Colorado lawmakers approved seven major new water bills this year, including one that approves millions in more funding for the Colorado Water Plan, another that makes restoring streams easier, and a third that creates a high-profile Colorado River task force.
The 2023 General Assembly, which adjourned May 8, also approved four others that address water wise landscaping, water use in oil fields, “don’t flush” labels for the disposable wipes that plague water systems, and one giving more muscle to an interim legislative committee whose job is to evaluate water problems and propose laws to fix them.
Two of the bills, the labeling requirement, as well as the legislative committee changes, have been signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis. The five remaining bills await his signature.
Funding Water Projects
Each year the Colorado General Assembly considers the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) “projects bill,” which this year—Senate Bill 177—appropriates $95 million from three sources: CWCB’s construction fund, severance taxes on oil and gas production, and sports betting revenue. No general fund tax dollars are used. An important part of the funding goes to support grants for projects that help implement the state water plan.
A major difference in this year’s bill is the amount of money coming from sports betting. Last year’s bill appropriated $7.2 million from that source, the first time since the passage of Proposition DD in 2019, which legalized sports betting and dedicated 90% of the gambling tax proceeds for water. SB 177 raises that amount to $10.6 million, a nearly 50% increase.
All told, $25.2 million, including the gambling tax revenue, $12.6 million from severance taxes and $2 million from the CWCB’s construction fund, will go to fund projects that help implement the state water plan. Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, a bill sponsor, noted that sports betting revenue provides critical funding “that never existed before for water.” As he pointed out, “that number keeps growing every year which is positive for our water future.”
Senate Bill 270 allows minor stream restoration activities to proceed without having to secure a water right. Its intent is to promote the benefits natural stream systems provide—clean water, forest and watershed health, riparian and aquatic habitat protection—by mitigating damages caused by mining, erosion, flooding and wildfires. Minor stream restoration activities include stabilizing stream banks and beds, installing porous structures that slow down water flow and temporarily increase surface water area, and rechanneling streams to recover from wildfire and flood impacts.
At the bill’s initial hearing in the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Roberts, committee chair and a bill cosponsor, emphasized that stream restoration activities “help promote recovery from natural disasters like fires and floods.” He also noted the bill could “help access federal dollars that are available in sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now that could be used for these very valuable projects.”
Another bill cosponsor, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, a water right holder and water conservation district manager, recognized “the value and importance of healthy rivers and streams and what it means to all water users.”
As introduced, SB 270 would have created a “rebuttable presumption” that a stream restoration project does not cause material injury to a vested water right. It was amended in committee after testimony by several witnesses who expressed concern over the bill’s potential impacts on water rights—loss of water due to evaporation and infiltration into soils, and delayed timing of delivery downstream. They all expressed support for the concept of stream restoration and with the amendments adopted, pledged to work together in the future to strike a balance between stream restoration benefits and protecting water rights.
Colorado River Drought Task Force
Faced with two decades of drought in the Colorado River Basin, Senate Bill 295 creates a task force to make legislative recommendations that will help water users most directly affected by drought and aid the state in meeting its commitments under the Colorado River Compact. The task force’s focus is on reducing water demand and on ensuring that any effort to achieve that goal by fallowing irrigated farmland must be done on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis.
The task force is made up of 17 voting members representing agricultural, municipal, industrial, conservation, environmental and tribal stakeholders from across the state, with the state engineer serving in an advisory capacity. It includes a sub-task force to study and make recommendations on tribal matters comprised of five members, including representatives from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The task force and sub-task force must report any recommendations, which are to be made by majority vote, to the General Assembly’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee by Dec. 15, 2023.
Testimony in the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee raised concern with the bill’s timing. Several Front Range municipal water providers said the state’s primary focus should be on supporting federal efforts to force lower basin states—primarily California and Arizona—to reduce their river use since they have consistently exceeded their compact allocations while the Upper Basin states have never fully utilized theirs. Sen. Roberts, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged that but emphasized “There is drought happening in Colorado right now … The purpose of the task force isn’t just to consider interstate obligations, it’s also to make recommendations surrounding drought mitigation and drought security.”
Others worried that the bill might split the state’s West Slope and East Slope water users, but lawmakers pledged the task force would seek cooperative solutions. “This bill is going to codify a collaborative path forward on some difficult issues facing the Western Slope and the entire state,” said Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose.
Senate Bill 178 is designed to reduce barriers to residents in homeowner association (HOA)-governed communities (roughly half the state’s population) who want to plant landscapes that use less water than bluegrass lawns. To encourage HOAs and owners of single-family detached homes to work together in planting landscapes that conserve water, improve biodiversity, and expand the amount of food grown in private gardens, SB 178 requires HOAs to adopt three pre-planned water-wise landscape designs that homeowners can install if they want to replace non-native turf. It doesn’t preclude other designs with HOA approval. Although the bill removes some aesthetic discretion, HOAs retain the authority to reject designs for safety, fire or drainage concerns.
Water Conservation in Oil and Gas Operations
House Bill 1242 seeks to reduce freshwater use in oil and gas operations and increase recycling and reuse of produced water, which is water in or injected into the ground and coproduced with oil or natural gas extraction. It is often disposed off-site but can be recycled and reused if properly treated.
The bill requires oil and gas well operators to report periodically to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on the volume of freshwater and recycled or reused produced water used, produced water removed for disposal, and produced water recycled or reused in another well and removed for recycling or reuse at a different location. The commission will use this data in adopting rules by July 1, 2024 to require a statewide reduction in freshwater use and a corresponding increase in recycled or reused produced water in oil and gas operations.
The bill also creates the Colorado Produced Water Consortium in the Department of Natural Resources to make recommendations to the General Assembly and state agencies by Nov. 1, 2024 on legislation or rules necessary to remove barriers to recycling and reuse of produced water. The consortium consists of 28 members that will work with state and federal agencies, research institutions, colleges and universities, non-government organizations, local governments, industries, environmental justice organizations and members of disproportionately impacted communities in conducting its work and making recommendations.
Disposable Wipes and Water Quality
Aimed at reducing sewer backups and water pollution in Colorado, Senate Bill 150 requires a manufacturer of disposable wipes sold or offered for sale in the state, and a wholesaler, supplier or retailor responsible for labeling or packaging those products to label them “Do Not Flush.” Disposable wipes include baby, cleaning and hand sanitizing wipes made of materials that do not break down like toilet paper when flushed. They end up clogging pipes and releasing plastics into waterways, costing water utilities a lot of money to fix.
Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee
Senate Bill 10 turns the interim Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee into a year-round committee. The committee will meet at the call of the chair, conduct hearings and vet issues as they come up instead of having to wait until after each session adjourns. It will not duplicate the functions of existing standing committees, but will continue to recommend bills to the Legislative Council, which will refer them to relevant committees for action.
A May 10 story summarizing water bills passed this session incorrectly attributed the entire increase in support for projects that help implement the state water plan in SB 177 to sports betting revenue. Although the $25.2 million appropriation triples funds for that purpose compared to last year, it includes severance taxes and money from CWCB’s construction fund in addition to sports betting dollars.
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.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.