DENVER – Today, Governor Jared Polis signed into law administratively the bipartisan HJR23-1007 Water Projects Eligibility Lists sponsored by Representatives Karen McCormick and Marc Catlin and Senators Dylan Roberts and Cleave Simpson to support water projects across the state that design and construct safe drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure projects.
“We are here to serve the people of Colorado, and must continue working together to solve pressing problems and help improve the lives of Coloradans. I appreciate the legislature sending this bipartisan bill to my desk, sponsored by the vast majority of Colorado’s General Assembly with the goal of providing clean and safe water to the people of our state,” said Governor Polis.
In his State of the State address to the General Assembly in January, Governor Polis outlined his vision for Colorado at 150, including making sure Colorado has the water resources necessary for farms, communities, and industries to thrive. The Polis administration has dedicated significant resources toward protecting Colorado’s water resources and the Governor’s budget proposal includes new, ongoing resources for climate action and preparedness for water quality, defending Colorado’s water rights.
Let me give you a precise example of what we’re talking about. An infill housing development took shape a couple of years ago near the Arvada High School in metropolitan Denver.
My midnight walks—it’s safer to walk then—often take me up that hill above the baseball diamond where grass was planted next to a row of mini-mansions. Rarely, if ever, will anybody set foot on that basketball court-sized plot of grass save to mow it.
Why was the turf planted? Likely because that’s the way it was always done. What I know with greater certainty is that roughly 75% of the water for this municipality comes from tributaries of the Colorado River. And I also know that these water rights—Arvada gets water from Denver Water—are junior to the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Water did not begin flowing through the Moffat Tunnel until 1936.
Huffing up the hill past this ornamental turf, I ask myself, “Don’t they know that adding turf in metro Denver or, for that matter, Grand Junction, during this time of rapid climate change is deeply problematic? Doesn’t this qualify as either terribly ignorant or, just perhaps, arrogant?”
In Colorado, we’ve resumed our conversation about how we use water and, more broadly, the type of development we want to see. Gov. Jared Polis made housing a central portion of his state-of-the-state address in early January—and he cycled around again and again to frame it within an ecosystem of impacts and goals, including water. He mentioned water 24 times in his address:
“Let me be clear – housing policy is climate policy.
Housing policy is economic policy.
Housing policy is transportation policy.
Housing policy is water policy.”
On Jan. 26, in an address to the Colorado Water Congress, Polis made it a little more clear what he has in mind. He called for a “comprehensive approach to housing to preserve our water resources.” He cited multiple benefits for revised land-use policies: reduced traffic, saved money for consumers and – most important, he added, it “limits demand on water resources.”
Polis said the Colorado Water Conservation Board will lead a study on integrating land use and water demand.
This 21-member Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force is to include representatives from 8 water utilities, 2 conservation districts, 2 environmental NGOs, with the balance to come from areas of expertise and interests such as stormwater, equity, and urban planning.
Looming over the three-day Water Congress conference was the future of the Colorado River. Attorney General Phil Weiser and Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, both spoke from the same script. They said Colorado has kept within its limits as specified by the compact. The problems of the Colorado River are due very fundamentally to overuse by the lower-basin states, particularly California.
“Denial is not just a river in Egypt,” Weiser said.
Mitchell reported that Colorado and the three other upper-basin states in 2020 used altogether 3.5 million acre-feet compared to the 7.5 million acre-feet Colorado River Compact apportionment. The lower-basin states used on the order of 10 million acre-feet. The upper basin states live within what the climate delivers, she said, while the lower-basin states have lived beyond their means, steadily draining the federal reservoirs, both big and small. “They must do something, they must do it now,” Mitchell said.
On Jan. 30, an agreement was announced among six of the seven states – California was the hold-out. It didn’t impress many people.
“Let’s cut the crap,” Brad Udall, who has emerged in the last decade as one of the most insightful observers of the Colorado River, told The Denver Post. “We don’t have elevation to give away right now,” a reference to elevations of the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell.
Sounds simple enough. We wear the white hats. Yet Eric Kuhn, a former long-time manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said it’s not really that simple. He’s parsed the agreements at length in a book he co-authored called “Science Be Dammed,” a history of the Colorado River Compact, as well as various other papers and studies.
Kuhn said it’s not a given that Colorado municipal water providers—most of whom have water rights junior to the Colorado River Compact—will always be able to access the Colorado River and its tributaries. And having no water is not an option.
“Curtailment of those junior users is not acceptable at any time in the future,” said Kuhn.
But the only logical place for growing towns and cities to expand their water portfolios is from water users with senior appropriations, namely agriculture.
When we spoke several days after the water conference, Gimbel reminded me that it was written for a business audience understanding that it needed to include the water community. “It was our opportunity to tell the business community ‘pay attention, because what happens with water is going to affect our economy one way or another.’”
This is from Big Pivots 67, a reader-supported e-journal covering climate change and the resulting energy and water transitions in Colorado.
“Common Sense Institute is a non-partisan research organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of Colorado’s economy. CSI is at the forefront of important discussions concerning the future of free enterprise in Colorado and aims to have an impact on the issues that matter most to Coloradans.”
The report cites the need for demand-mitigation measures such as removing non-functional turf in new development. They cite the examples of Sterling Ranch, a tiny project in Douglas County where the developers, because they had little water, were forced to figure out how to minimize water use. They also cite Aurora, which last year adopted regulations that dramatically ratchet down water for new development.
They say this must become more common as Colorado’s population grows.
“Lacking statewide or regional standards, home developers are free to choose cities with less strict conservation standards,” they wrote. “Regional approaches are needed.”
