Colorado Water — July/August 2013
By Lindsey Middleton, Editor, Colorado Water Institute & MaryLou Smith, Policy and Collaboration Specialist, Colorado Water Institute
Threat of water shortage in Colorado along with increasing demand has water users and managers from many sectors reconsidering the benefits of water conservation. Ag water conservation has become a hot topic in the state due to a bill, SB 13-019, introduced in the last Colorado legislative session by Senator Gail Schwartz, District 5, with Representative Randy Fischer (District 53) sponsoring the bill in the House.
The bill brought to the forefront an issue that has been controversial for some time, as many believe that little if any water in Colorado is meaningfully available for conservation, hence the saying “one farmer’s waste becomes the next farmer’s water right.” Still, agricultural producers are being asked to look deeper into the opportunity for conservation, despite the complexity return flows brings to the issue.
“How do we find some additional tools, besides our instream flow programs, to motivate Ag water users to adjust their diversions at specific times? That was the thinking originally,” explains Schwartz of her motivation for introducing SB-019 in January of this year. “In the long term, we asked what would be some tools, such as infrastructure, that would allow Ag users to count on running less water without risking the loss of any historic consumptive use.”
Some had urged Schwartz to wait for more discussion about Ag water conservation among various constituencies before introducing the bill, but she chose to move ahead. “This being the second year of drought we were facing, I thought it would be more important to move forward,” explains Schwartz. After introducing the bill, Schwartz approached the Colorado Water Congress (CWC). CWC is oft en a first step for water legislation, and their formal support of a bill can help ease a bill through the voting process. As a result of discussions with CWC, Schwartz put the bill on a slow track, asking CWC to form a sub-committee and review the issues in more depth.
According to CWC State Affairs Committee member Dick Brown, who represents Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority on the committee, “The bill got narrower in scope [as we went on], which is not uncommon.” Among other changes, the bill was reduced to Water Districts 4, 5, and 6 on the West Slope.
Brown adds that Schwartz agreed to CWC revisions and amended the bill accordingly. The CWC voted to support the amended SB-019 and to work with Senator Schwartz over the summer (when Colorado’s legislature is not in session) to discuss concerns with the excised portions of the bill.
The amended bill was passed by the state legislature in April. Changes included removing a section that would allow a water judge to approve a change of water right for conserved water in certain cases. The bill as passed is already having a positive effect on some. Linn Brooks of Eagle River Water and Sanitation says her region’s tourism-based economy, which relies on river flows, benefits from Senator Schwartz’s bill, even in its truncated form. In fact, Eagle River Water and Sanitation has already begun to reach out to water rights owners in their region to conserve on a broader scale.
“We acknowledge that this tool may be difficult to use in other areas where water administration is more complicated,” says Brooks, “but we believe it can work for us.”Brooks testified for SB-019 before the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources Committee out of a desire to protect cooperating diverters.
“The part of SB-019 that did pass alleviated the concerns of diverters that they would get penalized for cooperating,” says Brooks—concern that conservation hurts historic use averages has been a holdup for such efforts in the past.
The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, located near the headwaters of the Colorado River Basin, draws water from the Eagle River and Gore Creek. They are the second largest municipal water provider on the Western Slope.
“Healthy stream flows support fishing, boating, and the aesthetic values that draw visitors and drive our economy,” says Brooks. Outreach to diverters in 2012 resulted in cooperation from irrigation diversions, golf courses, and others agreeing to a 15 percent reduction in diversions initially and up to 25 percent as flows dropped through the 2012 summer season. But while diverters were willing to divert less, they questioned what the long-term effect on their water rights might be. SB-019, says Brooks, supports these cooperative efforts by protecting those who participate from being penalized in terms of historic consumptive use calculations if they ever require a change of use.
Among other aspects, SB-019 contains language that gives appropriators a “safe harbor” when they decrease their consumptive use. It calls for water judges to not consider any decrease in use resulting from a variety of programs, including certain water conservation programs, land fallowing programs, and water banking programs.
Brown, who was part of the CWC sub-committee providing recommendations for the bill, says that there was some debate about aspects of SB-019. “Some folks were really nervous that this was going to be a significant change in water policy since it tackled the issue of use it or lose it,” he says.
One of the objections to the original bill had to do with unintended consequences for other areas of the state, such as the Rio Grande Basin. “From what I have seen,” says Schwartz, “through recent legislation we are channeling different options for different basins.” She says by applying SB-019 to most of the West Slope, the bill was able to seize upon a timely opportunity and serve as a pilot for applications elsewhere. “We have the opportunity with roundtables to really look at specific needs for different basins,” she says.Schwartz says dialogue will continue as part of summer and fall sessions at the capitol. “We have more time,” she says, “but we will nudge people into having the conversation rather than have it evolve on its own.”
One group that is taking up the challenge of looking at Ag water conservation from the producer’s point of view is the Colorado Ag Water Alliance. “We want to see what opportunities might exist for Ag conservation instead of just saying it can’t work,” said CAWA member Robert Sakata. A CAWA committee will be meeting with Senator Schwartz this summer.
“These are difficult conversations, and I think we have to have them,” says Schwartz.