New Legislation Brings Water Wins

The Colorado General Assembly adjourned its 2022 session in May. Among the water bills that passed, four share a common theme—funding. A rare confluence of new revenue sources led to strong bipartisan support of the following:

Groundwater compact compliance and sustainability

Senate Bill 28 creates a Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund to help pay for the retirement of wells and irrigated acreage in the Republican and Rio Grande basins in northeast and south-central Colorado. It appropriates into the fund $60 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) revenue. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) will distribute the money based on recommendations from the Republican River Water Conservation District and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, with approval by the state engineer. These dollars must be obligated by the end of 2024.

The bill seeks to reduce groundwater pumping connected to surface water flows in the Republican River to comply with a compact among Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. It will also help meet aquifer sustainability standards required by state statute and rules in the Rio Grande Basin. To achieve those goals, 25,000 acres of irrigated land must be retired in the Republican Basin, and 40,000 acres in the Rio Grande, by 2029. If the targets are not met, the state engineer may have no choice but to shut down wells without compensation.

State water plan projects

Each year the Colorado General Assembly considers the CWCB’s “projects bill,” to support grants for projects that help implement the state water plan. This year, for the first time, the funding source for those grants includes gambling revenue from Proposition DD, which passed in 2019. Proposition DD legalized sports betting and levied a 10% tax on sports betting proceeds, with most of that revenue going into the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund.

House Bill 1316 appropriates $8.2 million from the fund for grants to help implement the state water plan; $7.2 million of that amount is from sports betting revenue.

The bill also appropriates $2 million to CWCB from its Construction Fund to help the Republican River Water Conservation District retire irrigated acreage. The money will help the district meet its 2024 interim target of retiring 10,000 acres. This is on top of the funds the district will receive from Senate Bill 28.

Wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration

House Bill 1379 takes advantage of ARPA revenue by appropriating $20 million for projects to restore, mitigate and protect watersheds from damage caused by wildfire-induced erosion and flooding.

The bill allocates $3 million to the Healthy Forests and Vibrant Communities Fund to help communities reduce wildfire risks by promoting watershed resilience. It moves $2 million into the Wildfire Mitigation Capacity Development Fund for wildfire mitigation and fuel reduction projects. And $15 million goes to CWCB to fund watershed restoration and flood mitigation projects, and to help local governments and other entities apply for federal grants related to water and natural resources management.

Turf replacement

House Bill 1151 elevates urban turf replacement in importance. The bill requires CWCB to develop a statewide program to provide financial incentives for residential, commercial, institutional and industrial property owners to voluntarily replace non-native grasses with water-wise landscaping. It appropriates $2 million in general funds to a newly created Turf Replacement Fund and authorizes local governments, nonprofits and other entities to apply to CWCB for grants to help finance their programs.

An extended version of this story originally appeared in Fresh Water News, an initiative of Water Education Colorado. 

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.