, Xcel plans to disclose its electric resource plans in advance of its scheduled March 31 filing with the PUC. That could conceivably have a bearing on the legislation.
Geographical schisms also are evident. Boulder and Weld counties share a border but preciously little else on political talking points. As both Boulder and Boulder County seek to replace natural gas in big and remodeled homes, a bill is said to be coming from a Weld County legislator that would ban any bans on natural gas.
Some of those involved in helping shape legislation say they have been advised to trim their proposals, because of time limitations imposed by covid. Hansen, who is part of the legislative leadership team, disagrees. “I don’t think this session will be shortened very much in a functional way,” says Hansen. “All the legislative days we need will be available. This is going to be a very busy and important session. Big legislation typically passes in odd-numbered years, because it’s often harder to get the big pieces done in an election year.”
Fenberg sees opportunity amid the many crises. “In many ways I think the crises in front of us are a massive opportunity to rethink and imagine what we want our society to look like.”
This story attempts to be semi-comprehensive, but it has gaps of which I’m aware and likely important gaps of which I’m unaware. The conversation is fluid, so some information is likely dated. It’s a view from 15,000 or 20,000 feet, with a few clouds obscuring visibility here and there. I hope to follow the legislative session closely, as it is part of Colorado’s Big Pivot.
Wildfire is top of mind
It’s a given that the state will have to step up its response to the prospect of wildfire. The three largest wildfires in Colorado history occurred in 2020.
The East Troublesome Fire wasn’t the largest — that distinction belongs to the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins—but it was the scariest, racing from north of Hot Sulphur Springs to cover more than 100,000 acres within 24 hours, leaping across the Continental Divide and forcing the evacuation of Estes Park.
That’s a California-sized fire – and more California-type fires are almost certainly headed to Colorado given the rising temperatures and the increasing propensity toward drought, both manifestations of climate change.
“We are absolutely going to focus on wildfire mitigation,” said Senate Majority Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, at the February forum sponsored by Empowering Our Future.
Some of this mitigation will involve funding, such as for equipment, and I didn’t dig up anything here. I did hear about two bills that relate to wildfire.
Ellen Roberts, a Republican from Durango, was a state representative in 2008 who was among that original bill’s sponsors. Now out of the Legislature, she has been engaged in a project, the Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund, which seeks to use that legislation to remove vegetation from forested landscapes.
“Dense, unhealthy forests. Increasing drought. Dead trees from insect infestations. All these factors combine to increase the public safety threat of catastrophic wildfire in populated areas of Southwest Colorado, like Durango and La Plata County,” the website says. “There are ways to remove or reduce the dangerous tinderbox of these fuels through forest health treatments and reduce catastrophic wildfire risk, but the region lacks a sufficiently funded, long-term, and coordinated approach to forest restoration on all lands, private or publicly owned.”
After two years of trying, the project Roberts, the Colorado State Forest Service, and others envisioned in southwestern Colorado together still hasn’t launched and only the first phase of the project will get done before the authority for bonding by the state’s water and power authority expires. The second phase of the project may be getting started post-2023, she says.
“It’s tricky,” she says of the project. “It involves local government financing. It involves finding the collaborative pieces between federal and non-federal lands, identifying areas of high risks in watersheds, identifying critical values, public safety, and natural environmental concerns. It’s very complicated, and it takes a lot of collaboration.”
But the project, she says, should serve as a template for those in other places, as reflected in the districts of the bill’s primary co-sponsors: Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican from Montrose, and Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Democrat from Fort Collins, whose district experienced two big wildfires in 2021.
In the other chamber, Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley, and Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, are also sponsors. Their districts include two major water providers, Denver Water and Northern Water.
If not a lobbyist herself, Roberts talks up the bill as resulting in rural job generation but also improved public safety, in that it will reduce the fuels for wildfire. It will also have a climate change component: younger forests absorb carbon, and wildfires create massive amounts of carbon dioxide emission.
“Fire is part of our ecosystems. We aren’t trying to eliminate fire. But we are trying to manage it in a world in which more and more people are moving into the forests of Colorado. So we need to think about it differently. This bill aims at projects that are thinking outside of the box but also dealing with the reality on the ground in terms of needing to think about the forests in areas of high risk.”
Wildfire, power lines
Utilities, already nervous about their liability if power lines start wildfires, were galvanized by the Camp Fire at Paradise, Calif. The fire in November 2018 caused by electrical wires in strong winds resulted in 85 deaths and $16.5 billion in damages and the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric.
The Colorado Rural Electric Association hopes to see a bill that would give the state’s 22 electrical cooperatives protection from liability if they undertake mitigation efforts. The essential problem is that rights-of-way for distribution lines often were negotiated 30, 40, or even 60 years ago, says Geoffrey Hier, director for government relations for CREA.
“That may have been adequate at the time, but it is no longer adequate,” says Hier. “You have property owners who aren’t necessarily excited about having a utility come in and chop down trees on their property.”
The proposal being shopped to legislators by Heir would give utilities permission to clear trees in 16-foot swathes along power lines, 8 feet on each side. “Under current law, we don’t have the ability to address that,” says Hier. “We need some way to address the identified hazards that fall outside of our rights-of-way in addition to maintaining the right of way.”
The carrot-and-stick approach favored by CREA, modeled on legislation adopted last year by Utah and Missouri, would require the co-ops to submit their mitigation plans to the Public Utilities Commission. In exchange, the co-ops would get shielded from some liability if they filed plans and adhered to their mitigation plans.
Most wildfires of 2020 in Colorado occurred in the service territory of utilities, although none of the fires were caused by wires. However, managers have fretted privately about how even a small fire in the wrong place among very expensive real estate could expose them to enormous liability that could potentially bankrupt the co-op.
Utilities see a huge need for vegetative mitigation that the $88 million proposed for allocation in the state budget will hardly touch. Too, while last year was the largest ever in Colorado in terms of acres burned, this year is already shaping up to be much, much worse, given the absence of snowfall.
If not the size of the federal government, Colorado’s state government has considerable weight through the simple fact of its purchasing power. Some environmental groups have been saying that Colorado needs to use that purchasing power to help shift the markets.
One easy example is in transportation. There, Colorado hopes to move the needle more rapidly toward electrification by getting fleet owners to convert. Colorado, the argument goes, can help move the market itself through fleet purchases of electrified vehicles.
Just Transition funding
Legislators in 2019 created a Just Transition office, with one staff member, and a mission to deliver a final report to legislators by Dec. 31, 2020.
The office still has one employee, Wade Buchanan, the director. But the Polis budget calls for two additional full-time equivalents positions, for a total of 3.5.
“It’s just a down payment. It’s not the money we will need for the programming and for the funding of communities,” says Zach Pierce, special advisor on climate and energy to Gov. Jared Polis. “In a difficult budget year, it’s a statement.”
