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The sun pokes through on the Colorado River April 12, 2023, near Burns, Colorado. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP)

The Colorado legislature, whose leaders signaled this year that they planned to take bold action on water, is poised to convene an interim task force to study and recommend ways state lawmakers can address Colorado River water scarcity in the future. 

The 15-member panel would mostly be appointed by the Colorado Senate president and Colorado House speaker and would first meet no later than July 31. The committee could gather up to a dozen times and is charged with sending a written report to the legislature by Dec. 15 with policy suggestions and a summary of its work. 

None of the committee members would be state senators or representatives. The task force is set to be dissolved in July 2024, under a bipartisan measure forming the panel that is set to be introduced this week. 

“Come January next year, if we aren’t ready to take action, I will be deeply disappointed,” said House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, “because I really think this is the moment.”

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The fact lawmakers are convening a task force instead of taking decisive action to conserve Colorado River water, which more than 40 million people in seven states rely upon, is indicative of the immense complications and political sensitivity around the issue. 

Change has been a slow drip, if any drip at all. 

States in the Colorado River Basin have been unwilling or unable to agree on how to cut back their individual and shared use, punting to the federal government, which has repeatedly threatened to force reductions on the southwest and intermountain West but so far hasn’t followed through. 

In addition to being vital for drinking water, the Colorado River fuels $5 billion in agricultural activity each year, not to mention recreation and tourism.

“I think this is a recognition that water decisions are incredibly complex and very sensitive and deserve a lot of deliberate thought and process,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat. “I think it’s a responsible thing to do to get buy-in from across the state, to have this thoughtful approach and not rush anything that we would have to fix in future years.”

Roberts was contemplating this year whether to pursue legislation to boost water conservation.

“We don’t have to do this,” he said. “We could just sit around and let the federal government decide what our future is. But that’s certainly not what our constituents expect and I don’t think it’s a responsible thing to do.”

The members of the task force would be: 

  • The executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, or a designee from the executive director
  • The state water engineer, or their designee
  • A representative of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe
  • A representative of the Southern Ute tribe
  • A representative of the Colorado River Water Conservation District who is chosen by district’s board of directors 
  • A representative of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, chosen by the district’s board of directors 
  • Three people appointed by Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, representing an operator or contract beneficiary of a major transmountain diversion project that provides water for municipal purposes; a local government located in the boundaries of the Southwestern Water Conservation District that provides municipal water; and a statewide environmental nonprofit organization with expertise in water rights and Colorado River interstate governance.
  • Four people appointed by McCluskie, representing an operator or contract beneficiary of a major transmountain diversion project that provides water for agricultural irrigation; a statewide environmental nonprofit with expertise in water rights and Colorado River interstate governance; an agricultural producer located in the Colorado River Water Conservation District; and a local government in the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
  • An agricultural producer from the Southwestern Water Conservation District, appointed by Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, R-Monument
  • A representative from an industrial water user that is located on the Western Slope, appointed by House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, R-Wellington

The forthcoming bill forming the task force requires that the panel, at a minimum, make recommendations that:

  • Avoid disproportionately negative or economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region in the state
  • Protect existing water uses and allow for reasonable increments of future development in the Colorado River Basin without allowing or protecting a new transmountain diversion
  • Are voluntary, temporary and compensated when it comes to any water acquisition from the agricultural sector
  • Outline specific roles for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District while maintaining the authority of the state water engineer 
  • Evaluate sources of revenue to pay for water programs and their operational costs
  • Provide the state engineer with appropriate legal authority and direction to fulfill programs and reduce or mitigate interstate Colorado River Basin water commitments

One goal of the task force will be to set a coordinated statewide response if federal officials in the future call on Colorado to cut its own use of river water in favor of downstream states‘ needs, said Colorado River District government relations director Zane Kessler.

The Colorado River District, which oversees development and protection of water uses on the River for the Western Slope counties, supports the bill and was involved in the talks that preceded its drafting.

Clear waters near East Inlet inside Grand Lake, where a fresh mountain stream flows into the body of water on Sept. 19 in Grand County. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“It calls for legislative recommendations, that’s why it’s important,” Kessler said. “From the West Slope point of view, we don’t want to be looked at as the sole source to carry this burden. So it’s setting the stage for a collaborative process going forward.”

Since no lawmakers will sit on the task force, the panel won’t be able to draft legislation. That will be up to the agriculture and water committees in the House and Senate, to whom the task force is expected to report.

The legislature could always ignore the task force’s recommendations or significantly change them. 

The Republican sponsors of the soon-to-be-introduced bill will be Sen. Perry Will, R-New Castle, and Rep. Marc Catlin, a Montrose Republican. Catlin is also on the board of the Colorado River District and previously served as the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.

McCluskie pointed out that the legislature this year is making water investments through the state budget. She also highlighted a stream restoration bill that’s making its way through the Capitol.

“Water conversations are really hard,” she said. “I’m pleased that we’ve had some movement. This is a way to really say ‘pedal to the metal.’”

Colorado Sun staff writer Michael Booth contributed to this report.

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The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter in Douglas County for Colorado Community Media. She has won awards for her...