Colorado lawmakers passed 10 new water measures this year. These are the biggest ones.

Colorado lawmakers gave the thumbs-up to 10 water measures this year that will bring millions of dollars in new funding to help protect streams, bring oversight to construction activities in wetlands and rivers, make commercial rainwater harvesting easier, and support efforts to restore the clarity of Grand Lake.

Money for water conservation, planning and projects was a big winner, with some $50 million approved, including $20 million to purchase the Shoshone water rights on the Colorado River.

Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco, chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, expressed gratitude for the legislature’s focus on water issues and for funding the Shoshone purchase. “This continues to show the state’s financial investment in our water future,” he said, “and we’ll now ask voters to retain even more money from sports betting to continue that funding commitment.”

Roberts was referring to a ballot initiative that will ask voters in November to allow the state to hold onto more of the tax revenue generated by sports betting.

Another major law created a new permitting program to protect wetlands and streams from construction, road building and development activities. Those federal regulations were wiped out last year by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Sackett v. EPA decision. Two competing measures were initially introduced, but lawmakers joined forces toward the end of the session to arrive at a bipartisan consensus.

In another action, lawmakers approved a narrow change to storm water storage rules that will allow an innovative commercial rain-water harvesting pilot program in Douglas County’s Sterling Ranch development to proceed.

“Dominion is excited to continue to advance the only regional rainwater harvesting project in the state, which now can be completed in a cost effective and timely manner with the unanimous support of the Colorado Legislature and the governor,” said Andrea Cole, general manager of Dominion Water and Sanitation, which is conducting the pilot program and which serves Sterling Ranch.

And lawmakers also approved two high-profile resolutions, one supporting efforts to restore clarity in the state’s Grand Lake, and a second resolution urging Congress to provide funding to help repair aging water systems serving tribal communities and others in southwestern Colorado. A third identifies projects eligible for funding through the Colorado Water and Power Development Authority. Resolutions, unlike laws, don’t usually come with money and have little legal weight.

Here’s a look at the most significant measures that passed.

House Bill 1435 — Colorado Water Conservation Board projects

This is an annual bill that provides grants and loans to projects requested by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. None of the money is from the state’s general fund; it includes interest earned from CWCB loans, severance taxes and sports betting revenue. The largest amounts this year are for two CWCB loans: up to $155.65 million for the Windy Gap Firming Project, and up to $101 million for the Northern Integrated Supply Project. The balance is for grants that include:

  • $23.3 million to help implement the state water plan (all of it from sports betting revenue, up from $10 million last year)
  • $20 million to support the purchase of Shoshone power plant water rights by the Colorado River Water Conservation District
  • $4 million for drought planning and mitigation projects
  • $2 million for the turf replacement program.

House Bill 1379 — Regulating dredge and fill activities in state waters

This bill grew out of the May 23, 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which narrowed the scope of waters protected under the federal Clean Water Act. It ruled that federal regulation of dredge and fill activities applies only to wetlands that have a “continuous surface connection” to rivers and other permanent bodies of water where it would be difficult to determine where the river stopped and the wetland began, eliminating federal protection to large areas of wetlands and seasonal streams in Colorado.

House Bill 1379 requires the Water Quality Control Commission in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to develop rules by Dec. 31, 2025, to implement a state program that is at least as protective as the guidelines developed under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. It covers discharges to “state waters,” which are defined as “any and all surface and subsurface waters that are contained in or flow in or through the state, including wetlands.” House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, said that by shifting from a “gap” program that covers only those waters left unprotected by Sackett to a “state waters” approach “we ensure clarity and certainty.”

The bill exempts certain activities and excludes some waters from coverage. Activities not requiring a permit include normal farming, ranching and forestry operations, along with maintenance of currently serviceable structures and construction or maintenance of irrigation ditches. Excluded waters include those in ditches and canals, wetlands adjacent to ditches or canals that are supported by water in the ditch or canal, and artificially irrigated areas that would revert to upland if irrigation ceased. Rep. Karen McCormick, D-Longmont, said that “codifying in statute the exemptions rather than leaving it to rulemaking” avoids some of the “unpredictability that existed at the federal level.”

Senate Bill 148 – Rain water harvesting, storage

Allows, with proper authorization, those operating an approved rain water harvesting pilot project to store water in a detention facility.