Various ideas are being talked about among legislators, even if there is no specific legislation (of which I’m aware).
Time to slow emissions from the built environment
There will be a tremendous focus on the built environment, that attention being long overdue, in the minds of many environmental advocates.
The built environmental is No.4 on the list of emission sources in Colorado, behind transportation, electrical generation, and the oil and gas sector. The problem is that to achieve long-term goals of decarbonization will require a broad and deep effort. And unlike cars, which get swapped out every 10 or 15 years, buildings last for decades and, in the case of the house of this writer, well along on the second century (constructed 1889, and later expanded).
What you can expect, said Keith Hay, director of utility policy at the Colorado Energy Office, are proposals that fall into four buckets:
1) Modernizing and updating gas energy efficiency programs, which have not been updated since 2007. This would apply to the gas-regulated utilities: Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos Energy, and Colorado Natural Gas.
2) A requirement that the state’s two investor-owned electrical utilities, Xcel and Black Hills, file plans with the PUC to support beneficial electrification, similar to what was required of Xcel and Black Hills for transportation, but this time for gas. Again, the idea is of incentives but softly pressing down the carbon intensity of the building sector.
3) A renewable natural gas bill proposed by State Sen. Chris Hansen in 2020 that got shelved because of covid.
4) Benchmarking of buildings.
Gas demand-side management
Most buildings in Colorado are heated by combustion of natural gas. A bill being sponsored by Rep. Tracey Bernett, Democrat from Boulder County, would require utilities to expand their energy efficiency efforts, hence reducing demand. She plans to promote it as a jobs-creation proposal, but also one that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas.
“It’s not shutting down gas,” she said when we talked in early February. “We are still going to need gas for a while in our buildings, especially in this colder environment. Things like heat pumps don’t necessarily work well at low temperatures.”
At the time of the conversation, she said the bill would include an “accounting for the external economic costs of burning fossil fuels.” I’ve since heard that this component—essentially a carbon tax applied to methane—has been stripped from the proposal.
So, we’ll see when the bill gets introduced. It’s worth reviewing the thinking of Laurent Meillon of the policy committee of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. For more than a decade, he has been working with legislators with the hope of passing legislation that causes state regulators to review demand-side management programs through the lens of long-term gains.
It’s worth emphasizing: What he wants to see and what ends up in the bill may be two very different things.
One metric that Meillon wants Colorado to adopt for evaluating demand-side management programs is how capital is treated. “$100 ten years from now is not the same as $100 now,” he explains.
We all know that’s true. That’s why we invest money, instead of just putting it into shoeboxes or at least safe-deposit boxes.
In the case of adding insulation to an attic, though, the investment is viewed through the metric of whether the benefits outweigh the costs in the short term. Will the added insulation save money in the next two or three years?
Viewed through that short-term prism, only the lowest-hanging fruit will be seized. You will add only the minimal amount of insulation. However, if you took a long view, the amount of energy that would be saved and hence the lower cost to the consumer of the course of 30, 40 or 50 years, would be a greater cumulative return on the investment.
Benefits are less when evaluating energy efficiency programs using the weighted average cost of capital, as is now used by Xcel and regulators. If, however, regulators used something called net-present value—a way of viewing the long-term benefits—much more work in energy efficiency could be justified.
The existing system “has turned out to be unfair, inaccurate, and against clean energy and ratepayer interests,” says Meillon.
Then there’s the metric of the external costs of fossil fuels. We know that burning fossil fuels damages the environment and imposes costs even now on people, directly and indirectly. Colorado in the 2019 legislative session recognized this by imposing a social cost of carbon of $46 per metric ton of emissions through which state regulators evaluate generation plans by Xcel and other utilities. Meillon believes the same social cost of carbon should be applied to heating resources when decisions are made.
A decade ago, Meillon was working with then State Sen. Gail Schwartz with this same sweep of ideas. Last year he worked with former State Sen. Mike Foote.
He’s a solar developer with a giant interest in solar thermal. Solar thermal got a bad name in the 1970s when it was introduced – and performed badly. Since then, says Meillon, solar thermal has improved and should be taken seriously. “My first car was a Fiat, and it didn’t work so well, but I did not conclude that all automobiles are crap,” he says.
Solar thermal has continued to struggle to get traction. The renewable portfolio standards first adopted in 2004 and updated several times since have not provided for solar thermal. They provide credits only for production of electricity. As such, there is no financial incentive for creating solar thermal projects. Without that stimulus, solar thermal has struggled to compete against the low cost of natural gas in Colorado.
If slowly, solar thermal is making inroads. One such project is a 44-unit all-electric apartment complex in Longmont. The hot water is pre-warmed by solar.
This is one of the four pillars of the energy legislation described by Hay from the Colorado Energy Office. It would require owners of commercial buildings of more than 50,000 square (actually, there is at least one residential building of more than 50,000 square feet; it’s on the outskirts of Aspen) to collect and report on energy-use benchmarking data and comply with performance standards related to energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
Denver has such a law applicable to buildings of more than 25,000 square feet. It requires tracking of energy use and sharing of that information. It serves as a way of alerting building managers to problems. If they’re using far more energy than the owner of another comparably sized building, it will likely cause them to want to make changes.
This bill has the sponsorship of Representatives Cathy Kipp of Fort Collins, Alex Valdez of Denver, and Tracey Bernett of Boulder County.
The city’s Climate Action website reports that buildings caused 51% of Denver’s emissions. Buildings overall increased energy use 1.2% on average since 2016, but those in the benchmarking program cut use an average 0.4%. This compared to a goal of reducing energy use from buildings 30% by 2030.
The Polis administration decarbonization roadmap reports that the Colorado Energy Office is launching a commercial building benchmarking program that will enable building owners to report energy-use data to a state-wide database.
GHGs embedded in building materials
Look for a bill from Hansen along the same lines as last year’s SB20-159, Global Warming Potential for Public Project Materials. That bill proposed to establish a maximum acceptable global warming amount embodied in concrete, asphalt, and other materials used in public buildings. Concrete has a heavy carbon footprint, for example. This would require designers of state buildings to consider the emissions produced in the creation of those materials and would impose a lid on those emissions.
Renewable natural gas
Hansen last session sponsored SB20-1250, Adopt Renewable Natural Gas Standard, which would have required the PUC to create a renewable natural gas standard for large natural gas utilities, those of more than 250,000 customers.
The intent is to induce harvesting of methane from dairies, sewage treatment plants, and landfills, but also at least one coal mine near Somerset in the North Fork Valley.
The bill proposed to mandate Xcel Energy to use 5% renewable natural gas by 2025 and 15% within a decade. The bill also would have required the PUC to develop renewable natural gas programs for smaller utilities and require municipal utilities to report emissions from natural gas.
Expect to see that bill return this session. The bill will specify a maximum impact to ratepayers of 2% from the projects.
