Polis signs five major water bills into law: instream flows, anti-speculating, and more

Gov. Jared Polis, even as COVID-19 swept across the state, gave his stamp of approval to five major pieces of water legislation, paving the way for everything from more water for environmental streamflows to a new study on how to limit water speculation.

Lawmakers announced March 13 that they would temporarily suspend work to comply with stay-at-home orders, and now plan to return May 18 to complete the session.

Signed into law in late March and early April, the new measures represent months if not years of negotiations between farm, environmental and legal interests that came to fruition this year thanks to hard-fought bipartisan agreements.

Three of the new laws address water for streams, fish and habitat, allowing more loans of water to bolster environmental flows, protecting such things as water for livestock from being appropriated for instream flows, and using an existing water management tool, known as an augmentation plan, to set aside water rights for streams.

Expanded instream flow loans

House Bill 1157 expands the state’s existing instream flow loan program, which allows a water right holder to loan water to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to preserve flows on streams where the state agency already holds an instream flow water right. The CWCB is the only entity in Colorado that can legally hold such rights, intended to benefit the environment by protecting a stream’s flows from being diverted below a certain level. Under existing law, a loan may be exercised for just three years in a single 10-year period.

The new law, however, expands the loan program by authorizing a loan to be used to improve as well as preserve flows, and increases the number of years it can be exercised from three to five, but for no more than three consecutive years. It also allows a loan to be renewed for two additional 10-year periods.

“This bill becoming law is crucial for our state’s rivers, our outdoor recreation businesses, and downstream agricultural users who depend on strong river flows,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon. After a similar bill he sponsored failed to pass last year, he said, “I knew I needed to work to bring more people to the table and improve the bill so we could garner the support we needed, and that is what we did. I am thrilled that we were able to get this done with strong bipartisan support.”

To ensure protection of existing water rights, House Bill 1157 increases the comment period on loan applications from 15 to 60 days; allows appeal of the State Engineer’s decision on a loan application to water court; and requires the CWCB to give preference to loans of stored water over loans of direct flow water where available.

“There’s no injury to other water uses. And there’s a methodology if someone feels they are injured they can go to the water referee in an expedited manner,” said Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle and one of the bill’s sponsors.

Protecting existing water uses

House Bill 1159 provides a means for existing water uses, such as water for livestock, that have not been legally quantified to continue when an instream flow right downstream is designated. Current law is unclear as to whether preexisting uses that lack a court decree are protected. To provide clarity, the bill requires the State Engineer to confirm any claim of an existing use in administering the state’s instream flow program.

Augmentation of instream flows

House Bill 1037 authorizes the CWCB to use an acquired water right, whose historic consumptive use has been previously quantified and changed to include augmentation use, to increase river flows for environmental benefits. Farmers have long used so-called augmentation water to help offset their water use, particularly of groundwater, when that use is not in priority within Colorado’s water rights system. Now that same water can be used to boost environmental flows.

Anti-speculation study and water conservation in master planning

Beyond instream flows, Gov. Polis signed Senate Bill 48, which requires the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to form a working group to explore ways to strengthen anti-speculation laws. The agency must report its recommendations to the interim Water Resources Review Committee by Aug. 15, 2021.

Also signed into law was House Bill 1095, which authorizes counties and municipalities that have adopted master plans that contain a water supply element to include state water plan goals and conservation policies that may affect land development approvals.

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 larrymorandi@comcast.net.

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 www.wateredco.org.

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