A Conversation with Kelly Romero-Heaney, Colorado Department of Natural Resources

We spoke with Kelly Romero-Heaney for the Fall 2022 issue of Headwaters magazine “The Federal Nexus” about state and federal roles in Colorado water management. Kelly is a member of the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees, assistant director of water policy for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and special advisor to the governor on water policy.

What does your water work look like at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources?

I work with our divisions at the Department of Natural Resources, so the Division of Water Resources, Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), Colorado Parks and Wildlife, State Land Board and others to make sure that we’re cross pollinating and working across the divisions on water policy issues. I also help on budgeting and I support communications. I help to elevate information from our divisions up to either the Executive Director level, at Dan Gibbs’ level, or up to the Governor’s Office as well. So a lot of times I’ll set up briefings with the governor on hot water topics or big muscle movements like the Colorado Water Plan update.

On the federal side, I’m starting to work a lot on federal policy issues. I serve on the implementation committee for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. In that role, I represent the state. Right now that’s important because we’re negotiating on how to fund the program when it’s hopefully reauthorized after 2023. So that’s just one example.

Also, sometimes there’s federal legislation that pops up that could impact Colorado’s water interests so I’ll engage with the federal delegation and their staff, and work with impacted stakeholders. Just to make sure that Colorado’s interests are safeguarded or advocated for.

How does your work with water in the state intersect with water management, policy, and funding at the federal level?

I think in this moment, a lot of our state work intersects on the federal level because of the [Bipartisan Infrastructure Law] passing and now the Inflation Reducation Act passing.

One thing we tried to do last year is look for where there are gaps, on the ground in the state. Like capacity gaps, and resource gaps that would prevent us from optimizing the amount of infrastructure bill funding that we would get on the ground.

I think the challenge is, where you’ve got water and landscapes in Colorado, is also where there’s not a lot of people so you don’t always have the capacity, whether it be in local governments or local community groups, to apply for and access this infrastructure bill funding. So we worked with the legislature to get HB 22-1379 passed, which, among other things set up $5 million to provide local capacity-building grants and technical assistance that will come through the CWCB on a contract basis that’s really geared toward helping our local communities apply for infrastructure bill funding for water projects. That is an example of how the policy work we’re doing on the state level is really setting us up to get the most out of policy work being done on the federal level, in this case with the infrastructure bill passing.

Can you share more about the need for that funding or how this is going so far?

For me, I’ve only been with the state since June of 2021 and before that, I was in local government. I was the water resources manager for the City of Steamboat and also worked on watershed health and stream health projects in Northwest Colorado. Again, not a heavily populated region but we have a lot of water-related needs in Northwest Colorado. So I think that’s something I was able to bring to the state is that understanding of what the needs are on the ground. We can’t keep asking more and more and more of our rural communities if we don’t have the staff to do it. So, fortunately, we were able to work creatively with the legislature to come up with these [funding] sources so we can actually provide support.

It’s actually going really well. The CWCB team has stood up those grant programs very quickly and we just launched a local capacity-building grant application online and the RFP for the technical assistance grant contract so there’ll be a contractor or a series of contractors that will work with the CWCB and then they’ll be contracted out to project proponents that ask for those resources whether it be design resources, grant writing resources, project management resources, etc. so I feel like so far so good, it’s going really well.

Can you offer some examples where there’s a federal nexus with water in Colorado?

There was a Colorado bill, SB 22-28 which Sen. Cleave Simpson put forth. We secured $60 million for groundwater recovery in the Republican River Basin, which is on the Eastern Plains, and the Rio Grande Basin in the San Luis Valley.

And why that funding is important is both basins have critical groundwater pumping retirement deadlines in the next several years that if they don’t meet, we could see widescale, broadscale curtailment of groundwater pumping for those basins. These are primarily agricultural-dependent communities and there are federal programs in place, like CREP and EQIP through the NRCS and the FSA that provide incentives for the retirement of irrigated lands, but the incentives just haven’t been enough. They just haven’t matched the economic needs and the economic demand.

So being able to use $60 million to beef up those incentives and to work with the water conservation districts to do that, we’re hoping will help those communities retire enough agricultural land in a way that doesn’t impact the local economy negatively. In fact, it could benefit the local economy. At the same token, we’ll be able to prevent really uncompensated involuntary curtailment in those basins. It’s important to note that $60 million came through the American Rescue Plan Act so it’s also federal dollars that the state was granted and this administration and the legislature decided to spend that money on our agricultural communities. So I think that would be another example where all of this federal funding that’s been approved in Washington is driving a lot of our policy work.