They suggest regional conservancy and conservation districts might be a vehicle in lieu of statewide standards. They also cite WISE, the project in metro Denver and several of its suburban water providers, particularly those on the south side.
The report, if broad-ranging and data-rich, also has a vagueness to it on this point. Gimbel says that lack of specificity was intentional. “The idea of demand-management measures in the report was left vague for a reason,” she says. “We purposefully did not develop it more, to allow discussion already taking place to maybe morph into broad action.”
“We have to do more with less,” said Kuhn. He cited projected population growth of 1.6 to 1.8 million new residents by 2050, most along the Front Range, but also the probability that the warming climate will make less water available, particularly from the Colorado River.
At several times during their Water Congress presentation, Gimbel and Kuhn acknowledged that state-wide standards would be an uphill struggle. In Colorado, towns, cities, and counties have traditionally called their own shots on land use and other development questions.
This is starting to shift, though. It is clear in Colorado’s agenda on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But even here, there’s a balancing act. Legislators—with the consent of Polis—have told the investor-owned utilities they must meet carbon reduction goals. They have delivered the same mandate to Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which operates in ways that somewhat resemble those of Xcel.
But legislators left alone the municipal providers and the independent electrical cooperatives, instead choosing to persuade. It always helps, though, when the market is marching at a fast pace in the same direction.
In what I see as a direct parallel, the state recently has started to apply pressure to local jurisdictions to get ready for electrification in their building codes. There’s some wiggle room for local jurisdictions, but it’s not the free-for-all of yesteryear. Climate change forces a more urgent focus on issues we would have faced anyway but for other reasons.
Colorado has been having this water conversation for a while. In 2014, Ellen Roberts, then a state senator from Durango, and Don Coram, then a state representative from Montrose, introduced a conservation bill called “Limit Use of Ag Water for Lawn Irrigation.”
Local governments didn’t want the state stepping in. And there was pushback from the ag sector. “If it’s water intensive, are you going to tell us that we can’t grow that?” one agriculture sector representative responded.
In the end, the bill became a study bill, the idea directed to an interim committee for further study. That, notes Roberts, is where bills commonly get sent to die. In this case, though, the conversation continued—and that was what she had intended all along.
“My concern was that if we waited for that to happen naturally, it might never happen or it would be so slow that it would have no meaningful impact,” she says.
If the proposal was watered down, so to speak, even some legislators from the Western Slope who might not vote for it were “appreciative that somebody was willing to walk the plank on the topic.” In Durango itself, support ranged from those on the far left to those on the far right of the political spectrum.
The same issues that Roberts encountered are still very much alive.
Aurora, if lately a shining light for advocates of demand-management policies, harbors skepticism of mandates. “Aurora must retain control of what our city looks like,” says Greg Baker, the city’s spokesman. Guidelines could be acceptable—and smaller water municipalities could very well use help in delivering incentives.
This said, Aurora is open to discussion “and it needs to be a proportional discussion,” says Baker. “We don’t want to tell agriculture how to use their water, but they account for 85% of water use in this state.”
On Jan. 31, in a legislative forum sponsored by Empower our Future, a Boulder County energy-focused organization, I asked State Sen. Fenberg, the Senate president, if the legislative broad brushes to advance the Polis land-use agenda could be described. He didn’t deliver specifics, but he did a good job of describing the dynamics of what he called a “third-rail issue.”
“It will come down to what things should stay at the local level and I think the vast majority will remain at the local level.” That said, he continued, the question remains of how we go about this in ways to advance Colorado’s other goals.
More issues have become statewide in nature. More state funding has been advanced for funding to expand housing. Water use is associated with housing, so the state has a connected interest, he suggested.
“Because of that, I think people have started asking more questions. If it is a state problem, shouldn’t the state be more involved in either solving the problem or stopping the problem from getting worse?”
It will be, he concluded, a “tough conversation.” Laws governing water move slowly, and speakers at the Water Congress repeatedly said it is wise to move cautiously. Can the rapidly changing water story in the Colorado River Basin and the changing climate that is producing the crisis abide caution?
Audubon and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have partnered to host a webinar series on important stream restoration legislation. The DNR-led stream restoration legislation is expected to be introduced in mid-February and will provide clarity on where stream restoration projects can occur without being subject to enforcement actions.
Part one of the series showed substantial interest with more than 160 live participants, including legislators, staff/aids, and interested stakeholders. The roster of expert panelists included SenatorDylan Roberts and RepresentativeKaren McCormick—bill sponsors for the stream restoration legislation—Assistant Director of Water Policy for Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources Kelly Romero-Heaney, Colorado State University Professor and renowned Fluvial Geomorphologist Dr. Ellen Wohl, Land and Water Conservation Lawyer Jackie Corday, and was facilitated by Audubon Rockies Western Rivers Regional Program Manager Abby Burk. Here’s a recap of the discussion and what you need to know to support Colorado’s streams and riverscapes. A recording of the webinar is included at the end.
Healthy streams and riverscapes are beneficial to us all—they provide a suite of multifaceted benefits that all Coloradans depend upon. Unfortunately, the majority of our streams have been degraded by more than two centuries of hydrologic modification, agricultural land use practices, roads and development, channelization, mining, and climate-driven disasters. The good news is that case studies of Colorado and other Western states’ stream restoration projects have proven successful to improve human and environmental health and reduce vulnerability to fire, flood, and drought. However, existing Colorado water governance creates substantial uncertainty and even barriers to restoring the valuable natural processes of streams.
Under the direction of Governor Polis, the DNR and associated experts drafted a legislative solution to this challenge. As with many water law issues, there is a need to provide clarity, which is what the legislation will do by setting forth where stream restoration can take place (in the historic footprint of the stream riparian corridor), without being subject to water administration.