Environmental groups have been somewhat skeptical. The Colorado Renewable Energy Society policy committee, for example, frets that this may delay the transition from natural gas. Hansen says he has heard concerns about double-counting but indicates that shouldn’t be a problem.
As mentioned previously, I have only glimpses of what this bill will look like, at least in part because it was still being shaped up well into February. It will be big.
“We are very hopeful a large transportation bill comes out of this session,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg last week.
He identified the need for multi-modal transit, as well as electrification of transportation. The upshot is that transportation should look very different in just a few years.
Electrical co-ops governance
State Rep. Judy Amabile, a Democrat from Boulder who was elected to fill the seat vacated by term-limited K.C. Becker, the former speaker of the House, has a bill that would seek to reform the governance of Colorado’s 22 electrical cooperatives
Those co-ops serve 30% of electrical consumers in Colorado, and their functioning is often a mystery to those who live in co-op land.
(An aside, I lived in co-op land myself for 21 years, first in Mountain Parks and then Holy Cross Energy, with time spent in Yampa Valley Electric as well, working mostly as a newspaper reporter and editor. I can testify that the co-op business was very, very low profile. It has a higher profile now, but not among the general public. Election turnout remains far lower than for the town board, city council, and county commission elections).
Amabile, whose district expands beyond Boulder to include Grand, Gilpin and Clear Creek counties, all areas served by co-ops, says her bill would address transparency, would require disclosure of compensation, and make it easier for new members of the public to get elected to the boards of electrical cooperatives. This would, she says, also apply to Tri-State—of which 18 of Colorado’s 22 cooperatives are members. (Tri-State, however, also includes members from Wyoming, Nebraska, and New Mexico).
“No other state has the kind of legislation that we are proposing, but they are looking to us so that they can do something similar,” she said at an Empower Our Future forum on Feb. 11, 2021.
Solar and some tweaking
Expect several bills in the solar arena.
Revisiting permitting fees
Several years ago Colorado adopted a law that limited how much local jurisdictions can charge for solar permitting such as on rooftops and garages. The goal was to encourage roof-top and other solar development.
Members of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association say that many jurisdictions have figured out ways that avoid the spirit of that law. COSSA wants to see legislation that keeps local jurisdictions hewing to the spirit and avoid end-around fees and restrictions.
Lift the 120% cap?
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, will introduce a bill that would remove the current cap on how much solar capacity customers of Xcel Energy and Black Hills can produce.
Existing law allows residential customers of the investor-owned utilities to get credited for solar-photovoltaic capacity up to 120% of the annual consumption of electricity by the customer. Xcel and Black Hills must credit them with the retail rate, not the wholesale rate, which is far less.
At issue is whether the customers should be able to get greater credit for more than 120%—how much and also how?
Fenberg explains: “The pushback from the utilities on this topic is generally that they don’t want to pay the customer for the energy that is produced above and beyond what the customer uses himself.
“Currently the utility has to pay at the wholesale rate for that excess energy, and they’d like to keep it that way rather than paying at the retail rate. Some would argue that compensating at the wholesale rate is unfair because distributed solar has more value due to the avoided generation and transmission costs as well as avoided environmental externalities.
“However, with that said, the compensation rate isn’t actually the crux of the issue. Their main demand is that customers shouldn’t be able to roll over their excess generation credits at the end of the year. Instead, the utility wants to force the customer to take a check for those excess credits (at the wholesale rate). Currently customers can roll over credits, but the utility fears this will be a bigger threat to them if people are allowed to install larger systems on their roof.”
Colorado Solar and Storage Association members say this issue of exceeding 120% hasn’t been much of an issue. True, concedes Fenberg, but he sees need for even more distributed solar in the future.
“If we’re trying to rapidly electrify people’s homes and their cars, we need to lift this arbitrary cap. Installing a solar system based on your last year’s average electricity use isn’t a relevant cap once that homeowner buys an electric car and an electric heat pump,” Fenberg says.
“Due to economies of scale, it’s much better for that homeowner to build the system based on likely future electricity use rather than past electricity use. Part of the state’s path to reduce emissions is to electrify home heating and transportation, which means the average home will have a much larger electricity load in the future. And if we want to decarbonize that increased electric load, we want more roof-space covered by solar panels.
“Another aspect to this story is the recent Boulder/Xcel settlement. Xcel agreed to advocate for the lifting of the 120% cap in the Legislature this year as part of the settlement.”
Also operative, as he said at a recent forum, is that the utilities are in the business of selling electricity. “They don’t want to have to buy energy from you,” he said.
Policies to drive equitable expansion of storage
Colorado remains in the infancy of energy storage. Aside from pumped-storage hydro at Cabin Creek and Mt. Elbert, the largest energy storage system in the state is a bank of Tesla Powerwall batteries behind the United Power building along Interstate 25 between Longmont and Firestone. They can store 4 megawatts for up to 4 hours.
Behind the meter, the battery capacity isn’t much greater. Xcel Energy customers have 300 to 400 batteries in the Central Park neighborhood of Denver. Customers of Holy Cross Energy in the Aspen-Vail areas have more batteries, and there may be more scattered around Colorado, particularly in Boulder County.
That must change dramatically in the coming decade. As Colorado quadruples the penetration of renewable energy, it will need to increase storage capacity roughly 250-fold. “The Future of Energy Storage in Colorado,” a report commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office in 2019, called for 1.1 gigawatts of storage by 2030.
“We have a long way to go, and the longer we wait, the steeper the hill to climb,” says Mike Kruger, chief executive of Colorado Solar and Storage Association.
PUC guidance on storage
COSSA wants legislators to give the Public Utilities Commission specific guidance about phasing in storage.
In the past, says Kruger, the PUC has been leery of justifying storage, given its still great cost. That’s understandable. But battery storage provides benefits to the grid, such as in stabilization, that need to factored into the decision-making calculus. COSSA wants legislators to help inform that decision-making process.
Kruger points to a report issued in September 2020, “The Colorado Public Utilities Commission’s Operational Modernization Plan.” The document points to the need for a formal, coherent policy. Options for reducing greenhouse gases from the electric sector “can appear across many proceedings, and a determination in one proceeding may affect the outcome of another proceeding,” the report said.
The report cites the example of battery storage, with its potential to reduce the need for additional electric generation to meet system peak demand: “At the same time, the PUC may be called upon to make decisions regarding investments in battery storage technologies in multiple proceedings that may involve different regulated utilities that occur over a period of months or years.”
Utilities are already starting to invest in batteries. Xcel Energy has awarded bids for 50 megawatts, part of its plans for 275 megawatts in Pueblo and Adams counties. And Colorado Springs Utilities has a power-purchase agreement for the Pike Solar and Battery Energy Storage Systems, which will add 25 megawatts of battery storage by December 2023 to supplement 175 megawatts of solar.
