SOUTHERN UTE RESERVATION — The halfway point is in the rear view for the Colorado River Drought Task Force. Now it’s crunch time.
Task force members have until December to take their ideas on how to address Colorado’s top water issues and turn them into a written recommendation to the Colorado General Assembly. Progress, however, has been slow: Many of ideas were still loosely defined — like addressing funding barriers, evaluating issues with existing resources and fixing aging infrastructure — as of last week’s session, the sixth of 10 on the schedule.
In some cases, task force members were at odds over fundamental questions, like how the state should even discuss its water plans during high-stakes negotiations over the future of the Colorado River.
“There’s this fear, that I fully understand, about having too much public discussion that might show Colorado’s hand in case we end up in litigation or something like that,” said Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District. “So there’s a lot of moving pieces on interstate (issues) that make it a lot more difficult to address, I think.”
When the task force was created earlier this year by the Colorado General Assembly, it was the only legislative outcome from the session that directly addressed pressing issues in the Colorado River Basin, which supports ecosystems, 40 million people across the West and 40% of Colorado’s water supply.
The basin’s dwindling waters have been overused and impacted by climate change. Higher temperatures caused by climate change stole 10 trillion gallons of water out of the basin from 2000 to 2021, according to a recent study from UCLA.
Colorado lawmakers tried to craft policies this year in response to drought and worrisome conditions in the basin, but none gained traction during the legislative session. So the General Assembly turned to experts in water management and environmental, industrial, agricultural and legal issues from across the state.
After starting in July, the task force spent several meetings finalizing its meeting structure, logistics and high-level goals before turning to water issues within Colorado. They have heard hours of public comment and received hundreds of pages of studies, policy statements, advocacy letters, overviews — years worth of work on Colorado water issues.
“They’re picking up on the highlights as they distill down some of the things they really want to work on,” said Wendell Koontz, who is chair of the Gunnison Roundtable and not a task force member. “I know they’re pushed for time. And that’s going to be their Achilles’ heel on this one, but everybody knew that going into it.”
For people listening in, the meetings sometimes seem like they don’t make any progress, one task force member said. A water expert familiar with the group said hopes were low for the process. But several of the task force’s members said discussions have been respectful and productive, even if progress has felt slow in face of their rapidly approaching deadline.
“We have a long way to go and a short time to get there. My answer to that is all we can do is the best we can do,” said Lee Miller, general counsel of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, during the meeting Oct. 12. “I don’t want to rush to a conclusion because we’re running out of time. That’s how you get bad public policy.”
Where does the task force agree?
Last week, almost all of the 17 voting task force members, nonvoting members, alternates and members of the public crowded into a conference room on the Southern Ute Reservation to spend another afternoon grappling with water issues.
So far, the group has listed nearly 100 water-management ideas in working documents, which will need to be narrowed down and compiled into a report for the legislature. A sub-task force focused on tribal water issues will create a separate report.
“We’re not going to resolve this entire issue. People have been spending their lifetime on this issue,” said Aaron Citron, associate director of external affairs for The Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization. “But I hope that we can come forward with some really targeted, meaningful recommendations and maybe set up a clear path forward for answering those lingering questions that we might run out of time for.”
The task force members said there’s broad agreement on guiding principles, like “do no harm” and “Colorado first.”
Colorado and other Upper Basin states — New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — frequently do not use their full allocation of the Colorado River, so Coloradans should be able to put their full water allocation to beneficial use within the state.
“There’s a lot of alignment around the idea that Colorado should be able to continue to use its water,” said Alex Davis, assistant general manager of Aurora Water. “We don’t want the Lower Basin, or fear of what the Lower Basin could do, to prevent us from using our water to our maximum benefit as a state.”
Aging pipelines, diversion headgates and other infrastructure — which can result in leaks and water loss — are a high-priority topic for legislative recommendations, according to several task force members. As of last week, they were still weighing the pros and cons of ideas like improving headgate efficiency and updating diversion structures in streams to help fish pass through, according to their working documents.
