Colorado lawmakers plan to intervene in talks about water cuts

Republicans worry the process has been too 'secretive' and could hurt the agriculture industry

Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell in Arizona. (Photo by John Herrick)

Colorado lawmakers want a greater say in how the state manages its Colorado River water supplies. 

The legislative Water Resources Review Committee has endorsed a bill proposal that requires the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to consider the committee’s feedback before finalizing a plan to slash the state’s water use in order to send more of it downstream. The Republican-backed proposal won bipartisan support last week from all 10 committee members.

Overuse and climate change is causing a decline in the flow of the Colorado River, which 40 million people, not to mention a major agricultural industry, depend on. The seven states that share Colorado River water supplies are working to ensure enough water makes it downstream to satisfy legal obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Water Compact.

Here in Colorado, water managers are planning a so-called “demand management” program to reduce the amount of water siphoned off from the river so that more can be stored in Arizona’s Lake Powell and sent downstream during dry years.

But where that water will come from is yet to be decided and figuring it out has been controversial from the start. The water cuts are intended to be equitable, but agriculture accounts for more than 80% of the state’s water use and part of the state’s demand management plan will include paying farmers to irrigate less. Lawmakers worry land will be leased and permanently taken offline for farming, a process Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican from Montrose, dubbed “lease and cease.” 

“A lot of us that are still out there running a shovel are concerned that we are going to have to change the way we live so that people that just run a sprinkler head and try to grow more sidewalks in town don’t have to change theirs,” Catlin said during a committee hearing last week.  

Angst over the planning grew stronger when the CWCB asked 74 volunteers it selected to brainstorm a demand management plan to sign non-disclosure agreements. The intention was to encourage the free exchange of ideas, but the CWCB came under fire. Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling sent CWCB Director Becky Mitchell an email calling the process “secretive.”

Volunteers are no longer required to sign non-disclosure agreements. The tension over the plan is illustrative of a much larger and longer tug-of-war between the executive branch and the state legislature over how to manage the state’s water supplies in the coming years. GOP Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, was visibly steamed at last week’s meeting and his distrust resulted in the drafting of a bill that explicitly requires the CWCB to gather public feedback before coming up with a plan. The proposed bill also requires the Water Resources Review Committee to tour the state and gather feedback on CWCB’s draft of a plan.

“We have to develop trust among the general public. And when we started hearing early on (about) non-disclosure agreements and everything else, it kinda reminded me of … the Colorado Water Plan. It was called the ‘governor’s water plan,'” Coram told the committee. He continued, “It is imperative that the general public be involved in this most important process.”

Water managers are concerned such involvement could slow down critical and urgent multi-state negotiations. Arizona lawmakers almost derailed a major agreement on how to share water cuts earlier this year. A deal was struck just hours before the Bureau of Reclamation said it would step in and issue mandatory water cuts. 

James Eklund, a former CWCB director who represented Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission during last year’s drought negotiations, said climate change is forcing managers to act more swiftly. Efforts by lawmakers to gather more public input, he told The Colorado Independent, could make acting quickly more difficult.

“If there’s another 2002- or 2003-type drought this year or next year, the [demand management] program is going to need to be stood up very quickly,” Eklund said. “It’s hard for me to see that happening if you’re scheduling outreach meetings.”

CWCB Director Mitchell was not available for comment. The CWCB declined to comment on how the proposed bill would affect drought contingency planning. Sara Leonard, the marketing and communications director for the CWCB, said the board recognizes the importance of public comments and is committed to stakeholder engagement. 

Coram dismissed concerns his bill will slow down multi-state negotiations. “Bullshit,” he responded. He told The Colorado Independent the process fits within the timelines already suggested by the CWCB. There is no hard deadline for finalizing a demand management program. The CWCB plans to issue a status update in July 2020.   

The committee also approved a bill that would make it harder to speculate on the state’s water supplies — buying up water rights with the intention of selling them at a profit later — and another dealing with new technologies. 

The proposed bills still require committee approval, a vote in the House and Senate, and the signature of Gov. Jared Polis. The legislative session begins Jan. 8.

This story was updated on Oct. 31. 

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