This bill falls under the heading of unfinished business. In 2018, legislators passed a law, HB 18-1270, Public Utilities Commission Evaluation of Energy Storage Systems. The law required the PUC to establish mechanisms for investor-owned electric utilities to procure energy storage systems if certain criteria are satisfied.
COSSA members believe there has been too little movement. Details of exactly what will be proposed were still being worked over in stakeholder outreach in late January. What drives the legislation, though, is a sense of urgency, a desire to make things happen quickly, to decarbonize the economy 50% by 2030.
“We have 8 years and 11 months. We can’t have proceedings in which the stakeholder process takes years before we even get to a proposal. We have to move faster,” says Kruger.
Rules for behind-the-meter storage
Colorado Solar and Storage Association wants to see rules laid down for behind-the-meter storage. It’s still a frontier, when relatively few homes or buildings have battery storage.
Working with the Colorado Municipal League and Colorado Counties Inc., COSSA hopes to come up with state regulations to ensure the spirit of legislation is honored by counties and municipalities. “If the Legislature says it should be $500,” says Kruger of fees. “That means it shouldn’t be $500 plus X, Y and Z.”
Somewhat related in the battery question is where they will be deployed. Will battery storage remain the province of higher-end homes, or will batteries also be part of the lower-income neighborhoods, too?
Colorado legislators in 2019 inserted provisions in several laws designed to ensure that equity is a consideration in energy transition decisions. In the past, those of lower incomes, who tend to be racial minorities, have tended to suffer disproportionate impacts of the fossil fuel-based economy. The intent is to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. Battery storage is one place for this consideration.
COSSA would like to see legislators give the PUC guidance to ensure that equity is a consideration in battery storage programs.
Office of Consumer Counsel
As required by state law, the Office of Consumer Counsel must be reauthorized by statute in this session, if it is to continue to exist.
In 2019, legislators chose to reauthorize the PUC by substantially expanding its purview and mission. It’s possible legislators may do so this year with the Office of Consumer Council. For example, legislators could give much more direction in advocacy for low-income populations in the coming energy transition.
Electrical transmission, one of the big missing pieces
This is the bailiwick of State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver who grew up amid the steady winds of the Great Plains before going off to college and eventually getting a Ph.D. in economic geography from Oxford University
In a sense, he’ll return to his roots this session with three bills that in various ways would help advance development of wind resources in eastern Colorado. But all three components of the bill he has prepared have the word “regional” embedded or implied in their text
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg calls transmission “one of the missing pieces of getting renewables to customers, especially from areas that are traditionally under-represented and don’t have a lot of economic opportunities.”
Streamline PUC permitting
One component would streamline permitting and rules at the state’s Public Utility Commission for new transmission projects. Regulators, Hansen says, need to acknowledge regional benefits when evaluating projects. The bill is a revision of Hansen’s bill from last year, SB20-190, Boost Renewable Energy Transmission Investment.
A second component would create a transmission authority, which New Mexico already has. The transmission authority’s mission would be to help coordinate development of transmission needed to develop currently stranded renewable assets.
One such area is Bent County, in southeastern Colorado. Studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have found that this county snuggled against the Kansas and Oklahoma borders has some of the steadiest wind in the country. Trucks constantly cross the county on Highway 287 on their way to Denver and other destinations, but no such wire highway exists to get wind-generated electricity from farms to urban markets.
Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission both operate in eastern Colorado, and both have built transmission lines and have plans for upgrade. But the movement has been slower than what Hansen says Colorado needs to execute its energy transformation.
Hansen believes he has a strong argument because there’s something in it for everybody, but especially consumers. Accessing the renewable resources in the state will result in lower rates. Improved transmission should also result in more jobs. “We need to maximize job growth and clean energy, and that is dependent on a robust transmission grid,” he says.
Pushing an RTO
A third component would seek to accelerate integration of Colorado utilities with utilities in other states. Colorado is currently something of an island. It’s connected by electric lines to other states, but not particularly well. There’s been talk and study for four years or more. All utilities say they want this, but action has been lagging. Hansen wants to hurry this along.
The first modest step occurred on Feb. 1 with launch of the energy imbalance market by the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool. Colorado participants include Tri-State Generation and Transmission and the Western Area Power Authority. Xcel Energy and three utility partners along the Front Range will begin an imbalance market next year, but that one is conducted by the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO.
Hansen professes to see advantages whether going eastward or westward. He does, however, see Colorado’s wind resources contouring wonderfully with the solar resources of Arizona and other Southwestern states
“My observation is that every power operator in the state is supportive of more grid integration, but some are more excited about it than others,” he says
Describing it as a “slam-dunk economic case,” Hansen says he does not expect substantial opposition. A Republican legislator, whom he has not identified, will co-sponsor the bill
This integration must be pushed firmly, he says. If Colorado does end up with what is called a seam, a division within the state, with parts going east and some parts going west., then it must be done in a way that does not harm ratepayers. Examples of both success and failure when seams divide states or regions can be found in other parts of the country.
Changes to give the PUC commissioners more tools
Look for a bill from Sen. Chris Hansen that will seek to modernize the Public Utilities Commission and revise budgeting, giving commissioners more resources and more direct control over staff members.
“We have a PUC that is not well positioned to implement all of the important work that is ahead of us. (The commissioners) need better resources to do their work,” says Hansen.
The PUC is currently embedded within the Department of Regulatory Agencies, and the staff members are answerable to the department director, Doug Dean. Hansen’s legislation would make the staff members, at least some of them, directly answerable to PUC commissioners. The bill would also expand the staff to reflect the increasing workload of PUC commissioners in a time of unprecedented shifts in the world of electricity and, quite likely in the decade ahead, natural gas.
The move has the support of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association. Mike Kruger, the executive director of COSSA, says there needs to be a direct link between the staff member and commissioners given that the commissioners are “responsible for a huge chunk of our decarbonization.”
Kruger also points out to the statutory ban of commissioners meeting in private. All of their interaction is in public meetings. Aside from very specific and narrow proceedings, they meet only weekly. That limited meeting schedule can result in three weeks or a month to make a relatively simple decision about forward movement.
“Given that complication, you definitely need to have a staff that provides the commissioners what they need to make decisions,” Kruger says. “From our perspective, the 2020s will be the decade of deployment for solar and batteries. We will go from around 20% renewable generation to around 80%, a four-fold increase over 9 years. And the PUC is going to guide and direct that. They need to know they are getting the best information and results from their staff.”
PUC processes have often been drawn out. But there’s a sense of urgency about figuring out the way forward reflected in the admonishment by Eric Blank in his first weekly meeting in January as the PUC chairman. Studies can’t take a year or more, he said, but timelines demand a quicker pulse.
Another shot at Community Choice Energy
Rep. Edie Hooton, a Democrat from Boulder, will return this session with her proposal to study community choice energy, also known as community choice aggregation.
