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Environment

Congressional infrastructure deal brings $8B in climate, water projects to the West

Conservation groups say the bill is a climate and water budget bonanza for Colorado

Glenwood Canyon is seen along the Colorado River on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Glenwood Springs. The 12-mile canyon reaches heights 1,300 feet above the Colorado River. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado will benefit from billions of dollars in climate change and water projects in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment bill passed by the U.S. House late Friday, conservation groups said over the weekend, with some of the money shoring up drought-stretched obligations to the Colorado River Compact. 

More than $8.3 billion in water projects alone earmarked for Western states will help pay for programs such as renting water from farmers to send down the Colorado River in extremely dry years, replanting and managing high country forests devastated by wildfires and recycling more water in cities, said Alexander Funk, director of water resources for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. 

“It’s a really solid step to addressing some of the water resource challenges that we’re seeing in Colorado and other Western states,” Funk said. 

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Water for Colorado, a broader coalition that Funk speaks for, called the bill’s final approval “a rare opportunity for Colorado to have funding flowing while our rivers are not. Colorado needs to be ready to use as much of these once-in-a-generation federal funds as quickly as possible to address the state’s water resource funding gaps through implementation of the Colorado Water Plan.”

The coalition’s members include Trout Unlimited, Environmental Defense Fund, American Rivers and others.

Pew Charitable Trusts highlighted $1.4 billion of approved spending that will go to states, local governments and tribal governments for repairing and removing culverts, improving fish habitat, and removing barriers to fish spawning and survival, such as dams. The bill also includes $275 million in dedicated funding for the first time to fix roads and make other improvements at national parks and other public and tribal lands. 

Those are just a few of the provisions Pew director of public lands and river conservation Marcia Argust said “will help local economies that depend on healthy ecosystems.”

State and nonprofit leaders in Colorado say the boost of federal money is needed to help them find water for the beleaguered Colorado River through diversions from agriculture and conservation in Front Range cities. The Colorado River’s runoff into Lake Powell has dropped about 20% in the past 20 years amid a long-term drought and longer-term climate change

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The drop in available Colorado River water, which supplies 40 million people in seven states, has already forced cutbacks to the amount of water being sent to Arizona in 2022, for example. Arizona, Nevada and California suffer the first cutbacks under a federally-overseen compact among the seven states. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, where the Colorado River’s primary resources originate, will face cutbacks in the future if they fail to deliver an average of 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the lower compact states each year.

Colorado leaders do not want to be forced into sudden, uncontrolled cuts in a compact “call.” They are experimenting with “demand management,” paying farmers for water in some years without drying up their water rights permanently, and putting that water in a “bank” in Lake Powell to satisfy the compact. Large-scale water renting or purchasing will take at least hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Other projects that would need federal aid include transforming agricultural watering to be far more conserving, alternate crops, payments for carbon sequestration in ground cover, and restoring high country wetlands that slow wildfires and harbor lush wildlife. 

“I would say the upland forest wetland ecosystems are huge winners in terms of this infrastructure package,” Funk said. 

Front Range cities and water districts who feel they have a case to make for water conservation will also seek shares of the new pot of money to complete their projects. Agencies looking for federal assistance include a group of providers in northern El Paso County, who want to build a $134 million pipeline to complete a loop recycling diminishing aquifer water. 

Other funded infrastructure projects highlighted by the water conservation coalitions include: 

  • $280 million for sewer overflow and stormwater reuse municipal grants
  • $500 million in community wildfire defense grants from the U.S. Forest Service, and $200 million in post-fire restoration activities from the forest service and the Bureau of Land Management
  • $300 million for river drought contingency planning, with $50 million specifically for Upper Basin states like Colorado

The conservation groups are hoping Congress will double-down on climate and drought spending by following up in coming weeks to pass the other part of Biden’s recovery package, the multi-trillion, oft-changed budget reconciliation bill dubbed Build Back Better. It includes more infrastructure spending alongside Democrat priorities such as extended child care credits and family leave. 

Build Back Better, which many House members have pledged to vote on in November, includes Western-friendly items like $10 billion for reducing tinder-dry fuel in the “wildfire urban interface,” Funk said. It also has $27.5 billion — “with a ‘b’,” he noted — for climate-smart agriculture that would encourage farmers to plant more cover crops and provide land for carbon sequestration. 

“There’s some very big ticket items that are in Build Back Better that we definitely want to see added to what passed,” Funk said.