Senator Dylan Roberts (6:16) reports, “This bill is a key part in protecting our watersheds, streams, and rivers, and capitalizing on the incredibly unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive funding from the federal government so that we can have healthy streams and rivers for decades into the future.” He further stated that “by having legal clarity for stream restoration, we can reduce barriers for these important projects to get off the ground and still protect water rights, and draw down some of the federal funding.”
Dr. Ellen Wohl (22:05) led the audience through the changes and challenges our river systems face and the importance of this timely opportunity to steward our rivers back into health. Jackie Corday (32:14) provided a detailed overview of the many benefits that healthy riverscapes offer through a series of successful restoration case studies, including reduced flood risks, improved water quality and resilience to drought and fires, reduction in sedimentation of reservoirs and headgates, and restoration aquatic and terrestrial habitat. All such projects could be in jeopardy in the future without a legislative fix.
Kelly Romero-Heaney (10:55) spoke to the importance of this unique opportunity for the Colorado General Assembly to “set a vision for the state, and the landscapes that have served us well for generations.” She reminded the audience that “Colorado provides the headwaters for 19 states and Mexico” and that “we have shared responsibility to store water through our landscapes in a way that restores and maintains its environmental benefits.” Both Kelly and Senator Roberts informed the audience that the Colorado General Assembly has invested $45 million in watershed restoration over the last few years. Water providers, conservation organizations, and local governments have also invested millions of dollars in restoring our streams.
Representative Karen McCormick (43:55) recounted the similar policy solutions in neighboring Western states, setting the path for Colorado to take lead. “We want to make sure we’re removing these barriers to stream restoration while protecting the rights of water users. This is an everybody conversation. We need to craft the best solution that brings all voices to the table.”
Healthy riverscapes contribute to healthy forest systems, provide habitat for birds and wildlife, improve water supplies and forage for agriculture, and offer clean and reliable drinking water. Please join us in supporting our streams to ensure they can be restored to their natural function so that we can all thrive. Mark your calendars for a second installment of the series on March 8th. Registration and further details will be released in the coming weeks.
Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):
Colorado officials have drafted a bill aimed at addressing a tension between stream restoration projects and water rights holders.
The draft clarifies that restoration projects do not fall under the definitions of a diversion, storage or a dam and do not need to go through the lengthy and expensive water court process to secure a water right.
But before a project begins, proponents would have to file an information form with the state Division of Water Resources showing the project will stay within the historical footprint of the floodplain before it was degraded and doesn’t create new wetlands, the draft bill proposes. These forms would be publicly available, and anyone could then challenge whether the project meets the requirements by filing a complaint, which would be taken up by DWR staff.
If stream restoration projects were required to secure a water right and spend money on an expensive augmentation plan, in which water is released to replace depletions it causes, it could discourage these types of projects, something the state Department of Natural Resources wants to avoid.
“We are trying to make it clear that stream restoration projects do not fall under the definition of diversion,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the state’s assistant director for water policy. “However, we put limits on what a restoration project is or isn’t and the restoration project has to fall within the historical footprint of the stream system.”
Slowing the flow
Restoration projects on small headwaters tributaries often mimic beaver activity, with what are called beaver dam analogues. These temporary wood structures usually consist of posts driven into the streambed with willows and other soft materials woven across the channel between the posts. The idea is that by creating appealing habitat in areas that historically had beavers, the animals will recolonize and continue maintaining the health of the stream.
The goal of process-based restoration projects like these is to return conditions in the headwaters to what they were before waterways were harmed by mining, cattle grazing, road building and other human activities that may have confined the river to a narrow channel and disconnected it from its floodplain.
In these now-simplified stream systems, water, sediment and debris all move downstream more quickly, said Ellen Wohl, a fluvial geomorphologist at Colorado State University.
“Natural rivers have all these sources of variability,” Wohl said. “They have pools and riffles, meanderings, obstructions like wood and beaver dams. All those things can help slow the flow, which leads to less bed and bank erosion. It allows sediment to be deposited gradually along the channel, and you increase biological processing and recharge of ground water and soil moisture.”
Although these projects benefit the environment, improve water quality and create resiliency against wildfires and climate change, keeping water on the landscape for longer could potentially have impacts to downstream water users. Under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation, the oldest water rights — which nearly always belong to agriculture — have first use of the water.
Some are concerned that if the projects create numerous ponds in the headwaters, it could slow the rate of peak spring runoff or create more surface area for evaporation, meaning irrigators may not get their full amount of water.
John McClow is an attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and is chair of a Colorado Water Congress sub-committee studying the bill, which will make suggestions to the bill’s sponsors. He said there have been wet meadow restoration projects in the headwaters of the Gunnison River that have harmed water rights holders.
“We had some examples of well-intentioned but poorly designed projects,” he said. “In each case we worked with water rights holders and removed the obstruction so their water rights were not impaired.”
McClow said he would like to see the bill set a standard to avoid problems at the outset of projects.
State Sen. Dylan Roberts, who represents District 8 and is chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, is one of the bill’s sponsors. He said part of the bill’s urgency is so that Colorado can take advantage of unprecedented federal funding for stream restoration from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
“If we can demonstrate to the federal government that we have a streamlined process for stream restoration projects, then we will make Colorado significantly more eligible for those federal funds,” Roberts said. “We are trying our best to position our state to receive the resources that we deserve.”
Roberts, a Democrat whose Western Slope district includes Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties, expects the bill to be introduced later this month.
Romero-Heaney said the state’s system of water law works well because it is adaptable to the evolving needs of Coloradans. The stream restoration legislation aims to reduce barriers to projects while still protecting water rights.
