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Aerial view of a boat on water
A private raft of three paddlers navigate the rapids inside Glenwood Canyon, July 3, 2023, near Glenwood Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Members of the Colorado River Drought Task Force met for the first time Monday to lay the groundwork for five months of water supply problem-solving. 

The Colorado General Assembly passed legislation in May to create the interim task force, which will study and recommend ways state lawmakers can address Colorado River water scarcity in the future. As the members head into those discussions, several of them said one of their main priorities is to condense diverse and at times conflicting perspectives into a unified message for lawmakers.

The 17-member group had to hold its first meeting by July 31, according to the legislation. The meeting primarily focused on the members’ hopes and concerns about the task ahead and logistical questions about how to proceed when time is in short supply.

“We really have a big responsibility here, a huge opportunity,” Kathy Chandler-Henry, an Eagle County commissioner and chair of the task force, said during the online meeting. “We don’t want to recreate the wheel (and) do a lot of things that haven’t been done before.”

The Colorado River begins in Rocky Mountain National Park and flows through the western U.S., where it and its tributaries form the Colorado River Basin. The basin supplies about 40 million people with water, but its future has become increasingly uncertain in face of warmer temperatures, more than two decades of drought and overuse by water users.

This year, state officials started the 120-day lawmaking session saying water was going to be the “centerpiece” of Democratic environmental policy. Out of 16 water-focused bills, the task force bill was the only piece of legislation that directly addressed Colorado River issues.

Members of the Colorado River Drought Task Force met for the first time Monday. The task force must study the Colorado River’s water supply challenges and provide a recommendation to the Colorado General Assembly by Dec. 15.

The group is made up of appointees from around the state who represent local and state governments, the agricultural industry, tribes and water management boards. All appointees and nonvoting, advisory members of the task force attended the meeting Monday.

The task force’s first phase will focus on information gathering and assessing members’ priorities in one-on-one conversations with the Langdon Group, a Utah-based company hired to help facilitate the meetings.

During Monday’s meeting, task force members voiced their goals, questions and concerns for the process ahead.

Several members said they would like the group to come to a unified agreement on its recommendations for next year’s legislative session. 

Members also said they want to build on the existing body of work — years of analysis, policy recommendations and program proposals about Colorado River issues — that has already been done.

“I think my biggest concern is the short amount of time we have,” said Lisa Yellow Eagle, the attorney for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. “But I am hopeful because we do seem to have a lot of people in this group who have already been working on these issues, so I definitely look towards them as I learn about what has been done before.”

Lee Miller, general counsel of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said his main hope is that the group does no harm. 

“My greatest fear about the task force is that, we know the Lower Basin is going to be watching — other states in the Colorado River Basin are watching — that we don’t give them fuel to divide us more or to use it against us in these negotiations for the interim guideline extension,” Miller said.

Other task force members also echoed concerns about presenting a unified front as representatives from the seven Colorado River Basin states negotiate interim- and long-term guidelines that will impact how water is shared during supply shortages.

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“We don’t want to do anything that weakens our position with the Lower Basin states when we’re looking at the big river issues,” Chandler-Henry said. “Even though this task force is within the state of Colorado, we have a big responsibility to the Upper Basin as well.”

Colorado officials argue that overuse in the Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — is a primary driver of water shortages in the Colorado River Basin.

The task force is currently scheduled to meet twice per month, for a total of 10 meetings between Monday and Dec. 7. Its next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 10 and will be held in-person on the Front Range. A sub-task force, which focuses on tribal water concerns and recommendations, will also meet four times.

The task force is subject to open meetings laws. As currently planned, members of the public can participate by listening into meetings; submitting comments through the task force website, which will go live as early as Friday; or by attending in-person public meetings, which will be held later this year, according to the Langdon Group. Whether the public can attend in-person meetings was still being discussed Monday.

“One thing that came through is the need for Colorado to be on the same page as much as possible,” Chandler-Henry said. “It’s clear we need to protect our ag users; we need to protect all of our water rights holders; and we need to be thinking of the river itself.”

CORRECTION: This file was updated Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023, at 10:54 a.m. to correct the name of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Shannon Mullane writes about the Colorado River Basin and Western water issues for The Colorado Sun. She frequently covers water news related to Western tribes, Western Slope and Colorado with an eye on issues related to resource management,...