2020 has been a tumultuous year, and as we enter our fifth month of quarantine and social distancing, it can be encouraging to find things to celebrate. With the close of Colorado’s legislative session last month and Governor Polis finalizing his bill signings, one thing that we can laud is the work that was accomplished for our rivers. Even though the Colorado General Assembly struggled to fully address a more than $3 billion budget shortfall, they maintained and expanded programs and investments necessary to keep our rivers flowing, and this is something we can be proud of.
In March, Governor Polis signed two bills into law that expand and improve Colorado’s instream flow program. These bills, HB20-1157 and HB20-1037, provide new tools for water users and conservationists to work together to keep water in rivers for the benefit of fish and wildlife. HB20-1157 will be a particularly important tool for the Yampa River Fund which provides grants to improve the health of the Yampa River, including through leases of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to enhance late-season fish habitat, agriculture, and to benefit the local tourism and outdoor recreation economy.
It can be encouraging to find things to celebrate. With the close of Colorado’s legislative session last month and Governor Polis finalizing his bill signings, one thing that we can laud is the work that was accomplished for our rivers.
Colorado also made a new commitment to improve water conservation in our cities and towns. The Colorado Water Plan, finalized in 2015, sets a goal of achieving 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water conservation savings by 2050. The way that we plan and build our cities and towns contributes to how we use water, how much we use, and how quickly demands grow for new supplies. The new law, HB20-1095, authorizes local governments to include water conservation elements into their master plans, thereby encouraging local governments to combine their land and water use planning to accelerate the state toward its 400,000 acre-foot conservation savings goal.
While budgets were slashed statewide, fortunately funding for the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan was maintained. Over $7 million was included in the Colorado Water Conservation Board budget for Water Plan implementation grants or water projects across the state, and an additional $4 million was allocated to invest in stream and watershed management planning efforts to keep rivers healthy and flowing. We appreciate the state’s continued recognition of the importance of clean rivers and drinking water for all Coloradans and hope that this commitment continues.
Just over six months ago, voters demonstrated their own commitment to healthy rivers and water supplies by legalizing sports betting and directing tax revenues to fund the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan. As sports begin to start back up, we urge the General Assembly to respect the will of the voters and ensure this tax revenue is directed, as intended, to Water Plan implementation.
While we celebrate these wins for Colorado’s waterways, we recognize there is still more work to be done.
In June, the Trump administration issued rules that significantly reduce protections for Colorado’s rivers and wetlands under the Clean Water Act, leaving many previously protected waterways in limbo. The new federal rule leaves one out of every five stream miles in Colorado, including half of the state’s wetlands, unprotected from construction activity discharges. Thanks to a lawsuit led by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, the rule has been temporarily blocked pending resolution, which maintains protections for our state’s waterways—for now.
Regardless of the outcome in court, it is time for Colorado to ensure that its rivers and wetlands will always be protected from destructive dumping and discharges. The Water community is coming together—virtually—this summer to try to find some common ground on this issue and we plan to bring a solution before the General Assembly for the 2021 legislative session.
While 2020 seems to be the year of one bad headline after the next, we are heartened by the work of our state legislature and government to make positive strides toward safeguarding our water future.
Aaron Citron serves as Policy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy, a coalition partner of the Water for Colorado Coalition.