“We are at that moment where we need to make a decision: Do we want to have a future with healthy streams that are providing all those environmental services, or do we want to make that future pretty difficult to achieve?” she said. “It’s a soul-searching conversation for the water community.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
“Water is the conversation. It will be the centerpiece of our agenda this year,” said newly elected Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie, setting the tone and elevating water issues for Colorado’s 2023 General Assembly.
It’s no secret Colorado’s rivers and streams are suffering and our state’s challenges are a good example of water crises gripping the American West. Parched rivers; stressed farms, livestock and fish; and more frequent floods and wildfires are all symptoms of the disruption wrought as climate change impacts our region and already strained water supply.
Colorado’s lawmakers and other leaders have a responsibility to ensure Coloradans have the tools we need to proactively respond to drought and its impacts — on the legislature’s opening day, Senate President Steve Fenberg made it clear water will be among the high priority items the General Assembly takes on. And Speaker McCluskie concurred, saying: “Colorado has to be seen as a leader in this space.” Gov. Jared Polis’s proposed 2023 budget has already highlighted support for addressing our state’s water challenges. Last year the federal government injected a once-in-a- generation allocation of public funds to support water needs in the West. Now action is needed within the Colorado legislature to increase funding and capacity to establish both immediate and long-term drought security and to protect clean drinking water alongside river and watershed health.
We’re excited to see the Governor’s budget request for a historic $25.2 million to advance implementation of the state’s water plan, providing capacity to meet increasing demands, to combat the effects of climate change, and to support the health of our rivers. It’s important to note: these state funds are vital for unlocking matching federal dollars, dollars that are expected to be leveraged for approximately $100 million worth of water project grants across the state — a 4-to-1 return on investment. By engaging local communities, investing federal funds in needed infrastructure projects, and empowering millions of people to take action to conserve water, Colorado will make significant progress toward responding to long-term climate trends.
Flows in the Colorado River have decreased by more than 20% in just the past 20 years, which is why improving the struggling Colorado River system has been, and remains, the top priority for Water for Colorado. A healthy and vibrant river system serves as habitat for wildlife, increases resilience to floods and wildfires, enhances the quality and availability of water and forage for livestock, bolsters critical rural recreation economies and provides numerous ecological services that protect our sources of clean drinking water. With increasing threats of extreme weather events, healthy and functioning streams are critical to ensuring resilient communities, and a thriving state. This is why we are supporting efforts by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to pass legislation clarifying stream restoration projects can proceed without unnecessary red tape; and also why we support Governor Polis’s budget request to increase Colorado’s ability to leverage federal funds and assist with the crisis we are facing on the Colorado River.
Water policy is no longer a niche issue. Water conversations are happening at every level of state leadership — from the Governor’s office, to the General Assembly, to the Attorney General’s office — and across issue areas this session, making national headlines week after week. For example, as Governor Polis and the General Assembly seek to address land-use patterns and the affordable housing crisis, they are inserting water use into the conversation as a vital element. Integrating land use, development planning and more flexible water management can be another area on which our state leads.
The focus on water needs to be wide-ranging, but it also must be consistent. The time is now for Colorado to implement innovative policies that keep rivers flowing and proactively respond to drought conditions. In doing so, we will be a leader, showing other states how to do more with less, supporting the health of our river systems, and securing our state’s long-term vitality in the face of a hotter, drier future.
As Speaker McCluskie told us, the work ahead on water may be “the most challenging work the state has ever done.” While this is likely true, it may also be the most
rewarding — we can tell our children and grandchildren they live in a more resilient state because of the work conducted this session.
In his 2023 State of the State, Governor Polis reminded us “water is life in Colorado and the (W)est, it’s as simple as that.” The consequences of inaction this session are too great to consider. Failing to protect our water resources is not an option. Luckily, Colorado has the opportunity to not only protect our water resources in the near-term, but lead the charge toward longer-term drought resilience and climate resilience. It’s incumbent upon our lawmakers to secure Colorado’s water future. We look forward to working together to do so.
Abby Burk is Western Rivers Regional Program Manager for Audubon Rockies. Jessica Gelay is the Colorado Government Affairs Manager for Western Resource Advocates. Audubon Rockies and Western Resource Advocates are both members of the Water for Colorado Coalition.
Water is our most precious natural resource and life-sustaining force for Coloradans, birds, and other wildlife. On January 9, Colorado lawmakers headed to the Capitol to start the 120-day legislative session. As a centerpiece of the session, water will connect and unite lawmakers and constituents with ripple effects for years to come.
At a critical time for water, leadership from all three legislative chambers have commented on the importance of Colorado’s water to the sustainability and vitality of our state. “(Water) is the conversation, it will be the centerpiece of our agenda this year, if for no other reason than that Colorado has to be seen as a leader in this space,” said Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie. “The conversation around water is going to be a big one,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg.
On January 17, 2023, Governor Jared Polis, in the State of the State address, remarked: “Water is life in Colorado and the west, it’s as simple as that. But we’re at a crossroads. Increased demand, chronic and extreme drought, conflicts with other states, and devastating climate events are threatening this critical life source— and we’ve all seen the impacts. Wildfires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres and devastated entire communities. Farmers and ranchers across the state fear that Colorado won’t have the water resources to sustain the next generation of agricultural jobs… When Colorado is 150, I want our state to have the water resources necessary for our farms, communities, and industries to thrive, and the tools in place to protect our state’s waterways and defend our rights.”
Clearly, water is a legislative priority. Big water ideas are in the wind, but proponents need to share concepts broadly. Our decisions about water influence all areas of life for people and nature. We’re doing a better job of including and valuing a diversity of input in water decisions, but we need to do more. A diversity of water stakeholders must support legislative proposals that support multiple beneficial uses.