Can you describe what this federal nexus with Colorado water means and how is that playing out?

It’s almost like there are three categories there. There’s all this federal funding, figuring out how to spend it, where and how we can help project proponents access that funding. Because the state, we don’t build projects typically … but we have to help support communities that are. So there’s that piece, the happy problem: we’re looking at up to $1.2 billion that would go to water projects in Colorado and we need to figure out how to scope projects quickly so we can make the most of that funding. So there’s the happy problem.

But there’s also this issue where Colorado or the states really have jurisdiction over intrastate water administration. So how we manage water rights within our state is really up to us, so long as we’re meeting our obligations under our interstate compacts, the federal government doesn’t really have a role to play in that directly. So I think that’s one thing, we’re always kind of making sure that we consistently safeguard our interstate compacts, these are agreements between Colorado and the downstream states. Again, I think that’s one area where we’re always kind of making sure that we’re just really, Colorado is the master of its own destiny when it comes to how we administer water in Colorado. and I’d say our state is really on the leading edge of water administration.

I think there are a few things Colorado is famous for: we’re famous for our champagne powder, our craft beer, and water nerds. And so, it’s because of that I think we’ve gotten really good at water administration within our state. So we don’t need the federal government to do that for us.

I think there’s that and then also we engage with the state on a host of federal planning issues. Whether it be, we coordinate with federal agencies on land use decisions that could affect watershed health or drinking water supplies, we coordinate with the federal agencies on endangered species programs such as the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, the San Juan River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, the Gunnison Sage Grouse Endangered Species Recovery Program. So, all of those endangered species recovery programs, we work really closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and I’d say those are really good relationships. And certainly, we have large U.S. Bureau of Reclamation storage projects in Colorado so we have to work very closely with the federal government on how those are managed.

If I could just give one more example and that would be on the coordination with our federal agencies on forest and watershed health. So not only are we eager to get the federal funding that’s been allocated to watershed health and stream restoration on the ground in Colorado, but we also are coordinating with U.S. Forest Service on how we work on landscape-scale forest health projects that would help to mitigate the effects of catastrophic wildfire on our drinking water supplies. And the state has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the MOU is called the shared stewardship MOU, where we’ve committed to set goals that we’ll be implementing over the next 10 years.

And really, though those goals aren’t finalized, the theme of the shared stewardship MOU is how do we work across jurisdictions on landscape-scale projects that will improve the health of our forests and our watersheds. And I think, in that work, we recognize that it’s not a one-tool-does-the-job-for-all. But I think we’re recognizing the need to integrate forest treatments with process-based stream restoration, with prescribed fire, with a host of other tools available to us so that we’ve got healthy forests and watersheds that are supplying our communities with drinking water or agricultural water and most importantly, that keep our communities safe.

So I’d say that’s another huge area where we’re coordinating with the federal government. And there’s a lot of money in the infrastructure bill funding for forest health and watershed health projects so the state’s trying to do its part to make sure that we’re getting good matching funds lined up and really good project planning for that effort.

That’s on the fire mitigation front but there’s also, how do we work with the federal agencies on post-fire restoration? And that’s been really tricky after the 2020 fire season where we had the East Troublesome Fire and the Cameron Peak Fire and the Grizzly Creek Fire and the Calwood Fire, all of those fires were so massive and had such implications for not just life, safety and infrastructure but also for our water supplies. The state really had to step up and invest a lot of money in post-fire restoration because it was taking a while to get the federal funds that were needed on the ground for a quick recovery from those fires.

You’ve been involved with Water Education Colorado for many years, though only on the board for the past year, can you say anything about your role on the board?

WEco’s been a huge part of growing my career. I think back to Water 2012 and going on tours and participating in seminars that were associated with Water 2012. That helped me to meet people in the water community and see the world beyond my own valley because, of course, I was just working in the Yampa Valley at the time. Eventually I went through the Water Leaders Program in 2016 and I really grew from that program, personally and professionally. I’ve really benefited from the work of WEco throughout my 20-plus year career, so I’m really excited to be in a position to help the organization, work with the board, connect WEco with people and resources in state government, etc. so they can continue to do the good work they do.

When I started working in water it was not a particularly diverse field and now I think we still have a lot of work to do but it’s getting a lot better and I think WEco has a lot to do with that. So I’m proud to be a part of it.