Colorado River Drought Task Force to deliver recommendations Dec. 15

The chair of a special task force set up in Colorado to help protect in-state interests on the Colorado River told lawmakers Tuesday that it would deliver its final report to them Dec. 15.

Lawmakers created the Colorado River Drought Task Force when they approved Senate Bill 23-295 last spring. It includes representatives of environmental and agricultural groups, urban and rural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others. It is charged with developing policy recommendations and new tools to help save water, and ensuring neither water users nor the environment are adversely affected by any new Colorado River programs and agreements.

The 17-member task force has drawn fire from some, who worry that its public discussions of in-state Colorado River water issues could weaken Colorado’s position as it negotiates with the other states in the basin on how to rescue the drought-strapped river system.

“Last year we put a lot of money into our Colorado River negotiating team,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Arapahoe County. “And what I have heard from them is that this work is not necessarily helpful. I hope you are taking this into account.”

Bridges’ comments came at a meeting of the Colorado Legislature’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Oct. 31 in Denver. Bridges is a member of the committee.

Task force chair Kathy Chandler-Henry said the group was aware of those concerns but did not share them. “As a task force, we have talked about how we can best support our negotiators … Our plan is to do no harm, protect Colorado, and tell the Lower Basin to clean up its act,” she said. Chandler-Henry is also an Eagle County Commissioner and president of the board for the Colorado River District, which protects local water interests within the 15 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope within its boundaries.

The broader Colorado River system includes seven states, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada making up the Lower Basin. Chandler-Henry was referring to years of overuse in the Lower Basin, which most experts believe contributed to the current crisis on the river.

The Colorado River system has its headwaters within Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As it flows west, Colorado’s massive mountain snowpack generates roughly two-thirds of the water that eventually serves cities from Denver to Los Angeles and millions of acres of productive farmland from Colorado to California.

But a 22-plus-year drought, widely believed to be the worst in more than 1,200 years, as well as a sharp decline in flows due to climate change nearly drained the river’s two major reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead, last year. The crisis prompted the federal government to order the states to dramatically cut back their water use.

This year, negotiations among the states and the federal government have begun on how to stabilize the river. Suggestions include reducing water use in the Lower Basin, finding new ways to grow food using less water, and improving water delivery systems so that less water is lost to leakage and evaporation.

Interest remains high within Colorado on how to protect water users’ interests in the river here at home as well as how to protect its ecology as climate change continues to sap its flows.

Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, current chair of the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee, who was also a co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill that created the drought task force, said he believed the group’s report would prove useful and that it would be important to be prepared for what may lie ahead on the river.

“We are having conversations now so that tools are in place when we need them,” Roberts said.

Task force staffer Kelsea Macllroy said the group will have its draft report ready for public review Dec. 1 through Dec. 7 and that public comments could be submitted during that time via its website. Once the final report is completed, lawmakers will evaluate the recommendations and determine how to proceed prior to the start of the 2024 General Assembly Jan. 10.

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