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Rio Grande flows through an area known as the Pinnacles, near Wagon Wheel Gap, photographed after a summer rainstorm on July 18, 2022. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado water officials are strongly opposing a federal bill proposed by New Mexico lawmakers they say would interfere with Colorado’s authority to manage the Rio Grande within the state. What’s more, they say, the bill could set a harmful precedent for management of the troubled Colorado River. 

“It seems very heavy-handed and a top-down approach,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, whose district includes most of the Colorado counties the Rio Grande flows through. The river originates high in the San Juan Mountains west of Creede and runs through the San Luis Valley, across New Mexico and into Texas.  

The bill, titled the Rio Grande Water Security Act, proposes to form a federal workgroup within 120 days of passage of the legislation. The group would be composed of top federal officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Energy, among others, and tasked with developing and implementing a basin management plan. The plan, which would be due to Congress within two years, would propose suggestions for how to better manage water in the Rio Grande Basin. 

Earlier this month, Colorado state water officials drafted a letter opposing the legislation and requesting that Colorado be removed from any obligations related to the bill. The Colorado letter states that the legislation “proposes an unprecedented role for multiple federal agencies in what is, by law, the three Rio Grande River basin states’ historical administration of the waters of the river.”

Signed by Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the letter argues that the legislation conflicts with the “long-standing legal and regulatory mechanisms” that dictate how Colorado manages the Rio Grande in state. “The federal government does not have a role in planning the use of, or the administration of, water rights in Colorado. That function is reserved to the state,” Gibbs wrote in the letter. 

Gibbs warned that the legislation could establish a precedent for similar federal involvement in other river basins such as the Colorado River. 

Sponsored by U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, a Democrat from New Mexico, the House-introduced version of the bill passed July 29. The measure is stalled in the Senate, where it’s more difficult to pass legislation because of the 60-vote threshold required under the filibuster. The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich, also a Democrat from New Mexico. 

Right now, the water in the Rio Grande is managed by Colorado, New Mexico and Texas via an interstate agreement known as the Rio Grande Compact. Although Colorado fell out of compliance with the terms of the compact several decades ago, for roughly the past 50 years the state has met its obligation to deliver certain amounts of Rio Grande water to the state line. 

“We have a negotiated compact that Colorado has been living up to and honoring since the early ’70s,” said Simpson, who manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in addition to his role as a state senator.

Simpson said one of his concerns is the possibility that legislation like this could effectively put the federal government in control of the entire system on the Rio Grande. “With all the issues on the Colorado River that are unfolding,” Simpson said, “is this the template we want to adopt?”

A spokesperson for Stansbury said the bill is not designed to supersede the state compact or to have the federal government “put its nose where it doesn’t belong.” Rather, the goal is to “encourage collaboration” and “maximize the water resources of the Rio Grande,” the spokesperson said.

In a joint written statement, Heinrich and Stansbury said the bill would not affect existing agreements governing the Rio Grande.

“The interstate compact is a tool for water allocation,” the lawmakers wrote in a statement. “The resources and authorizations included in the Rio Grande Water Security Act will provide stakeholders with additional tools to manage and conserve water resources basin-wide, unlocking opportunities for water conservation, community water projects, and restoration across the entire 1,900 miles of the river.”

Simpson noted that the long list of federal agencies proposed to be involved doesn’t include the Department of Agriculture. “The biggest water user in the system is absent from the workgroup,” he said. “That raises a red flag for me.”

The state letter also argues that the Colorado Water Plan — first published in 2015 and now in the process of being updated — already addresses the kind of work that’s being proposed in the legislation. “Colorado does not need or desire a top-down plan developed by federal agencies to guide a process over which those agencies have no authority.”

Canby Mountain, 13,460 feet in elevation, near Stony Pass in the San Juan mountains of southwestern Colorado serves as the source of the headwaters of the Rio Grande. The 1,885 mile-long Rio Grande rises in the San Juan moutains of southwestern Colorado and flows to the Gulf of Mexico.(Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District in Alamosa, said state and local water managers in the valley are successfully managing the river and that the proposed legislation is not productive or helpful. 

“The fact that the bill fails to name the Rio Grande Compact is alarming,” Dutton said. “And what does this say for other key Western compacts that there could be a federal advisory group come in and rethink the way the river is managed?” 

Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango, is following this legislation closely because there are transbasin diversions that take water from the San Juan River in his district and move it to the Rio Grande Basin.

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“My personal opinion is that they’re looking for ways to get more water into the Rio Grande,” Wolff said. “Everyone is dry and everyone is trying to find water to meet their needs and there is just a limited supply.”

A spokesperson for Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper said the senator is “reviewing the bill to make sure Colorado’s interests are protected.”

A Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet spokesperson said the office has heard strong opposition to the bill from Coloradans in the San Luis Valley and is “working to ensure their concerns with the bill are heard.”

Simpson said the proposal remains a high concern, particularly given that no one reached out to anyone in his community before drafting the bill. 

“I found it extremely frustrating that the bill was introduced with zero stakeholder engagement or input from Colorado,” said Simpson, who serves on the legislature’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee. “How can you not engage the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District and our constituents in the headwaters? That set us on a path that’s been really hard to get around.”

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Chris Outcalt

Chris Outcalt covers Western water issues for The Colorado Sun. He began his journalism career in New Hampshire, then moved West and became a reporter at the Lafayette News. He...