Audubon Rockies is busy working with lawmakers, agencies, and partners to prioritize healthy, functioning, and resilient watersheds and river systems for people and birds—the natural systems that we all depend upon. There are already seven bills on our water watch list, plus several draft bills. Here are three water priority areas for Audubon in the 2023 Colorado legislative session. Please make sure you’re signed up to hear about opportunities to engage with them.
Colorado’s ability to thrive depends upon the health and function of our natural stream systems. Healthy, functioning stream systems provide critical habitat to most of Colorado’s wildlife; improve wildfire resilience, drought mitigation, flood safety, water quality, forest health, riparian and aquatic habitat; and provide many other ecological benefits that are beneficial to all Coloradans.
Stream restoration practices have been successfully implemented across Colorado for more than 30 years by federal, state, and local agencies, conservation organizations, water providers, and private landowners. The projects are usually designed to address the environmental, public safety, infrastructure, and economic impacts of degraded river corridor conditions. However, recently there has been increased uncertainty about stream restoration practices in regards to water rights issues. Project proponents need a clear path to initiating and completing a stream restoration project.
Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is on track to introduce proposed 2023 legislation to provide clarity and certainty on where stream restoration projects may take place based on the historical footprint (the presence of a stream and its riparian corridor’s location before disturbance occurred) without being subject to water rights administration. Without a legislative solution, Colorado could miss out on the critical benefits of healthy functioning river corridors and the significant funding currently available for watershed restoration work through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act.
This stream restoration legislation is a top priority for Audubon. We have partnered with DNR to host a water legislator webinar series on this bill.
Join me on February 2, 8-8:45 AM for a bill orientation webinar with DNR leadership, bill sponsors, and leading experts. Register here.
Despite near-term optimism from a snowy December and January, climate change and unprecedented drought conditions in recent years are threatening Colorado’s ability to satisfy water users, environmental needs, and potentially interstate obligations. We need more flexible ways to manage and deliver water to support the Colorado we love. The Colorado River Basin has been in an extended drought going on 24 years. There are real consequences for people, birds, and every other living thing that depends on rivers in this region. Colorado needs tools and resources to proactively respond to drought conditions and maximize the benefits to the state, its water users, and river systems from once-in-a-generation competitive federal funds that have recently been made available to address the Colorado River Basin drought. Audubon will be watching this session for legislation to support that will provide new innovative solutions to the water threats we face.
Water Funding & Projects
Governor Polis’ proposed budget request includes a historic $25.2 million to advance the state’s Water Plan implementation and expansion of staff and funding to capture competitive federal funds. These much-needed proposals should be well-received by lawmakers, given that water security, drought, and fire are on everyone’s mind for this legislative session. We must ensure that these funds are invested wisely in water projects and water resources management strategies. The strategies must be equitable and fair for vulnerable communities and improve the health of Colorado’s watersheds for people and nature. Funding and water projects that support our river ecosystems are intrinsically related to our public health, economy, and the Coloradan ways of life.
Leaders of the two federally-recognized Native American tribes within Colorado’s borders used part of their first annual address to the state’s General Assembly to brief lawmakers on the long history of their relations with other governments — beginning with a treaty with the Spanish more than a century before the United States existed.
“The Ute people have been here since time immemorial,” Chairman Manuel Heart of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe said. “We as the Ute people have lost a lot over time, up to the present day, 2023 … We all claim these lands as our homelands, but let us look at the past history and what has been taken away.”
Heart and Melvin J. Baker, chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe, stressed attention to education and water issues in separate speeches to nearly 100 Colorado lawmakers gathered for a joint session of the state Legislature on Wednesday. They were the first addresses delivered under Senate Bill 22-105, a law passed last year that invites tribal representatives to give an annual address modeled on the governor’s State of the State speech.
“Today’s address marks an historic step forward in strengthening our partnership with Colorado’s Tribes and uplifting the priorities, concerns and accomplishments of those communities,” Senate President Steve Fenberg of Boulder and Majority Leader Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, both Democrats, said in a statement.
The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain tribes are headquartered on reservations in southwest Colorado’s La Plata and Montezuma counties, respectively, where they were forcibly relocated in the late 19th century following a gold and silver rush in the San Juan Mountains. A third Ute tribe is headquartered on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in eastern Utah.
In general, Baker said, the two tribes have a strong working relationship with state and local agencies in Colorado.
“When we look at other states, we often see friction between the states and the tribes within (their) borders, but not in Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is the leader among all states when it comes to honoring the tribal-state relationship.”
But both chairmen faulted lawmakers for legislative efforts that have not always taken tribal concerns and sovereignty into account, like its 2019 referral of a sports-betting measure to the statewide ballot, where it was approved by voters. Heart and Baker said that their tribes weren’t consulted on the measure’s language, and have faced hurdles in setting up sports books at tribal casinos.
“There are times when you legislate that you may not remember that there are two sovereign tribes within your borders,” said Baker.
Education a priority
Heart praised the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 21-116, which prohibits the use of American Indian mascots by public schools and went into effect last year. But he noted that Colorado’s curriculum standards don’t include specific teachings on the history of the Utes, and called on lawmakers to change that.
“It is important that future generations are provided with this history and knowledge,” Heart said. “Now is the time to ensure that the oldest continuous residents of this country, their history be required in the curriculum in the public education system.”
Other recent legislation passed by the General Assembly includes the creation of a new state office to investigate cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation last month launched a Missing Indigenous Persons Alert system, which was activated for the first time on Jan. 3 following the disappearance of Wanbli Oyate Vigil, a 27-year-old Denver resident who was found deceased by police two days later.