The goal of community choice is to accelerate the transition to clean electrical generation by allowing individual communities currently served by Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, the state’s two investor-owned utilities, to procure their electricity directly from providers. Those two utilities would still service the distribution lines. Together, Xcel and Black Hills were responsible for 56% of electrical sales in Colorado in 2018, according to a study by the Colorado Energy Office
“Introducing competition into the wholesale electricity sector would encourage a more vibrant wholesale electricity market in Colorado, from which many co-ops and municipal utilities purchase all or part of their electricity,” she writes. “Competition tends to put downward pressure on prices, as well as pressure to increase the renewable energy content in the energy mix.
Hooton also sees this helping other electrical consumers. A more vibrant wholesale market for clean energy “would likely expand the number of independent power producers and power marketers that are active in Colorado, leading to lower wholesale prices and more opportunities for all buyers, including co-ops and municipal utilities.”
The Colorado Municipal League supports the study, as does the Sierra Club, whose “ready for 100” yielded voluntary participation by 14 Colorado communities that formally want to achieve 100% renewable energy between 2025 and 2035. The measure is also supported by Colorado Communities for Climate Action, or CC4CA, which has 34 member communities in Colorado, evenly split between the Front Range and Western Slope. City councils for Denver, Pueblo, Boulder, Golden, and Lafayette have also adopted resolutions of support.
California is the poster child for the effectiveness of pushing clean electrical generation. There, communities authorized to use community choice have entered into long-term contracts for 6,000 megawatts of new-build clean energy sources. There, it’s common for multiple cities and/or counties to form joint power authorities to share administration and combine their purchasing power, governed by a board of elected officials from each member jurisdiction.
A study by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation found that nearly 50 communities in California have already reached their 100% renewable energy goals, and the vast majority of them have community choice.
In theory, communities could choose to procure electricity from 100% carbon sources. That’s unlikely, given that renewables have become so much cheaper.
Hooton’s bill— which is co-sponsored by Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Democrat from Fort Collins—would only authorize a study by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission staff between October 2021 and November 2022. The bill authorizes one full-time employee to the study, the money $112,000 spread across two years – to be taken from the Fixed Utility Fund, the surcharge on ratepayer bills that funds the PUC.
If the PUC study looked promising, says Hooton, she would consider sponsoring enabling legislation in the 2023 legislation session. This bill, she emphasizes, only authorizes a study.
Inherent in this study is the potential for gains. She points to a request from Boulder last year for indicative pricing from wholesale suppliers. The city in August received 11 responses that together indicated the city could have 89% renewable energy in 2024 at two-thirds the project cost of Xcel.
She also contends this would add pressure to form a regional transmission organization, or RTO, which would lower costs by expanding the footprint of energy trading in the West and by reducing the needed level of reserve generating capacity.
One thing the study—if approved by legislators—would have to address is what real difference this will make in the latter half of the 2020s, when Black Hills and Xcel are rapidly decarbonizing their electric supplies.
What about the Air Quality Control Commission?
This was the agency delegated by the 2019 foundational legislation with the largest single authority for devising and executing strategies for achieving the economy-wide decarbonization goals. Elements were also given to the Public Utilities Commission, with it authority for overseeing the decarbonization of the electrical sector and also regulated gas utilities. But the AQCC is numero uno, dai-ichi, number 1.
Does the AQCC have the resources it needs to get the job done? This was a thread in AQCC conversations for much of 2020. Environmental organizations, Western Resource Advocates and the Environmental Defense Fund in particular, argued that the AQCC was moving too slowly. The AQCC personnel, particularly John Putnam, the then-director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, politely pointed to lack of adequate resources.
I heard that legislators are working to secure more resources for the Air Pollution Control Division, the agency within CDPH&E that works directly with the appointed commission. I was told that Sen. Dominique Jackson was writing the bill. I did not get a response from her.
The question of the AQCC was raised more broadly at the Empowering our Future forum. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg took the question and addressed it broadly, if not in the particulars.
“We got a slow start,” he said. “I think it will accelerate. We are going to start taking a significant bite of the apple in the next few years, tackling our transportation system. And electrifying as much as possible will have a huge impact. Xcel Energy is just about to file their electric resource plan (update: Xcel will release details on Thursday, Feb. 18) that will show there is a lot more of where they think they are capable of going in the next couple of years. Things are happening, and they’re happening pretty fast.”
Among the questions before the AQCC in late 2021 will be whether to approve the request for Earthjustice and the National Parks Conservation Association to order to effect the earlier retirement of coal plants. All but two are scheduled to close by 2030, but the environmental organizations wanted the AQCC to nudge the retirements up a year, to 2028. The AQCC approved that by a 5-2 vote then, the next month, unanimously backtracked for legal procedural reasons, whose intricacies I never understood. Xcel Energy then preempted this by announcing the closure of the Hayden units in 2028.
Could the PUC have the authority to instead order earlier retirements? That was hinted at by State Rep. Edie Hooton, who spoke at the Empowering Our Future forum about adjusting retirements to meet the 2025 decarbonization target of 2026. “There was consideration,” she said. “I don’t know if it will happen this year, not because of will, but because of capacity,” she said.
Rep. Emily Sirota, a Democrat from Denver, will be carrying legislation again, as she did with her HB 19-1270, to require the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association to review its $45 billion in holdings through the lens of climate change, specifically fossil fuels.
That bill didn’t make it out of committee. Since then, however, New York state’s comparable fund dido go ahead with a gradual divestment strategy in December.
350 Colorado also hopes to find a sponsor for a bill that would allow cities, counties, and other jurisdictions to hold investments in financial institutions that are not FDIC insure. This would allow jurisdictions to avoid the megabanks like Wells Fargo and Chase Morgan, who are FDIC insured and who also invest in fossil fuels.
The Colorado Public Banking Coalition makes no mention of divestment but instead paints a broader picture of rising interest in public banking since the 2008 financial crash. “Currently, over half of the states in the United States have either organized, conducted research, or introduced legislation to promote public banking,” says the coalition.
Regulation of oil and gas industry, don’t expect much
Don’t look for much here. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg was a primary sponsor of SB19-181, which he describes as the most substantial reform of oil and gas regulation in Colorado in 60 years.
“I think we forget how much that did tackle, because it did so much at once,” he says. The law basically turned Colorado regulation upside down, inverting the mission of regulation to support extraction to instead emphasize community protection values.
It created basic standards for jurisdictions across Colorado, including a minimum setback of 2,000 feet (with some exceptions), while leaving latitude for local jurisdictions to create regulations that are right for them.
What about stopping “fracking?” he was asked at a recent forum, the word fracking being apparently meant to mean drilling for oil and gas altogether.
