Colorado could spend millions more to replace water-hungry lawns, keep extra water in streams to protect fish and their habitats, and repair water-wasting farm and city delivery systems, according to a list of potential fixes from a state task force hoping to drought-proof the Colorado River.
The 17-member Colorado River Drought Task Force finished its preliminary list of recommendations Friday. It will finalize the list Thursday and hone it for a final report to lawmakers due Dec. 15.
The task force’s job has been to identify new policies and tools to help save water and ensure neither Colorado water users nor the environment are adversely affected by any new federal Colorado River agreements designed to protect the drought-strapped river across the seven-state region where it flows.
Created by lawmakers last spring when they approved Senate Bill 295, the task force includes representatives of environmental and agricultural groups, urban and rural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others.
In all, 24 recommendations will be voted on this week, covering a broad range of options, including small storage projects, more flexibility in sharing water stored in reservoirs, and new tools to measure water so that conservation programs can operate effectively.
“It has been a very short timeline, but it has been concentrated time,” task force chair Kathy Chandler-Henry said. “People showed up every other week in far-flung places for five-hour meetings and we have worked well together. It has felt as if it was a common goal to do something positive for drought in Colorado and get something useful to the legislature.”
This Fresh Water News story is a collaboration between The Colorado Sun and Water Education Colorado. It also appears at wateredco.org/fresh-water-news.
The recommendations could make their way to lawmakers next year, or could be addressed by water agencies if no legislation is required to make the changes.
Among the proposals is a request to dramatically boost funding for a new state program that gives cities, water districts and nonprofits cash to help residents and businesses tear out thirsty lawns and replace them with water-saving landscapes. Last year, lawmakers provided $2 million for the work, including $1.5 million in actual grants. But some task force members would like to see that number rise significantly, perhaps as high as $5 million, according to Randi Kim, utilities director for the city of Grand Junction. Nevada spends $24 million on such programs, according to the task force.
“The current levels are helpful,” Kim said. “We received a $25,000 grant and we can do about 50 single-family homes. More money would have a broader effect.”
Also on the list are several proposals that would bolster tools used to keep water in streams, including a state program that allows water to be loaned to a stream for a certain period of time. Under one task force recommendation, the loan program could be operated for longer periods of time.
In another proposal, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association is asking that water rights it controls, which are used to help run its coal plants in the Yampa River Valley, be preserved once the plants are shut down, a process that is scheduled to occur between 2025 and 2028. The recommendation isn’t specific only to Tri-State, but could include other utilities with coal-fired power plants and creates a pilot program in the Yampa Valley.
Under Colorado law, water that is no longer used must be transferred or sold to another user or it must be returned to the river. Traditionally, the idea has been to prevent water right holders from hoarding water they are not using. But the utility is asking that its water rights be protected and left in the river even if they are not being used through 2050, in case they are needed for future green power projects.
Such proposals have won the support of environmental groups, including Conservation Colorado, which maintain that finding ways to leave additional water in streams offers more protection for the environment, and the communities and recreation economies that rely on the waterways.
“The Western Slope in particular has been threatened by drought, by river closures due to low flows, and fish kills due to low flows. These measures could help Colorado become more resilient,” said Josh Kuhn, senior water campaign manager for Conservation Colorado.
There also are recommendations to provide more funding to improve leaky water systems for irrigators and cities. Though water funding has increased from some sources, such as tax revenue from sports betting in Colorado and from the federal government, task force members said funding is still difficult to come by and needs to be prioritized.
Steve Wolff, a task force member representing the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango, said it’s unclear how many of the recommendations will turn into on-the-ground drought fixes.
“I certainly think it’s been a good discussion,” Wolff said. “But a lot of these things involve more funding. We need to understand if by doing these things, are we taking money from elsewhere and is that fair? I think it would be helpful to start prioritizing, whether it should be for aging infrastructure, or more storage, or other things.”