Heart said a priority for the Ute Mountain Utes is to improve the quality of education on tribal lands. The tribe’s efforts have included the opening of a new charter school in 2021, where students are taught the Ute language and other cultural traditions alongside standard elementary instruction. He spoke of the long-lasting damage caused by the boarding schools where many Native American children were sent under federal forced-assimilation policies as recently as the early 20th century.
“The boarding school era was an atrocity,” Heart said. “It had a devastating impact on three to four generations of tribal families in a very negative way, right up to today.”
Baker urged lawmakers to consult and cooperate with the Southern Ute Tribe on issues including oil and gas and clean-energy development, as well as regional water management in an age of worsening drought driven by climate change. Both tribes hold key water rights within the Colorado River system, where states, tribal governments and federal agencies are negotiating ahead of a 2026 deadline that could reshape the river’s future.
“Please remember that our most important resource is water,” Baker said. “It is essential that we work together for the protection of those water rights so they are present for future generations.”
WHEN State Sen. Cleave Simpson reports for duty at the Colorado Capitol this week, he does so representing a newdistrict that was carved out as part of the 2021 Colorado redistricting process.
What isn’t changing is his legislative focus and the issues he plans to continue working on. He also has some serious thinking to do, specifically on what his political future may look like entering 2024.
Colorado redistricting shifted Simpson into Senate District 6 which consists of the San Luis Valley’s six counties and then lower southwest Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and counties north to Montrose County. In 2020, when he was first elected, he represented state Senate District 35 which included the San Luis Valley and counties of southeastern Colorado.
“It’s really about people, and honestly it will still be about water,” Simpson told Alamosa Citizen ahead of the 2023 legislative session. “Folks on the Rio Grande and the Arkansas (River) worry about water. The folks on the Western Slope, given the condition of the Colorado River and how much water gets moved out of that transbasin to support front range interests, that similarity will continue and that sense of urgency may even escalate more going west.”
AS a Republican in a Colorado Senate controlled by Democrats, Simpson finds himself in an oddly comfortable spot. In his two years as state senator, he’s managed to carve out a reputation as a leading bipartisan legislator who Republicans and Democrats alike can work with.
He has major pieces of bipartisan legislation to his name, including Colorado’s 988 Crisis Hotline in 2021 and the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund which remarkably sailed through both the state senate and state house with no opposition in the 2022 session. He’s also focused his early legislative work on behavioral health legislation and sits on the legislature’s influential Capitol Development Committee and his favorite, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.
“I like to think I spent two years building some credibility where folks will listen to what’s important to me, which is hopefully what’s important to rural Colorado,” he said.
“It’s been very intentional,” he said of his bipartisan approach, “but it’s also who I am. I didn’t change who I was when I got elected to the legislature. It feels like I’ve built that reputation in two years and folks on the other side of the aisle are always willing to engage with me.”
Not always the case with the Colorado Republican Party. He still smarts about the time the party chair wouldn’t help when he was rallying state leaders to oppose the proposed transbasin diversion of water from the Rio Grande to Douglas County that former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a fellow Republican, is behind through Renewable Water Resources. Owens himself has called out Simpson. “When the attorney general and state Sen. Cleave Simpson claim they will do all they can to stop the voluntary selling of water rights, they are saying to Coloradans that they know better than you do what to do with your private property,” Owens penned in an op/ed published just a year ago.
Will he run again?
Simpson finds himself uncomfortable with the politics of the time and wonders if he will run again when his state senate term expires in two years. His job as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and farming with his dad and son provide him with more than enough to do. When he travels north for legislative work he thinks about the work he’s leaving behind and wonders if being a gentleman legislator it’s what he truly wants to do.
Friends back home in the Valley are in his ear about running again in 2024, some even suggesting he challenge Rep. Lauren Boebert to represent the 3rd Congressional District. He’s heard the calls and understands the water issues he cares so much about will find their way to the nation’s capital.
Like others in the water community he’s frustrated by Boebert’s apparent lack of engagement on the critical issues of the Colorado and Rio Grande basins. There was frustration at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that a federal House bill called the Rio Grande Water Security Act was introduced last session by New Mexico Rep. Melanie Stansbury without their knowledge and without Boebert, their congressperson’s, involvement.
The bill actually made it out of the House but was detoured through the U.S. Senate through political maneuvering to make sure it wouldn’t advance into law. Simpson and his team at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, along with staff in U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office, helped bring attention to the flaws they saw in the bill.
If Simpson is tempted to challenge Boebert it would be because of the water issues on the Colorado and Rio Grande basins.
He’s vowed to work the 2023 legislative session and then give more thought to his political future. He has a new state senate district to represent and spent the summer traveling to Telluride, Cortez, Durango and other communities west of the San Luis Valley which coincidentally aligns to the 3rd Congressional District.
“They are definitely different, but they are also similar in a lot of respects,” he said of representing communities west of the San Luis Valley versus his travels east the past two years.
“It’s still rural Colorado,” he said. “The southeast is dominated by irrigated agriculture. There is certainly an abundance of some of that going west but not to the same level. There will be more ranching and there’s a lot more public land going west.”
And there’s the Colorado River and its troubles, which Simpson is deeply attuned to given his work at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and efforts to recover the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
It’s the water issues on the Colorado and Rio Grande that Simpson said are most critical and where he plans to continue to focus his legislative attention.
“There’s just such a compelling and growing concern on my part and others about where water is going to push this state, and I think legislators need to be better engaged and better informed,” he said.
Heading into this third legislative session he enters the Capitol more confident and with friends, as they say, on both sides of the aisle.
