When Gov. Jared Polis took office in January, he took responsibility for ensuring that Colorado doesn’t run out of water. Many in the water community were thrilled when Polis said in his State of the State address that he wants to find a “sustainable funding source” to finally implement the far-reaching Colorado Water Plan.
But, weeks later, many of those water experts are still wondering where the money will come from. Some hope that Polis, who has made funding all-day kindergarten and health care programs a priority, still cares about water.
The opening day luncheon at this year’s Water Congress in Westminster was dedicated entirely to the subject of how to fund the water plan, a lengthy manifesto finalized in 2015 intended to prevent projected water shortfalls in 2050. The plan calls for building infrastructure projects to prevent unnecessary water loss, like lining irrigation ditches, and to store additional water, including building reservoirs. It also calls for expanding a program that allows farmers to temporarily lease their water to the state to keep rivers flowing.
Polis requested about $30 million this year to help pay for the water plan, among other water costs. But in addition to the money already spent on water projects in Colorado, the plan requires another $100 million per year to fully implement.
“We can’t nickel and dime this thing,” Russ George, a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board from Rifle, told a group of attorneys, water managers, state officials and environmental groups gathered in the Westin hotel’s ballroom on Wednesday. “We’ve got to have real money.”
John Stulp, the water advisor for former Gov. John Hickenlooper, added that cost estimates for implementing the plan could rise. “What if we go into recession? What if we get into higher population growth than we’ve predicted? What if we get into a hotter climate?”
There has been talk about funding the water plan for years. And this past year, two philanthropies, the Gates Family Foundation (as in Gates Rubber Company) and the Walton Family Foundation, which funds other water causes, began working to make funding a priority this legislative session. Then, in 2020, the two are considering whether to back a ballot measure seeking a tax increase. It could include a variety of taxes, like one on tourism, bottles or sports betting.
Still, there is a general sense of unease about going to the ballot given voters this past year rejected two high-profile tax increases that would have paid for popular causes, including K-12 schools and transportation.
The people who attend the Water Congress each year know that Colorado, now in its 19th year of record-breaking drought, faces a water shortfall in the years ahead. The dilemma is exacerbated by climate change, which will likely to cause more heat waves, drier conditions, and wildfires. Even with steady precipitation in the future, hotter temperatures alone could cause reservoirs to dry up, a phenomenon dubbed “hot drought.”
There are also regional implications for Colorado, which shares the Colorado River with other states, Native American tribes, and Mexico. On Thursday morning, lawmakers in Arizona were wrangling over how to cut their water usage as part of an agreement with other states and tribes. By Thursday afternoon, Arizona lawmakers signed a plan, averting what could have been more significant water usage cuts handed down by the federal government. How much Colorado pays farmers to send their water downstream, which is a key component of the state’s plan to comply with a regional agreement, remains to be determined.
The message of drought and regional politics is hard to communicate to the layperson when snow is falling and the rivers are running, water managers say.
“When you have a room like this full of 600 water geeks, everybody says, ‘This is a great idea. We’ve got to support it,’” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District who’s working on a funding plan. That’s not the case just up the road. “They look at you like you’re speaking Swahili.”
Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, has a plan to raise awareness of water issues.
In the next couple of weeks, Coram hopes to introduce a bill to create a tap fee for high water users, such as those with large lawns. Utilities mostly oppose the bill, in part, they say, because it targets urban water users, stoking divisions between the Front Range and the Western Slope. Some lawmakers, including Democrats, are hesitant to sign on to the bill.
In some ways, however, passing the fee isn’t the point.
“It’s a start of the conversation,” Coram said.