Lawmakers lament they “don’t have more influence” moving state water plan forward

Lawmakers lament they “don’t have more influence” moving state water plan forward

Two sessions have passed since Gov. John Hickenlooper rolled out Colorado’s first statewide water plan, yet lawmakers have made little progress toward the plan’s main goal – averting a massive state water shortfall in 2050.

The single biggest achievement in water policy these past two sessions is a feel-good law allowing Coloradans to use rain barrels to collect rain and snowmelt to water their gardens. Although the barrels carry some symbolic importance in a state whose water supplies aren’t keeping up with needs, the amount of water they collect toward solving Colorado’s water woes is the statistical equivalent of a drop in the bucket.

Lawmakers’ broader inaction underscores the limits of their authority on water policy and of their ability to put in place meaningful efforts – or at least a priority list for those efforts – to stave off a water crisis. Although the legislature has allocated $15 million to implement the water plan, some members complain their involvement is limited mainly to “writing the check,” without input into how, specifically, money might be spent other than on writing more water reports and holding more water meetings. Several admit they have no idea where the plan’s priorities lie or how, specifically, Hickenlooper expects it will be put into action.

Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican and farmer from Sterling and one of the General Assembly’s leading agriculture and water advocates, complains that lawmakers “do not have enough influence on the direction of the water plan.”

Rep. Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins, a Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture, Livestock and Energy Committee, has run a half-dozen bills that specifically address water plan issues, some successfully, some not. She points out that a published guide on moving forward, put out by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), said that most goals of the water plan would be accomplished by the executive branch, with a limited role for the General Assembly.

“That’s what they think,” she laughed. 

The Colorado Water Plan was initiated with much fanfare by Hickenlooper in May 2013 and finalized in November 2015. It seeks to address an alarming problem: Projections that, by 2050, the state will face a water shortfall of at least one million acre-feet per year.

An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons of water. If not addressed, the one million acre-foot supply-demand gap would cut across all water uses in the state: affecting at least two million residents as well as recreational, environmental, industrial and agricultural water uses.

The swelling water deficit is born of several factors. One is growth and projections that the state’s population will jump from about 5.4 million residents this year to as many as 10.3 million by 2050.

Another factor is climate change. A 2014 report commissioned by the CWCB points out that average annual temperatures in Colorado have risen by 2 degrees between 1977 and 2006. A hotter climate increases the potential for drought in southern Colorado, and could also reduce the annual spring runoff from the mountain snowpack, which affects all of Colorado as well as some of the downstream states both east and west that rely on water that originates here.

An increasing reliance on water by Colorado’s oil and gas industry also factors in, as do demands by conservationists and recreational users to stop bleeding our rivers dry.

But the biggest factor in terms of actual water use is that farming and ranching interests, which use 80 percent of the state’s water, are motivated under the state’s “use it or lose it” water laws to continue antiquated and even wasteful water practices out of fear of losing their senior water rights.

The water plan identifies the size of the projected water shortage – drawn from a 2010 study that is being updated – but doesn’t offer a roadmap for addressing it, other than stating how much water the state needs to save through storage and conservation projects to meet its 2050 needs. It doesn’t spell out just who’s responsible for those savings: the executive branch, the legislature, or public-private partnerships. 

Hickenlooper’s administration has passed responsibility for charting the specific courses mainly to nine local, grassroots groups, known as basin roundtables, that include officials from water utilities and representatives of agricultural, industrial, recreational and environmental groups. The nine roundtable groups are centered around the state’s eight major waterways plus the Denver metro area. Each assessed how much water they would be short in the coming decades, broken down by recreation, environmental, agricultural and municipal needs.

The roundtables – with the South Platte River and metro Denver groups working jointly – each came up with plans that outline what they will do to meet the projected water shortages in their areas. Their wishlists for local water projects form the bulk of specifics within the 540-page statewide plan. But there is no greater design, no set of master priorities on which spending decisions can be based.

That leaves lawmakers scratching their heads when it comes to water policy and budgeting.

The legislature’s efforts on water fall to a joint interim committee, known as the Water Resources Review Committee, that meets every summer. The bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers – including the chairs of the Senate and House agriculture committees – starts its annual review of state water issues each August. Members then sponsor water-related legislation either as a committee or on their own.

In the past two years, water committee members have sponsored most of the 35 water-related bills proposed at the Statehouse. Of those, the vast majority deal with managing the state’s Byzantine laws on water rights. Roughly 15 were to varying degrees intended to address some of the nebulous goals laid out in Hickenlooper’s water plan.