Colorado’s top lawmakers spared no superlative in describing the need to address the state’s water crisis at the annual pre-legislative breakfast Wednesday morning. The annual Business Legislative Preview, hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, serves as an unofficial start to the legislative session. While crime, housing, and decarbonization were all discussed, it was water that incoming Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie said would be “the centerpiece” of the legislative agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno joined McCluskie on the Democratic side of the panel, and incoming Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen and House Minority Leader Mike Lynch represented the Republican side. Each side noted the political reality of the upcoming legislative session…
…each side underscored the importance of water and the desire to be part of the conversation. They also noted the complexity of laws governing the resource, other states’ rights — and over-slurping of — water.
“For almost all of us up here, and quite frankly probably most of you folks in the room, this is an issue we don’t have the depth of knowledge we ought to have,” Lundeen said. “Water is critical, it’s not only critical today, but it’s critical to the future of Colorado that our children and grandchildren will live in.”
He warned of the state’s “parched” future if something isn’t done to secure water and pledged his caucus’ engagement on the issue. Lynch likewise said water “will dictate the future of this state.” Each emphasized the need for new reservoirs to store water before it flows out of state.
Politics in 2023 will be the topic in a January 25 panel of Colorado political pundits at the annual Colorado Water Congress conference. Republican Dick Wadhams, Democrat Mike Dino, and pollster Floyd Ciruli will visit the hot Colorado topics in 2023 and heading into the 2024 presidential election.
Among the topics are:
Congressmen Boebert and Caraveo were in the five closest elections in the country in 2022. Will they have difficult 2024 reelections?
Will the large Democratic legislative majority affect the ideological/partisan shape of legislation in 2023? Are there any restraints on Democratic legislative priorities, especially of the far left? Can Republicans have influence?
Colorado’s Independent voters (46% of electorate, 40% of 2022 voters) are center stage. How are they changing the state’s politics? Can Democrats lose them, can Republicans reach them?
Can the current Colorado political distribution of power address the urban-rural divide (agriculture, endangered species, water, oil & gas)?
Does the changing political leadership (mostly Democrats) among Colorado River states affect the possibility for new agreements on saving or sharing water?
Will Joe Biden and Donald Trump be the two presidential nominees in 2024? If not, who? Will Governor Polis be a factor in the 2024 national race? Hickenlooper, Bennet?
[Steve] Fenberg said members are working on several bills to reduce ozone emissions and aiming to boost air quality in the state . First, officials need to separate out what is in state control and what isn’t, while also balancing that regulations come with economic and personal costs. Fenberg cited the temporary closure of the Suncor refinery specifically: It may lead to cleaner air for a few months, but it may also mean people already under the thumb of inflation may pay more for energy. Lawmakers will also continue to look at the oil and gas industry, though Fenberg said those details aren’t yet finished. He mentioned incentivizing the electrification of drill rigs to tamp down on pre-production drilling emissions as one likely effort. Regulators have also been working on new rules for energy production, a product of 2019’s Senate Bill 181, and lawmakers will be watching to see if it accomplishes what they wanted, he said.
“I want to be careful and make sure the appropriate things are at the regulatory side so that we’re not over-prescribing at the legislative level,” Fenberg said.
Water remains a defining aspect of life in the West, and Colorado’s water crisis remains as acute as ever. Fenberg called it “a bit of an existential threat” to the state’s economy and its communities. Conservation, drought resilience and infrastructure efforts will be big aims, though the legislative leaders did not have specific policies yet.
“One of the biggest frustrations when we talk about water quantity is certainly the diverse interests that come to the table,” McCluskie said. “This isn’t a Republican and Democrat issue, this is a Western Slope and eastern slope issue. It is an ag economy, a tourist economy and outdoor recreation economy interest.”
Right now, the goal is to convene stakeholders to find common ground across those sometimes disparate interests, she said. And the bevy of new lawmakers also need time to brush up on the dissertation-worthy topic of western water law. McCluskie said state Rep. Karen McCormick, who will chair the Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee, has been putting together a “water boot camp” for her members.
The Citizen’s 2022 Year in Water compilation will help you see more of the big picture – both with the unconfined aquifer and the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. It’s important to see the fuller landscape, and we think the 2022 year in review does the trick. We would also direct you to our most recent podcast with state Sen. Cleave Simpson, who talks both about the upcoming 2023 legislative session and the critical time we’re in when it comes to water and irrigated ag in the San Luis Valley.
Colorado’s Joint Committee on Legislative Council has approved a slate of bills put forward by various interim committees to be introduced and considered in the next legislative session, ranging from a bill to create a new office for youth eating disorder prevention to one that would create a new task force to look into high altitude water storage.
The Legislative Council, which is made up of nine senators and seven representatives, is required to review bills put forward by the committees that meet outside of the legislative session. The bills they approve then get introduced in the session as a committee bill.
The council approved two items from the Interim Committee on Judicial Discipline, which was formed last legislative session in response to allegations of a quid pro quo to deter a former Judicial Branch chief of staff from going public with evidence of alleged misconduct.
“Senate Bill 22-201, which created this particular interim committee, did make some important changes in statute concerning flow of information about judicial discipline and, for the first time, codified independent funding for the commission. But statutory change alone did not and could not address the fundamentals of the system,” state Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat, said.
Both items passed out of the interim committee unanimously to be considered by the Legislative Council.
“These constitute meaningful and necessary changes to our judicial discipline process. They reflect all of us grappling hard with the 17 different points in our charge,” Weissman said.
One of the items from the interim committee, a concurrent resolution, would ask Colorado voters in 2024 to change some constitutional framework for judicial discipline. Primarily, it would make judicial discipline matters public and create an Independent Judicial Discipline Adjudicative Board that would replace the role of “special masters” in imposing sanctions.
