Water will play key role in Colorado's 2023 legislative session

Tuesday marked the deadline for seven states, including Colorado, to come to a voluntary agreement on how to conserve water from the Colorado River before the federal government intervened.
Posted at 6:17 PM, Jan 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-01 00:12:17-05

DENVER — Tuesday marked the deadline for seven states, including Colorado, to come to a voluntary agreement on how to conserve water from the Colorado River before the federal government intervened.

Six of the states submitted a last-minute proposal to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that would dramatically reduce water use in the basin.

However, California, which uses the most water of any of the states in the compact, was the lone holdout. Instead, the state released its own plan.

RELATED: California is lone holdout in Colorado River cuts proposal

While the states wait for the federal government’s response, Colorado lawmakers are considering their own water conservation plans.

“It takes funding for infrastructure projects. It takes money for more storage. It takes funding for conservation efforts,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle. “How do we fund our water plan and our water needs, but also ensure that our laws are in the right way to protect people against future losses?”

In his State of the State address, Governor Jared Polis spoke at length about water, tying it to everything from housing to wildfires and saying Colorado is at a crossroads.

In the last fical year, Polis says the state awarded more than $23 million in grants that supported nearly $100 million in projects, but says there’s more work to be done.

“The most important thing we can do for water security is protect our waterways and rights,” the governor said.

Water will play key role in Colorado's 2023 legislative session

In his 2023 budget proposal, Polis requested $55 million that will draw down $300 million for water resources, which includes $25 million for the state water plan.

“The first is a $12.6 million request from the state's general fund that would go towards a grant program that the Colorado Water Conservation Board runs,” said Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “It funds all kinds of water projects around the state, including environmental projects like stream restoration efforts and infrastructure projects, increasing our storage capacity.”

That funding request would be matched by a separate legislative proposal that would use revenue from sports betting.

Polis has also requested 14 additional staff members in the state’s Department of Natural Resources to focus on the topic of water.

Ris describes the water shortage as a slow-moving train crash, saying Colorado and other states have known for a while that it’s coming, but there are also a lot of factors that are out of their control, like climate change.

She predicts water storage will be a big topic of conversation moving forward, since snow is melting earlier in the year and faster. Therefore, the state needs to have a way to keep the water it’s allocated and get it to the areas that need it the most.

The state is also working to get the most bang for its buck with its water resources.

“One of the things that we really look for as we are funding water projects is does a project have multiple benefits. So, is it a storage project that also provides some enhanced recreational opportunities? Are there some projects that not only replace aging infrastructure, but also improve fish passage?” Ris said.

Last week, the state released an updated version of the Colorado Water Plan. Since its conception in 2015, water conservation efforts have decreased per capita water use by 5%.

The updated plan focuses on five areas with a list of 50 actions for the state to take. The themes include vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds and resilient planning.

If anyone knows about the water challenges ahead, it’s Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa. He comes from an area where agriculture consumes 90 to 95 percent of the water.

Simpson says farmers and ranchers are already taking conservation steps, such as improved irrigation efficiencies. As a farmer himself, he’s also trying different approaches to conserve.

“My son and I are routinely having this conversation that I don't think we can keep doing what we've been doing for decades on my farm,” Simpson said. “I've raised alfalfa, the most water consumptive use crop we can raise, but that's what my dad did, what my grandpa did, what my great-grandpa did. All my capital investments centered around putting up alfalfa.”

Last year, for the first time, Simpson tried raising hemp for its fiber. The crop uses half as much water.

The transition was not easy. Now, Simpson is trying to figure out if the trade paid off for him economically.

There are a lot of ideas floating around the state for how to help agriculture, from incentivizing farmers to occasionally switch out their crops for ones that are less water consuming to better irrigation systems.

Simpson has a bill this year to add solar on top of productive agriculture to reduce water consumption. However, he says there is no silver bullet solution, and local governments must have a seat at the table in coming up with solutions.

Growth poses another big challenge for water conversations around the state.

“We're experiencing large growth on the Front Range and in the metro areas, and a lot of people are coming into Colorado because it's a great place to live,” said Roberts. “When you have increased demand and a decrease supply, you're going to reach a crisis point at some point.”

Roberts says lawmakers can create a statewide policy, but it needs to be flexible enough that each basin can tailor the plan to their needs.

In the end, Roberts says Colorado is ahead of other states when it comes to water conservation and will continue to serve as a leader moving forward. He says the state is showing the federal government that it is committed to conservation, so it needs to look elsewhere for cuts. However, this will take a regional approach.

Roberts also sees the proposal by six states as a positive step forward, but says everyone needs to contribute.

Lawmakers have not yet proposed any major water bills this year, but are expected to in coming weeks and months.

In the end, lawmakers say water is a nonpartisan issue and something that was not created in a day, nor will it be solved in a day. The key is to make serious investments now before the shortage becomes worse.

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