A new, late-session bill creating a statewide task force designed to shore up the state’s Colorado River drought protection efforts will be heard this week by Colorado lawmakers, with the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee considering the bill today.
The Colorado General Assembly adjourns May 6, giving lawmakers just days to deliberate on the bill.
Senate Bill 23-295 is sponsored by Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon; House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Summit County; Sen. Perry Will, R-New Castle; and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose. It would create a task force that has six months to come up with ways to protect the state from water shortages due to the ongoing megadrought in the Colorado River Basin, and to ensure that efforts to temporarily fallow West Slope farms and ranches to help keep more water in the Colorado River don’t impose undue burdens on West Slope farms and ranches and other water users.
“This legislation … will bring us one step closer to addressing one of the most pressing issues our state has ever faced – the endangered Colorado River – and ensure every Colorado community has access to the water resources they need now and into the future,” Roberts said in a statement.
The Colorado River Basin covers seven states. The Lower Basin is made up of Arizona, California and Nevada, and the Upper Basin comprises Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The majority of the river’s supplies are generated here in the Upper Basin, with Colorado being the largest contributor to the system.
And the majority of the river’s water, roughly 80%, is used to grow food. If states can find ways to reduce agricultural water use, it would help rebalance the system. But it is a complicated undertaking, and could harm rural farm economies and food production if not done properly.
Major water districts on Colorado’s West Slope, including the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, as well as the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District, represent many growers who rely on the Colorado River. They have been frustrated by what they say is a failure by the state to include them in decision making about new federal farm fallowing pilot programs, among other things. The proposed task force would be charged with devising a formal structure for including water districts and other interested parties.
Last month these districts were alarmed when the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water policy body, opted not to give them the opportunity to review fallowing proposals submitted to the Upper Colorado River Commission as part of what is known as the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP), a short-term initiative that would pay growers to voluntarily fallow their fields, or switch crops, or use other techniques to reduce their use of Colorado River water.
Steve Wolff is general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District. He said state water officials need to be more inclusive and transparent about decisions being made about the Colorado River.
Wolff said the CWCB’s decision to exclude the water districts from the SCPP review process is an example of the lack of transparency that is driving concern on the Western Slope.
He said the task force bill is a major undertaking and may not be finished before the session ends.
“It’s moving very fast,” he said.
The CWCB did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But CWCB Director Becky Mitchell has acknowledged previously that the SCPP initiative was rolled out very quickly, and its processes could be improved. Mitchell also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
This year, due to historically deep mountain snows in Colorado and elsewhere, lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the Colorado River system, will see more water flowing in than they have in decades. But because both reservoirs have sunk to less than 30% full, the bountiful runoff won’t be enough to restore the system.
In the coming weeks, major decisions loom on how to restore the river and to sustain it as climate change and lingering drought continue to sap its flows.
This week, for instance, the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents the four Upper Basin states, will likely make decisions about which growers will participate in the $125 million SCPP.
Later this summer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will announce how much Lower Basin states will have to cut their water use and which states will take the largest cuts.
Last summer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the seven states to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water this year, but negotiations have failed to produce a consensus.
The Upper Basin states, along with Nevada and Arizona, have agreed to a five-point plan that includes the SCPP, as well as a longer-term plan to create a special protected drought pool in Lake Powell, an initiative known as demand management. At the same time, California has offered its own plan that proposed cuts that are largely opposed by Arizona.
The new Colorado task force, if approved, would include West Slope and Front Range water district members, as well as environmental, agricultural and industrial interests.
Brad Wind is general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservation District. It is one of the largest users of Colorado River water on the Front Range, and serves hundreds of farmers and more than a million urban water users.
He said his board won’t have time to take a formal position on the bill, but he said he’s concerned that it favors West Slope districts over those on the Front Range.
“There will be a lot more work between now and then [the end of the session],” Wind said. “It’s going to be a lively discussion.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that the Upper Basin states developed a five-point plan, not a six-point plan.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
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.