No, that wasn’t the intention of the 2019 law, he said. And what used to be considered the major players in Colorado have disappeared as a result of acquisitions and mergers. “I think the Wild West days of fracking in Colorado are not over, but they will be soon,” he said. He also noted that the market for Colorado oil and gas extends beyond Colorado, so the demand depends upon national policies.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
FromCenter Square (Robert Davis) via The Kiowa County Press:
Colorado lawmakers returned to the Capitol to complete the 2021 legislative session on Tuesday after a month-long hiatus…
A bill seeks to transfer money from the state’s general fund to wildfire mitigation efforts. The legislation, which has bipartisan sponsorship, would allocate $6 million to a grant program for forest restoration and wildfire mitigation, $3 million to a wildfire preparedness fund, and $4 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board Construction Fund.
Wildfire mitigation will be a key topic throughout the legislative session, as the state was hit with historic wildfires last year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Senate Bill 21-034, introduced by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, would create an enterprise fund with fees paid by consumers. The revenue generated by the enterprise would go towards grants or loans for water providers in the state.
“The fee for each individual metered connection in a drinking water supplier’s public water system is 25 cents per 1,000 gallons of drinking water delivered per month in excess of the first 4,000 gallons of drinking water delivered in that month to the individual metered connection,” according to the bill’s description.
Another proposition that passed in November will reestablish wolves on the Western Slope, though they are already coming in naturally. Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, said Colorado Parks and Wildlife is studying how best to manage wolves, and legislators need to wait for them to come up with a proposal.
Donovan said the state needs to create a compensation program that is well-funded for ranchers who lose livestock to wolves but also need to reestablish wolves in a way that is good for the species.
While he does not have a bill on water right now, Roberts said there is a committee studying how rules could be strengthened to prevent out-of-state entities from making money off of water resources.
Donovan added that demand management of water is another really important issue, because the state has a legal obligation to share water. What could happen if they are not careful, she warned, is that water rights could become their own market where out-of-state interests start buying up these rights to sell them when water becomes more scarce.
“As well as our Republican colleagues, we are all very tightly aligned on this topic,” Donovan said. “One of the most closely aligned things when party absolutely disappears is when we talk about water.”
As snow and rain fell outside, about 50 audience members gathered at the indoor arena of the Montezuma County Fairgrounds for the morning meeting session to hear presentations, some broadcast via Zoom…
State House bills
Republican Marc Catlin, state representative for the 58th District, listed some bills he plans to introduce.
A watershed mitigation bill proposes to provide funding for cities and counties for timber thinning projects on private land. A water rights bill would protect the water rights of mutual ditch companies. Another bill would allow tribes to operate their own foster homes so Native American foster children could grow up in their culture. Catlin said a bill providing a tax exemption for the removal of beetle-killed trees in forests would be an incentive to remove the fire-prone dead trees.
For two hours, a cascade of Zoom presenters on the final day of the 39th Annual Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference and Trade Show explained different aspects of the San Luis Valley water situation.
Thursday’s, Feb. 4, updates included historical data and projected forecasts, but water users on the call also heard about pressing deadlines. The 2015 Ground Water Use Rules fully take effect on March 15. Some well owners, for example, may not realize how new regulations will affect them this spring…
The program manager for Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6, Pacheco has already been absorbing some of Simpson’s duties since he won the Colorado State Senate District 35 seat. She presented his legislative update while he attended committee meetings in Denver. According to Pacheco, draft legislation called the “30 by 30 Resolution to Save Nature” sets a goal of measuring meaningful improvements in conservation across the country before 2030.
Pacheco said she was “not familiar with the legislation, so I can’t answer many questions. But looking over a short summary, it looks like there may be some potential economic opportunities for producers in the Valley who are looking to participate in conservation efforts.”
Pacheco mentioned retiring wells, planting cover crops and conducting soil projects as examples of these efforts, “just to name a few.”
Before moving on to updates for Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6, Pacheco encouraged participants to contact the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council Director Christine Canaly for legislative details — 719-589-1518 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In April, Subdistricts 2 and 3 will complete the second year of Annual Replacement Plans (ARPs). “So far,” Pacheco said, “we’ve successfully replaced all stream depletions to all river systems as required under our plans.” Pacheco added that Subdistrict 6 is currently in its first year, and “they have successfully replaced all their depletions to date.”
Subdistricts 3 and 6 operate with sustainability requirements defined in the 2015 Ground Water Use Rules. They are currently within 78% of requirements and look sustainable for a while, although continued drought conditions may threaten the 22% cushion.
Pacheco closed by addressing water users in Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6 who received letters from DWR regarding commercial non-exempt well uses. If they want to become a subdistrict member, they need to contact Pacheco immediately. The customary deadline for receiving subdistrict applications is the first of December for the following year. But the DWR letters mailed in January.
The contract deadline for Subdistricts 4 and 5 is Feb. 15. Although they are no longer soliciting new members, they’re looking for wet water sources on San Luis Creek and Saguache Creeks. They are also seeking Well Injury Payments (WIPs or “forbearance”) on Kerber Creek and Crestone Creek. Partial and full-year Annual Replacement Plans are due. Plans covering March 15 to April 30 are due on March 1, and the annual plan starting in May is due April 15.
The same deadlines apply to Subdistrict 1 water users, according to Program Manager Marisa Fricke. Fricke celebrated 2020, the year with the highest enrollment in subdistrict history. Of the 399 well owners who received letters from DWR, 300 are in the Subdistrict 1 response area. Fricke encouraged owners to reply before making conclusions. One letter recipient called DWR for clarification and resolved the issue right away.
DWR District Engineer Cotten recapped water history from 1938 to present while showing forecasts for hotter, dryer conditions this year. Throughout his update, he referred to the dry years of 2002, 2018 and 2020.
As of Feb. 3, the Snow Water Equivalent for the Upper Rio Grande looks promising at 107%. But runoff forecasts are low. None reach 100% of average as of Feb. 1, and the San Antonio River meandering into New Mexico and back into Colorado ranks lowest among forecasts at 58%.
Referring to letters some well owners received, Cotten reiterated new groundwater rules about to take effect. Wells permitted for domestic drinking and sanitation only will be subject to the Rio Grande rules, which means they will have to cover depletions by joining a subdistrict or presenting an augmentation plan. They can contact DWR for more information.
Closing out the water presentations, SLV Water Conservation District Manager Heather Dutton described opposition to the fifth water export proposal from the San Luis Valley. Previous proposals — San Marcos Pipeline, American Water Development Inc. (AWDI), Stockman’s Water and Sustainable Water Resources – failed. The current pitch from Renewable Water Resources (RWR) does not include water court or permit filings to date, although marketing activities continue.
The RWR website (http://renewablewaterresources.com) provides background and objectives about the proposal. Dutton encouraged people to compare the RWR website with protectsanluisvalleywater.com and the Protect San Luis Valley Water Facebook page to compare data points.
The depth (and salinity) of the water has been disputed since geologist Phil Emery hinted at two billion acre-feet stored in the deposits in 1971. He later explained his miscalculation, but the billion-acre-feet notion persists. Meanwhile, all the Valley water has already been allocated. Two ditches carry water from the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the Wet Mountain Valley between May and July, approximately 1,063 acre-feet a year. The rest heads downstream.
