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How Colorado can make meaningful progress on water in 2021 and the years ahead

Feb 11, 2021

2020 was a year of water wins in Colorado including voter approved funding for our state’s water and rivers. That funding will go to essential projects to restore rivers and habitat, support local drinking water supplies, help Colorado’s farmers grow local food, and increase communities’ resilience to climate change. It’s important to celebrate these achievements and what they mean for our state. But as we enter our third decade of drought, the Water for Colorado coalition knows there is much work left to be done. We have four recommendations for Colorado that we believe will help pave a successful path to more #WaterWins in 2021 and beyond. 


1. Follow the consistent will of voters and prioritize and expand water funding, even during uncertain budget times. 

In 2019, voters approved a sports betting initiative (Proposition DD) to fund Colorado’s Water Plan and the following year, in 2020, passed two local water measures with overwhelming bipartisan support – proving yet again that water is a unifying issue. Voters have been clear: increase, don’t cut, funding for water. Investment in water and watersheds positively supports economic priorities across the state, including water-dependent industries such as river-related recreation and skiing. We give a huge thanks to Governor Polis for requesting $20 million from the state’s budget this year – $10 million from a supplemental stimulus package and $10 million from the upcoming FY22 budget – to fund projects that support watershed and forest health and make our waterways more resilient to climate change, fires, and drought. This is a great start and we look forward to working with state leadership to identify more funding. 

2. Ensure the upcoming revision of Colorado’s Water Plan includes actionable goals for the health of our rivers and watersheds.

This year, the Colorado Water Conservation Board is convening water stakeholders to update Colorado’s Water Plan. The revision must include more diverse voices in the process, establish greater accountability mechanisms to make sure that the goals set out in the plan are being met and are benefiting all Coloradans, and take into account river health and environmental flows. These goals must be both short and long-term so we can show the true progress being made. Governor Polis has shown that he is starting to prioritize water with his declaration of a Wildly Important Goal (WIG) focused on water. We want to make sure that the Governor and the state keep this momentum going by continuing to identify new, measurable ways to increase prioritization of water conservation and environmental and recreational flows.

3. Reduce water supply risk and plan for the future, through improved long-term Colorado River management that focuses on keeping riverscapes healthy and protecting and enhancing flow.

Our rivers support Colorado’s $19 billion recreation economy and contribute to 59% of the state’s GDP. We must ensure that Colorado’s rivers remain healthy for the economy, our way of life, and our state’s iconic brand.  As the next phase of planning in the Colorado River Basin unfolds, it is essential to understand the full range of future risks and open our discussions to include solutions focused on system resilience. This will require innovative and adaptive water management across the Colorado River Basin, including championing tools that allow for more flexibility in the system, such as demand management, and taking advantage of Colorado’s position as a leader in the Basin in the upcoming interim guidelines renegotiations.

4. Empower water leaders on boards, agencies, and commissions by providing resources and bringing new water champions to the table.

Colorado is home to a long list of water experts, both those who have worked on these issues for decades, and those who are bringing a fresh perspective to the conversation. These leaders have been working collaboratively with basin managers and uniting over a shared desire to protect our water, especially in recent months. It’s time to build the bench of water champions in our state and ensure that they include non-traditional community leaders and more diverse representatives. We will need to include the expectation that these leaders take action to move forward innovative solutions and have the political support to do so.


Despite the lasting mega-drought throughout the West and what looks to be an ever drier 2021, Water for Colorado is enthusiastic and motivated to encourage Governor Polis and other state leaders to engage on water, follow these recommendations, and safeguard the future of water and river health in Colorado.


Top banner photo credit: Josh Duplechian

In-text photo credit: Sinjin Eberle