Related: Path forward is murky in Hickenlooper’s final water plan

By far the most noteworthy among those 15 were the 2016 and 2017 annual water projects bills, which were written by CWCB staff and earmarked state funding for a variety of water projects. The 2016 bill put up $5 million to implement the water plan, but didn’t specify how that money would be spent. That line item became a bone of contention for some lawmakers, especially those on the Joint Budget Committee who tend to take a dim view of spending money without specifics on where it’s going.

The 2017 projects bill set aside another $10 million for implementing the state water plan, plus another $10 million more to the basin roundtables to pay for local water projects. The 2017 projects outlined how the $5 million from 2016 would be spent. That money will go to the CWCB for statewide projects, such as improved water supply forecasting, a grant program on agricultural water transfers, statewide training to water providers on water loss, and grants to water agencies that are developing feasibility studies for future water storage projects.

The $10 million in 2017 for implementing the plan includes $1 million to update a 2010 study that provided the initial projections for the state’s projected water deficit – estimated in 2010 to reach about one million acre-feet per year by 2050. That estimate is now considered low, and could possibly be as much as two million acre-feet annually.

Another $2 million will pay for water projects that serve multiple purposes (such as recreation and environmental needs). Another $1 million will develop long-term strategies on conservation, land use and drought planning. Another $3 million will help facilitate the development of water storage systems. Some $1 million will pay for water education, $1 million for “technical assistance for agricultural projects” and $1 million for watershed health (more about that later).

The $10 million for the CWCB’s 2017 costs for implementing the water plan and the $10 million for the regional roundtable groups will come from severance tax revenues that will be transferred into the CWCB’s construction fund. The rest comes from that construction fund, a revolving loan account that dates back to 1971 and makes low-interest loans for water projects throughout the state. Its revenues come from interest earned on outstanding loans, the fund’s cash balance, and federal mineral lease revenues.

The 2017 projects bill, which Hickenlooper signed into law on Tuesday, puts $10 million from the CWCB’s construction fund into a new loan guarantee fund that would help with regional water projects in which multiple water utilities are involved.

Another $5 million will pay for a watershed restoration program. Watersheds are areas of land from which rain or snowmelt route toward a common waterway, including the surface water from streams, rivers and reservoirs as well as groundwater found in underground aquifers. The water plan says healthy watersheds are crucial for environmental needs such as improving fish and wildlife habitats or reducing the impact of soil erosion, and for recreational purposes such as rafting and angling. Colorado’s watersheds match up with the nine river basins, and then are further subdivided by local waterways in each of those basins. The $5 million for watersheds is intended to advance the water plan’s goal to improve the health of 80 percent of those watersheds by 2030.

In addition to the annual projects bills in 2016 and 2017, lawmakers have over the past two sessions sought measures to do the following:

Improve forest health. A 2015 report by Colorado State University says healthy forests are key to providing clean water. But when the health of those forests decline, through wildfires or disease, for example, the quality of water flowing through them and on to waterways also declines.  “Forests are our largest reservoir,” says Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, sponsor of a 2016 bill that directs the Colorado State Forest Service and CWCB to document the nexus between the state water plan and forest management as a way of protecting the state’s water resources. That report is due July 1.

Study possibilities to store water from the South Platte River: The General Assembly commissioned a report in 2016, and it’s due to lawmakers this December. Without waiting for that report, the water committee this year sponsored a bill to increase the capacity of reservoirs along the South Platte through dredging. The stand-alone bill sought $5 million in funding, but, in the end, the 2017 projects bill set aside $3 million for storage, including dredging the South Platte’s reservoirs.

Help streamline state permitting for water projects. Water storage projects take years, even decades, from start to finish, and much of that is tied up in regulations. Sonnenberg says that at the state level a storage project gets caught in a circular trap. First, a proposed project goes to the state Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which has authority on water quality issues. Then it heads to Colorado Parks and Wildlife for review on mitigating wildlife issues. After that, it heads back to CDPHE, but by then much has changed.

Lawmakers tried to set up a “one-stop shop” for water projects permits a couple of years ago. That didn’t work, so in 2016 they found a backdoor way to address the problem by telling the governor to hire someone to do it. Hickenlooper quickly put into place his water czar, former Ag Commissioner John Stulp. Under the law, the director of water project permitting coordination (yes, that’s the title) should work to speed up permitting for water projects financed by the CWCB’s construction fund or those required to obtain water quality certification from the CDPHE. Yet Stump said that so far, there hasn’t been a great need for his assistance in moving the permit process along. The water project closest to completion, the Windy Gap Firming Project southwest of Loveland, got its final federal approval earlier this month and is expected to begin construction of a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir known as Chimney Hollow in 2019. The projects bill includes a $90 million loan to the Northern Water Conservancy District for construction of Chimney Hollow.