Two proposed water management bills filed for the 2021 Colorado General Assembly session could prove to be problematic to water interests. Both bills were discussed Tuesday during the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy Districts board of directors meeting in Sterling.
One bill, originated by State Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron and co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, calls for an evaluation of ways to implement underground water storage, as called for in the five-year-old Colorado’s Water Plan. Another seeks to clarify the rights of various members of a mutual ditch company, especially when some shares of the company are owned by non-irrigators.
LSPWCD manager Joe Frank told his board he has “some concerns that we’re mixing apples and oranges” with the underground storage bill. Frank said that, although it’s a statewide bill, it still comes down to taking unappropriated water out of the South Platte River Basin and storing it outside the basin.
“You’d have to move the (water) out of the South Platte basin into a designated basin,” Frank said. “Almost any underground storage inside the (South Platte) basin is going to be alluvial to the river.”
That means attempts to store the water underground inside the basin would only result in water being pulled out of the river in times of excess flow and pumped right back into the river’s aquifer, resulting in no actual benefit. Instead, the water would have to be pumped and piped to a designated basin outside the South Platte basin, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, to be pumped out again at a later time.
The other problem, Frank said, is getting the water into the storage basin in the first place. He said designated basins are best recharged by pumping water into a surface reservoir and letting it seep into the aquifer below. Otherwise, high-powered pumps are required for deep injection well storage.
According to Holtorf’s bill, the Colorado Water Conservation Board would contract with “a Colorado institution of higher education” to do the study, but no specific college or university was mentioned in the draft bill.
The second draft that Frank discussed concerns water rights for members of mutual ditch companies. Sometimes called irrigation companies or just ditch companies, these companies are owned by member shareholders who receive water during the irrigation season according to the size of their shareholdings. As the name implies, the shareholders mutually agree on who gets their water when. Irrigators don’t receive their water continuously during the irrigation season, but in large quantities over short periods of time. Over the course of an irrigation season, all shareholders get their share of the water, just not all at the same time.
Problems arise when non-irrigators, such as municipalities or industries, own shares of mutual ditch companies. That ownership occurs through a change-of-use case adjudicated in Colorado Water Court. Those “change cases” can cause confusion in the running of a ditch company because the new users generally want their water continuously during the irrigating season.
There also is contention over what happens to water that a shareholder doesn’t use; at issue is whether the unused water can be used by other shareholders or must be turned back to the river or reservoir from which it came.
At the heart of the matter is a 1975 water case, Jacobucci v. District Court, which should have settled the matter. A key passage in that decision states, “the benefit derived from the ownership of such stock is the right to the exclusive use of the water it represents …” Exclusivity, as understood by most in the legal profession, means “if it’s mine and I don’t use it, you can’t use it either.”
Most ditch companies, however, don’t actually operate that way, but allow the use of unused water as long as it’s put to beneficial use. It is, according to LSPWCD Vice President Gene Manuello, a matter of common sense.
“It’s just common sense that we all work together,” Manuello said during the meeting Tuesday. “That’s why it’s called a mutual ditch company, we work to our mutual benefit. Let’s not change how we run a mutual ditch company.”
The draft legislation seeks to clarify the rights of mutual ditch company shareholders but, according to the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, it does anything but that.
Frank told the board the bill has “a lot of moving parts,” and seems to have been inspired by recent change cases. He said attempts to figure out exactly what the bill means haven’t been very helpful. Manuello, who sits on a number of water boards and committees, said he was on a conference call about the bill recently and gained no new insight from the meeting…
The draft legislation was submitted by Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, who chairs the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee, and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, who is the ranking Republican on that committee.
South Platte River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey
Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey
FromThe Denver Post (Saja Hindi and Alex Burgess):
A new legislative session is kicking off this week in Colorado, but it won’t really get going until February.
A batch of new Colorado state lawmakers will be sworn in Wednesday, and the legislature plans to pass about seven mostly minor bills this week. When they return Feb. 16, there will be backlogs of popular bills that were sidelined in the pandemic-shortened 2020 session, plus many new priorities.
Democrats are still in control, now with an expanded Senate majority. That means until at least 2022, the GOP will have its say but rarely its way…
Short, distanced start
Lawmakers will work quickly this week to pass time-sensitive bills and meet constitutional requirements before their break…
Ask nearly any lawmaker what they’re plotting for 2021, and they’ll tell you they want to do everything possible to address the coronavirus’ ripple effects.
But the public should temper its expectations, budget officials say, because there’s a limited pot of money for grants, direct payments and new programs…
It is often the case that bills die — or never get introduced in the first place — not because of their merits but because lawmakers are nervous about how much they cost.
We’ll likely be seeing a lot of that in 2021, given the budget outlook. Take, for example, the bipartisan and generally popular proposal to eliminate the wait list for state-funded in-home care for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Last year was supposed to be the year they committed more than $160 million over seven years to the program, but pandemic hits, plan scrapped…
Is the momentum for social justice still there?
The legislature last year repealed the death penalty and passed a police reform package inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Lawmakers vowed then that they would not relent on matters of criminal justice and law enforcement.
There’s plenty on the table for 2021, including banning no-knock warrants and restricting the use of ketamine against people detained by police. The latter is particularly close to home: First responders injected Elijah McClain with ketamine after he was violently detained by Aurora police in 2019…
Members of the public will have the opportunity to testify on bills in person, remotely or submit written testimony as they were able to do during the special legislative session, but it will likely be limited. People interested in testifying will need to sign up ahead of time at http://leg.colorado.gov.
Plenty of people on both sides of the aisle have sought and failed to obtain a funding boost for Colorado’s chronically underfunded transportation system. This year, there’s real optimism for a breakthrough.
The latest plan involves raising certain fees — remember, Colorado lawmakers can’t raise taxes, but they can raise closely related fees — on things like gas and electric vehicle usage in order to generate money for transportation projects…
Can House Republicans get along?
Democrats have a strong 20-15 advantage in the Senate and in the House, it’s not even close — 41 of the 65 seats.
Having hemorrhaged power and influence in the House in recent years, GOP state representatives turned on last year’s minority leader, Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, and replaced him with Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland…
Public option, take two
Last year, sponsors shelved an effort to implement a hybrid public health insurance option that would have provided Coloradans who buy insurance on the individual market another option.
Its return in 2021 amid the coronavirus pandemic will likely bring more conflict between supporters and hospital groups. But one of its sponsors, Avon Democratic Rep. Dylan Roberts said the bill will look very different, because it takes into account the changes to health care due to COVID…
A renewed push for gun legislation
Colorado House Rep. Tom Sullivan was beyond disappointed last year that proposed gun reforms were shelved when COVID arrived. The Centennial Democrat pledged last year to bring gun legislation to the forefront of the 2021 session, and he plans to make good on that promise…
After a year of raging wildfires, shrinking water flows and record heat, Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers are planning to address climate and environmental policies.