The other item, a companion bill, fleshes out some of the details from the concurrent resolution.
Bills to address water storage, wildfire mitigation
The Legislative Council approved a bill from the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee that would create a task force to study the feasibility of high altitude water storage and whether snowmaking would result in meaningful storage. The task force would submit its report by June 2024.
The task force would focus on whether the idea could “augment water storage in a creative way,” Democratic state. Sen Kerry Donovan of Vail said. “That will be a very interesting bill to see what thoughts it produces.”
The council also approved a bill that would make the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee a year-round committee.
“If we could move it to a year round committee, then there will be that consistency of focus and consistency of knowledge base that will then allow the General Assembly to be much more engaged with Colorado’s water future,” Donovan said.
Of the five bills presented by the Wildfire Matters Review Committee and approved by the council, two concern workforce development.
“We’ve heard for the past couple of years in this committee how workforce issues are becoming a real problem and felt like it was time to move forward and assist,” Rep. Lisa Cutter said during a Sept. 28 meeting. “We’ve put a lot of funds towards wildfire mitigation programs over the past few years, and now our workforce is lagging. If we don’t have the workforce to accomplish those programs, then it’s not going to make any difference.”
One bill would direct the Colorado state forest service to develop materials on work opportunities to be distributed in high schools, provide partial reimbursements for interns at wildfire mitigation entities, create a new forestry program within the community college system and appropriate money from the general fund to recruit educators.
Cutter said the committee will continue to “listen and refine” the bill to make sure it is compatible with existing programs.
Another bill from the committee would create a timber, forest health, and wildfire mitigation industries workforce development program within the state forest service. It would provide partial reimbursement for interns through an income tax credit.
Youth bill to create office on eating disorders
The council approved three bills from the Youth Advisory Council, which considers issues concerning the state’s young people.
“We have some very bright and intelligent young people that put forward these ideas. I think they are very eager to see these policies and ideas advance with bipartisan support. By no means are these bills in their final form, and I think they’d be really willing to consider any changes to make sure they do pass with that broad base of support,” Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Democrat who served as the vice chair of the Youth Advisory Council, said.
One would establish an office of disordered eating prevention within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that would have wide authority to work with other departments to provide and compile resources, collaborate with advocacy groups and educate the public, particularly young people, on disordered eating prevention methods. It would also create a grant program until 2027 to support research on the topic.
This would take an “upstream approach to eating disorders and make sure we’re doing the most we can to not only prevent eating disorders in our state but be a trailblazer across the country in spearheading this public health effort,” committee member Aimee Resnick, who lives in Centennial, said during a Sept. 30 bill discussion when the committee voted on which bills to put forward to the Legislative Council.
Another bill would create a committee within the Department of Education to develop a uniform practice for schools to identify students who may need treatment for substance abuse. The third bill put forward by the committee and approved by the Legislative Council would require school boards to adopt a policy to address disproportionate disciplinary practices in public schools.
The Colorado Legislature convenes for its next session on Jan. 9, 2023.
The Colorado General Assembly’s Interim Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee recommended two bills for consideration next session, which will begin in January 2023, at its third and final meeting on Sept. 22. One would change the committee from an interim to a year-round committee, and the other would create a task force to explore the use of snowmaking by ski areas as an alternative form of water storage.
Joint Water Committee
The committee unanimously recommended a bill that would change its status from an interim committee — limited to meeting after the legislature adjourns each session — to a year-round committee that would meet at least four times each year. Its purposes would remain the same: “contributing to and monitoring the conservation, use, development, and financing of the water resources of Colorado for the general welfare of its inhabitants; identifying, monitoring, and addressing Colorado agriculture issues; and reviewing and proposing water resources and agriculture legislation.” And its make-up would not change: 10 members, with five appointed by the president of the Senate and two by the minority leader; and five appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives after consultation with the minority leader.
In proposing the bill, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, said he was responding to a “sense of urgency, and really approaching almost emergency status in the state about water issues.” He pointed to “challenges from Nebraska on the South Platte, [and] declining reservoirs in the Colorado River system” that would benefit from giving the committee “the ability to meet as needed throughout the course of the year.”
The committee also unanimously recommended a bill that would create a seven-member task force to study and report back on the feasibility of using high-altitude snowmaking to serve as water storage. Task force members would include the state engineer, two state legislators, a representative of the ski industry and one from the whitewater rafting industry, an engineer with experience in high-altitude hydrology, and staff from the U.S. Forest Service. If the bill passes, the task force would meet no later than Nov. 1, 2023, and report its findings and any recommendations to the committee by June 1, 2024.
At an earlier committee meeting in August, Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said he had been mulling the concept of an alternative water storage system and this approach “would allow ski resorts to blow other people’s water as snow up into the high woods to extend the snowmelt by 30-45 days and literally allow them to create storage up high as snow.” He thought this could be a “transformative way of storing water in the state of Colorado that does some things for an industry we depend on, and does some things to delay water coming down, in some cases, until we really need it.”
In introducing the bill, Rep. McKean acknowledged that “this is intended to be a conversation” to explore whether the idea makes sense. He was looking for the task force to help determine if “there is a financial and logistical way of increasing storage at high altitude.”
The committee had seven other bills before it but all were withdrawn by their sponsors, citing the need for additional work. Among those receiving testimony was a bill that would restrict a homeowners association from unreasonably requiring the use of either rock or turf grass on more than a certain percentage of a homeowner’s landscape and providing an option for drought-tolerant plantings on the rest of the property. Another bill would provide legal protections and financial incentives to treat nontributary water that is “developed,” or brought to the surface, as a byproduct of oil and gas operations for other beneficial uses.
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.