Colorado scores two more #WaterWins to help address worsening drought and capture federal funds

As Colorado’s drought worsens with the snowpack melting at a ridiculous rate, the state Legislature has stepped up by sending two key bills to the governor’s desk to increase funding for water conservation, river health and ecosystem restoration.

The new funding will help Colorado take advantage of even more federal infrastructure dollars approved last year in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which dedicates $8.3 billion to western water projects.

Here is a quick rundown on the new water legislation, which Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign any day, and why it is crucial for building water resilience in the Centennial State:

1. Lawmakers prioritize wildfire and watershed health.

HB 1379  bill allocates $20 million in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act for watershed projects and staffing, both at state and local levels. Of that, $10 million would go to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s construction fund for post-fire restoration and flood mitigation grants. It includes $3 million for projects that address the risk of wildfires, which can directly harm water quality and fish health, while promoting watershed resilience.

The legislation also adds local capacity to leverage state dollars to capture federal infrastructure funding.

The Cal-Wood Fire in 2000 consumed 5,000 acres in about five hours and a total of more than 10,110 acres, becoming the largest fire in Boulder County, Colorado, history. It affected downstream communities and water assets.

2. Sports betting will funnel more dollars to water projects and programs for problem gaming.

Led by Speaker Alec Garnett (D-Denver) and Sen. Chris Hansen (D-Denver) and a whole host of other legislators who realize the importance of water investments in Colorado, HB 1402 expands funding for gaming addiction programs tenfold to $2.5 million a year and increases water funding by 50% by closing tax loopholes.

Since it was approved by voters in 2019, legalized sports betting has generated $17.7 million for water projects, which will be awarded this summer. This legislation should produce an additional $90 million for water over the next 10 years.

3. Funding provides another down payment on water resilience.

This water legislation demonstrates state leaders are continuing to take climate change seriously. And they should, because snowpack from the Rockies that feeds our rivers and reservoirs continues to shrink at alarming rates. Most recently, this resulted in an extraordinary decision by the Bureau of Reclamation to hold nearly 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell to prevent some areas from completely running out of water and hydropower.

As more federal funding becomes available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, putting this money to work quickly and creatively through a wide variety of projects on the ground will be critical to building resilience to climate change and more intense droughts.

Colorado’s Water Plan identified a funding gap of $100 million annually for 30 years to conserve and protect key elements of the state’s water system, including the environment, in the face of climate change and a growing population. This latest round of water funding approved by the Legislature is another important step to closing that gap and positioning Colorado for success.

Unfortunately, however, drought conditions have worsened considerably and more quickly than Colorado’s Water Plan anticipated, further stressing limited water resources. Colorado leaders need to continue efforts to secure additional funding to fully address this massive challenge of our time.

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