Drops of wisdom for Colorado legislators

The Colorado legislative session has begun at a key time for water in Colorado and the west. Though we’re off to a solid snow year, the Colorado River is crashing and the prolonged drought we’re in requires improvements to how we manage water. Fortunately, both Speaker McCluskie and Senate President Fenberg have prioritized water for their chambers. And while advancing water law and policy at the capitol is notoriously complex and fraught, we hope other members of the general assembly will follow the footsteps of their leadership. Unfortunately, there’s no quick solution to fix water scarcity in Colorado; that means we must begin engaging the multitude of issues required to tackle this challenge immediately. So, EDF has put together the following guiding principles to help legislators create the most durable, multi-faceted solutions for Colorado water management and law-making.                                                                                                          

  • Conserve! All conversations should start with conservation. Using less water and using only what we need will be critical in the face of shrinking supplies and growing demands. A key litmus test for any legislation should be “does this effort encourage conservation?” Nuances arise after that, including how we incentivize the voluntary release of agricultural water for the benefit of the environment —ensuring that agricultural producers’ water rights are protected under the and that cities can manage supplies flexibly and encourage conservation and benefits in their own communities.
  • Invest. Colorado’s Water Plan highlights the need for investment across the state. State investment is required to ensure healthy rivers, upgrade aging infrastructure, and encourage collaborative water efforts. Recent efforts have increased Colorado’s investment in protecting and conserving our water resources, including Proposition DD, which has raised over $30 million, general fund, and federal recovery funds allocated by previous legislatures and governors — but more is needed. The Governor’s proposed budget includes increases for water plan grants, staff and state dollars to capture available federal funds. Those efforts and more should be approved by this legislature this year.  
  •  Collaborate. If a legislative proposal isn’t supported by diverse water stakeholders, be wary! Crisis is the mother of invention and nowhere is that truer than water. Single-use, single-purpose water projects are a thing of the past. Cities, the environment, and agriculture can and should thrive together, not at the expense of one another. 
  • Protect and restore rivers and natural infrastructure. Colorado’s amazing rivers and streams aren’t guaranteed and the water that flows between their banks can’t be taken for granted. Colorado needs more tools to ensure that critical stretches of rivers continue to have healthy flows, that streams and wetlands are protected and enhanced for the many benefits they provide to humans and critters alike.   
  • Increase flexibility. As water resources in Colorado face increasing pressure, water law can and should encourage flexibility in ways that enhance water rights. Voluntary short-term transfers of water use via leasing; or other mechanisms should be maximized, especially where we can avoid permanent drying of agricultural lands or cities holding extra water at the expense of rivers or ag producers due to stringent water law.  
  • Make sure water management is equitable and fair for vulnerable communities. All Coloradans have a right to access clean, healthy, reliable, and affordable water for drinking, economic opportunity, and recreation. Changes in water policies and practices must also benefit disadvantaged or BIPOC communities, often among the most economically and systemically vulnerable and frequently ignored in these debates.
  • Multi-Benefit Projects are the way. Storage projects especially should produce benefits for multiple water and river users. They should be vetted for their environmental impacts to track where water is coming from (news alert the Colorado River system doesn’t have much—if any, more to provide!), because we can’t store our way out of crisis. Also, smart demand reduction strategies (like land repurposing) are key to creating more resilience. Like it or not, as climate and drought impact Colorado, we’ll need to support communities and agricultural producers in bringing water use and supply into balance via demand reduction strategies and innovative efficiency measures. As is being pioneered in the San Luis Valley using state funds, strategic land repurposing (taking some ag lands out of production to keep water supplies reliable) and other strategies will be necessary to keep rivers and water supplies resilient to a drier future.  
  • Don’t forget groundwater. As surface water becomes scarcer, the focus and pressure on groundwater increases. Groundwater is increasingly over-pumped to meet water demands, and unlike surface water groundwater supplies can take years, decades or centuries to refill. As Colorado plans for our rivers, lakes and streams, we must also conserve and protect our state’s groundwater resources.
  • Good data and accounting systems are essential to better water management. Expanding access and utilization of better water data and accounting will be vital to maximizing our water. Better data can make some of the flexible management tools possible and create alternative revenue streams for water rights holders. 
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