Senate Bill 197 — Water conservation

Senate Bill 197 contains provisions that were either recommendations or items discussed by the Colorado River Drought Task Force the General Assembly created last year. The bill allows the owner of a storage water right to loan water to the CWCB for stream sections where the CWCB does not hold an instream flow right. It permits the creation of agricultural water protection programs statewide instead of just in the South Platte, Republican and Arkansas river basins in eastern Colorado, and authorizes an irrigation water right holder to request a change in use to an agricultural protection water right that would allow the lease, loan or trade of up to 50% of the water.

The bill also allows electric utilities that plan to close coal-fired power plants in the Yampa River basin in northwestern Colorado from losing their water rights if they decrease or do not use the water for a specified period of time. Roberts said this would allow electric utilities “to temporarily toll their water rights and protect them from abandonment while those companies explore alternative energy development” to align with the state’s clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The drought task force included a sub-task force to study tribal matters, which recommended a provision in the bill that requires the CWCB to reduce or waive any matching requirements for state water plan implementation grants awarded to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe or the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

House Bill  1436 — Sports betting revenue

Sports betting revenue has been used to help fund implementation of the Colorado Water Plan since passage of Proposition DD by the electorate in 2019, which legalized sports betting and taxed its proceeds. The amount of revenue that can be used to support the state water plan was capped at $29 million, a figure that is likely to be exceeded this year. Rather than refund the excess money to casinos and licensed sport betting operators that paid the tax, House Bill 1436 refers a ballot measure to the voters in November asking them to remove the cap and allow the state to keep all revenue and use it to fund water conservation and protection projects.

The bill’s fiscal note projects that sports betting revenue will exceed $29 million this fiscal year by $2.8 million, by $5.2 million in fiscal year 2025, and by $7.2 million in fiscal year 2026 (the actual revenue is distributed the year following its collection and spent the year after). Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, noted that sports betting revenue has exceeded expectations, and if the voters approve, “this seems to be the easiest way to fund these kinds of projects (because) you don’t have to go and ask for property tax revenue or for tax money out of the state general fund.”

Senate Bill 5 — Prohibiting certain landscaping practices to conserve water

Faced with climate change and increasing water demand, Senate Bill 5 is designed to reduce water used for landscaping in new development projects. It prohibits local governments from allowing the installation of nonfunctional turf — grass that is not used primarily for recreational purposes — in commercial, institutional, industrial or common interest community property, street rights-of-way, parking lots, medians or transportation corridors after Jan. 1, 2026. It does not apply to residential property or to turf that is part of a water quality treatment program, native grasses or artificial turf on athletic fields. The bill also prohibits the Department of Personnel from installing the same types of turf in any new state facility construction project after Jan. 1, 2025.

Roberts noted that irrigating nonfunctional turf “is responsible for what is believed to be up to 50% of municipal water use,” and pointed out that Senate Bill 5 builds on legislation passed two years ago that provides funding for a turf replacement program.

Senate Bill 37 — Green infrastructure to improve water quality

Senate Bill 37 calls for a study of how “green infrastructure” might replace traditional concrete and steel wastewater treatment plants in managing water quality. Green infrastructure, according to bill writers,  is “a strategically planned, managed, and interconnected network of green spaces, such as conserved natural areas and features, public and private conservation lands, and private working lands with conservation value.” It can improve water quality by reducing stormwater runoff as pollutants are absorbed into soils and filtered before entering waterways, and lessen the need for expensive wastewater treatment plants, also known as gray infrastructure.

The bill requires the University of Colorado and Colorado State University — in collaboration with CDPHE — to conduct a feasibility study of how green infrastructure can be used as an alternative to gray infrastructure in complying with water quality regulations, and the types of new funding mechanisms that might support it. The universities, with CDPHE’s approval, may conduct up to three pilot projects to test their findings. CDPHE and the universities must complete the study by April 1, 2026, and submit a report summarizing its findings and any recommendations to the General Assembly’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee no later than Nov. 1, 2026.

Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, noted the cost-effectiveness of green infrastructure, especially in rural communities like those in his district where “to invest tens of millions of dollars in a new wastewater treatment plant to serve small numbers of people is just problematic.” He views Senate Bill 37 as offering “a different path forward where you can get the same outcomes but with more natural investments.”

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