“Unfortunately, it’s been a big issues for years and I think we’re sort of behind in where we need to be,” Fenberg said. “We basically don’t have the luxury of being able to take a year off of thinking critically about getting our emissions under control.”
Topics on deck include air-quality issues, improving the electric transmission grid in Colorado, addressing issues of methane leaks, a greenhouse road map and increasing the use of energy storage equipment in Colorado.
Westminster Democratic Sen. Faith Winter said climate mitigation is also important for communities of color and others who are disproportionately affected by pollution. She’s working on a bill to better define environmental justice and impacted communities, and also intends to address issues of environment in transportation funding bills.
“Climate change is a huge threat to our state,” she said. “It’s a threat to individual people’s health,” she said. “It’s a threat to our economy.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):
Because of the ongoing pandemic, lawmakers will only meet for three days this week, and then it will go into a recess until mid-February.
“Clearly, there’s going to be a change to how the 73rd General Assembly is going to get started,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver. “Everything is going to look a lot different than it has in the past. We’re still in the midst of a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic, and the bulk of our work won’t start in earnest until Feb. 16 when we all come back from our temporary adjournment.”
Under the Colorado Constitution, the Legislature can only meet for 120 days. But after the pandemic hit at the start of last year’s session, Democratic leaders decided to recess for an extended period because of it, after Gov. Jared Polis issued his first COVID-19 executive order calling for a state of emergency…
So as a result of this built-in recess, which could be extended or ended early depending on what happens with coronavirus infection rates, lawmakers don’t plan to do much in these first three days…
Beyond typical beginning-of-session matters, including provisions to allow for lawmakers to participate in floor debates and committee hearings remotely, lawmakers have only a handful of bills they expect to address by Friday, one of which is to fix a problem with a bill approved during last month’s special session.
That was on a $57 million Small Business Relief Program, which is intended to provide grants and fee waivers to businesses most impacted by the downturned economy, particularly to restaurants and night clubs.
The bill also sets aside money for hard-hit minority-owned businesses, a provision that currently is facing a lawsuit filed by the white owner of a Colorado Springs barbershop…
Starting on Thursday, counties across the state are accepting applications for that money, and will do so until early February.
Businesses that qualify will then get their share, but how much will depend on how many apply and how much each county is allocated.
Under the bill, money is to go to very small businesses, primarily those hardest hit by the pandemic, such as restaurants, bars, distilleries, wineries, caterers, movie theaters, fitness centers and other recreational facilities, but only those with annual revenues of less that $2.5 million and only if they are following local public health orders.
Because of the monthlong recess, individual lawmakers were given more time to introduce their first three bills — under the law, they are allowed up to five — until the Legislature reconvenes in February.
Meanwhile, the four leaders in the House and Senate from both parties have approved committee assignments for legislators.
Locally, that means that Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, will serve on the Senate Transportation & Energy and Finance committees, while Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, will be on the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources and transportation committees.
Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat whose district includes Delta County, will serve as chairwoman of the agriculture committee. She also will serve on the transportation panel, and is the newly chosen Senate pro temp, the second highest-ranking position.
In the House, Rep. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction, will be on the House Transportation & Local Government, Appropriations and Finance committees, while Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, will be on the House Agriculture, Livestock & Water Committee with Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose.
Will also will serve on the transportation committee, while Catlin also will be on the House Energy & Environment Committee.
Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, was taken off the House Judiciary Committee where he served during his first term in office. Instead, he will be on the House Health & Insurance Committee and the energy panel.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, and Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, will continue to be on the Joint Budget Committee. The two local lawmakers also will serve on the appropriations committees in their respective chambers.
Here’s a look at the bills lawmakers will debate this week before taking a break
Legislative leaders said not to expect a robust policy agenda at the start of the session, but rather “minor things we need to get done that are time sensitive,” Garnett said.
So far, nine bill drafts are on the table. One of the first would allow lawmakers to participate remotely in legislative meetings and conduct certain committee hearings even while the General Assembly is temporarily adjourned. Democratic leaders said they plan to conduct oversight hearings — known as SMART Act reviews — for state departments and agencies before returning in February. The public would be allowed to participate remotely.
In addition, the Joint Budget Committee will continue to meet behind closed doors with the public not permitted to attend but allowed to listen online.
The other legislation being considered in the first days would:
Change the requirements for a small business relief fund approved in December’s special session to apply to more than just minority-owned businesses, a move designed to nullify a lawsuit stating that the new law was unconstitutional and discriminatory.
Extend the deadlines to continue to allow for electronic wills and further suspend debt collection due to the pandemic.
Recreate regulations and licensing benchmarks on occupational therapists after lawmakers inadvertently repealed the requirements.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said Colorado can’t conserve its way out of a deep drought and a decades-long struggle over the state’s water, as he spoke to the state’s water managers Tuesday…
He said he had passed more water legislation than the rest of the state’s congressional delegation combined during his six years in the Senate and four years in the U.S. House before that. Gardner also is a former state legislator.
“We have such diverse water needs in our state,” Gardner said, noting his Yuma County community depends on groundwater and that a canoe would dam up the nearest river 30 miles away. He also cited his work on the Arkansas Valley Conduit to deliver fresh water to the parched farm region east of Pueblo, a project on the books since 1983 that only this year got federal funding, as well as other funding for endangered species recovery on the Colorado River.
He spoke of the complexity of solutions given the diversity of users and suppliers, plus the Front Range’s dramatic and steady growth.
“No. 1, we have to have more water storage, that’s an absolute,” Gardner told the Water Congress. “We have to have conservation, No. 2. We cannot conserve our way out of our water shortfall, though.”
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper began his recorded statement by noting he’s spoken in-person to the Water Congress before. He then spoke of the challenges created by COVID-19 “made worse by the reckless action of the United States Senate,” before he pivoted to climate change and wildfires.
Hickenlooper spoke of his time building bridges with Denver and the rest of the state, recalling how he visited the Western Slope soon after he became mayor of Denver in 2003 and received a standing ovation for his remarks.
“Unfortunately today’s politics almost begs us to be partisan, assuming the worst in each other, raising suspicions between neighbors on either side of the Continental Divide,” Hickenlooper said. “At the federal level Washington is as dysfunctional as a broken septic system.”
He said water provided grounds to put partisanship aside.
Hickenlooper spoke of water often during his eight years as governor and adopted the Colorado’s first statewide water management plan. Hickenlooper did not acquire legislative or public support for funding the plan – an estimated $100 million a year – during one of the state’s strongest period of economic growth…
Pollster Floyd Ciruli interviewed Republican strategist Cinamon Watson and Democratic strategist Rick Ridder after the two candidates spoke.