Colorado lawmakers will be asked to weigh in on more than a half-dozen proposed water bills this year that will likely include support for improving the water quality in Grand Lake, significant new funding for replacing thirsty lawns, a pilot program to test using natural systems — such as plants and soils, rather than water treatment plants, to clean up water — and new state-level protection for wetlands.
A resolution asking lawmakers to support work to improve the clarity of water in Grand Lake, under consideration for months, is receiving broad-based support from powerful water interests, including Northern Water, said Mike Cassio, president of Grand Lake’s Three Lakes Watershed Association. Cassio is among a group of advocates who have been trying to improve the lake’s once-clear waters for decades.
“Nothing official until it makes it to the floor, and it is passed. However, we are further than ever,” Cassio said.
Forget bluegrass lawns
Ambitious plans are also on the table to boost to $5 million the amount of money the state is putting into an existing turf replacement program. Gov. Jared Polis as well as members of a special Colorado River Drought Task Force have asked that the program be expanded. It was approved by lawmakers in 2022 and given $2 million in funding.
“I would love to see the project continue,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, a Republican from Alamosa, “and $5 million seems appropriate,” at least initially.
Simpson, who is general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, is a sponsor of a bill that would provide at least $1 million to launch a pilot program testing so-called “green” infrastructure, a term that refers to using such things as plants, wetlands and soils to clean up water, helping offset the use of more expensive tools, such as water treatment plants.
That’s only part of what could be another record-breaking year for funding Colorado water projects, according to Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Frisco.
Last year, lawmakers approved $92 million in water funding, Roberts said, money that helps pay for water conservation, planning, dams and irrigation projects, and new technology, among other things.
“Last year’s projects bill (the legislative tool through which funding is approved) was the largest amount of funding on record,” he said. “I am hopeful we can break that record this year.”
Roberts said he also hopes to introduce legislation expanding the amount of water available to protect streams and to add more protection for farmers and ranchers who agree to place their water into conservation programs benefiting the Colorado River and potentially other waterways.
Replacing federal wetland protections
Another major initiative likely to surface is a plan to create a state-level program to protect streams and wetlands affected by road-building and construction. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Sackett v. EPA decision, drastically narrowed the definition of what constitutes a protected stream or wetland under rules known as waters of the United States. The decision left vast swaths of streams and wetlands in the American West and elsewhere unprotected.
Colorado is among a handful of states seeking to set up its own program to ensure its streams and wetlands are safe even without federal oversight. Last year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) took temporary, emergency action to protect streams, but state lawmakers must approve any new, permanent program.
The CDPHE has been working with a large group of people on the issue, including farm and water interests, environmentalists, and construction and development firms. But what the new program might contain and how it will fare in the legislature is not clear.
“I think there is a lot of desire to get something like this done,” said John Kolanz, a Loveland-based attorney and water quality expert who represents construction interests. “The Sackett opinion really changed things. Some people estimate that it has reduced coverage of streams by 50% or more.”
As a result, Kolanz said, “The new state program is going to have to be quite large and it will have significant land-use implications. We’ve got to get it right on the front end.”
Fresh Water News was launched in 2018 as an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.