There are two other storage projects in the pipeline, and the permitting assistance is available as needed, Stulp said.

Among the other water plan-related bills in 2016 and 2017:

• Successful legislation to continue a pilot program that would allow farmers and ranchers to temporarily lease their water rights to municipal water utilities.

• Bills to require local governments to incorporate water conservation goals, including those found in the state water plan, into local community master plans, particularly when new development is being considered. Those bills failed two years in a row at the balking of local governments who don’t want to be told what to do.

Sonnenberg, the water committee chair, looks toward hearings in August with an eye on building more water storage. He lives just a few miles away from the South Platte River whose water flows east to Nebraska for free. As many farmers and ranchers see it, dams and reservoirs need to be built to capture that water and save it for future use within Colorado.

Most municipal water districts and industrial users agree on the need for more storage. But conservationists and recreational water interests oppose that view, saying and flows need to stay in rivers – regardless of state lines – to keep them and their habitats healthy.

Sonnenberg has been particularly critical of CWCB and Hickenlooper’s administration for not taking a clear position on water storage and how it should figure in the water plan. He also criticizes CWCB for not welcoming lawmakers’ input on the water plan in general.

“We had to run a bill just to get the CWCB to listen to us” about the water plan, Sonnenberg grumbled.

That 2014 law reiterated that the General Assembly is responsible for water policy and that the CWCB has authority to implement that policy. The law also sent the water committee around the state in the summer and fall of 2014 to gather input from citizens on what the water plan should look like.  The committee then sent that input to the CWCB for consideration in the water plan, as well as its own recommendations strongly urging a clearly defined set of priorities and specific steps the state needs to take to meet its water needs mid-century.

From lawmakers’ perspectives, the final version of the plan doesn’t reflect their input.

Disappointed with the plan’s progress, Sonnenberg says, “The CWCB has not had conversations with the legislature other than to (say) ‘pass our projects bill, sit down and shut up.’ That communication has to change.”

Fellow committee member Sen. Matt Jones, a Louisville Democrat, is similarly concerned about efficacy of the plan, but for different reasons. His water worries are about conservation and river health – issues for which he says the plan lacks “a cohesive recommendation.” Progress on those issues has been very slow, he said, and certainly not fast enough to compete with increasing strains on the state’s water supply caused by population growth.

Jones has pushed a bill for the last two years that would require developers to submit plans for water conservation in their proposed developments. Despite bipartisan sponsorship and even without opposition from homebuilders, the measure twice has failed to make it out of the Senate.

He is especially frustrated that Colorado’s legislature hasn’t pushed the conservation side of the water plan. He notes that the state hasn’t updated its conservation statutes since 1991.

The water plan “is very aggressive on conservation planning, and the legislature should meet that need by pushing even harder to make it happen,” Jones said. Without such a push, conservationists say, the plan remains more of a statement of values than a call for action.

“The targets are there, and it has a lot of aspirational goals, but it’s not a defined implementation plan” that specifically says what needs to be done and who’s responsible for doing it, says Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress.

Kemper says the clock is ticking toward 2050 and that the water plan needs clearly articulated priorities from the General Assembly no later than the end of this year. The water community, including local and county governments, water districts, and hundreds of individuals and organizations interested in water issues, also hasn’t set its priorities yet, either. Kemper expects that will happen when the Water Congress meets in August.

Bart Miller, who directs a program promoting healthy rivers for the conservation group Western Resource Advocates, says the progress so far has mainly been on the funding side – in particular the dollars coming out of the two projects bills in 2016 and 2017 – but that those amounts are too small to quench state water needs. Although, as Miller sees it, water projects from the Northern Water Conservancy District and Denver Water and under way to help meet the plan’s storage goal of 400,000 acre-feet, the goal of conserving another 400,000 acre-feet has seen far less progress.

Miller sees a lack of clear milestones as one of the plan’s bigger shortfalls. “It should be able to say where you need to be by 2020 if you’re working toward 2030 or even 2050,” he says.

CWCB has balked at setting such milestones and has been trying to lower expectations about the speed of the plan’s implementation. Nowhere was this more obvious than at a Joint Budget Committee meeting in December, when CWCB finance chief Kirk Russell told lawmakers only half-jokingly that, “I’m glad the question wasn’t  ‘Are you done yet and why not?’”

Feature photo of James Eklund, then head of the CWCB and Gov. John Hickenlooper, holding up a copy of the state water plan for its November, 2015 rollout. Photo by Marianne Goodland.

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About the Author

Marianne Goodland

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.

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