Task force members also said high priorities include increasing funding opportunities, streamlining grant programs and removing funding barriers — like grant requirements that can end up excluding groups, like tribes.
“For the Tribe, I want to make sure that the Tribe is able to participate in any new programs, or if we expand existing programs, then we make sure that the Tribes can participate,” said Lisa Yellow Eagle, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s attorney and task force representative, in a written statement.
The group has thrown out ideas to look at funding for projects identified in the 2023 Colorado Water Plan, for agriculture soil health programs, agricultural micro-grant programs, Colorado Water Conservation Board grants and more.
Even observers, like Koontz and other Gunnison Roundtable members, emphasized infrastructure repair and funding opportunities in a letter to the task force — mainly mentioning permanent funding for the state’s water supply reserve fund.
Some programs are popular and others are rarely used, Wolff said. It would help to understand which available resources aren’t being used and if there are ways to make them more user-friendly.
“There’s lots of tools out there. I’m not sure we can add to that list very well,” he said. “Certainly, we can’t add to that list with new tools if we don’t understand why these tools aren’t getting used.”
“Devil’s in the details”
The group’s discussions frequently return to certain sticking points that task force members say need more time to flesh out.
The group’s focus often revolves around water conservation, but there’s some debate over what, exactly, should trigger the state to take action to conserve water — especially if the goal is to send it to state lines or to meet interstate water sharing obligations. For example, several task force members said Colorado could act to conserve more water after water use is reduced in the Lower Basin, which has overused its share of the river.
“There’s some debate about the wisdom of Colorado taking action prior to — primarily California — but the Lower Basin significantly reducing its demands,” Citron said. “Should we do it? Does it harm our negotiating position if we are proactive? Does it show good faith? … I don’t have an answer, but that seems like a reasonable debate that’s being had.”
“Devil’s in the details,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top Colorado River negotiator who is a member of the sub-task force. She advocated for united messaging from state entities and supporting tribal sovereigns during last week’s meeting.
“I don’t know if it was a recommendation for a resolution demanding Lower Basin reductions — I thought that was a great idea,” she said.
But if the state does decide to launch a program that conserves water and sends it to state lines, who manages the program? The state has a role but so do political subdivisions like the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which spans the river’s headwaters and much of the Western Slope, said Andy Mueller, the river district’s general manager.
“It’s just, again, how do you do it right?” Mueller said. “I can think of a number of ways that it could be done that would have unintended negative consequences that we’ve got to be careful about.”
At an even more fundamental level, task force members are weighing whether now is even the right time to discuss additional ways to save water.
Several task force members said that the state should be proactive and handle complicated discussions now while the river’s conditions are stable — unlike the water supply crisis in 2021.
To try to negotiate and set up a response during a crisis “is almost guaranteed to result in the worst result for our communities and for our agricultural industry,” Mueller said.
Others eyed the ongoing interstate negotiations, which will decide how the river is managed starting in 2026, and questioned whether the state should act now or wait for those rules to be finalized.
“I know there’s a lot of discussion about being proactive, and I fully understand that, but until you know what the rules of the game are going to be, it’s pretty hard to play the game,” Wolff said.
As the negotiations continue, the basin’s 30 Native American tribes and seven Western states, including Colorado, are jockeying to strengthen their positions. Does discussing proactive water conservation efforts give other states the impression that Colorado has water to spare?
“There has been some opposition to this task force because of the mindset that us even talking about different solutions as a state would put us in a weaker position with the downriver states as far as negotiations go. I wholeheartedly reject that premise,” said state Sen. Dylan Roberts of Eagle County, who co-sponsored the 2023 drought task force bill. “In order to protect Colorado’s interest and people who rely on the Colorado River within our state lines, we have to be proactive and be prepared for every possible scenario moving forward.”
Putting pen to paper in Glenwood Springs
The task force is gearing up for a full-day meeting Nov. 9 during which the group will start to draft recommendations for the legislature.
“While we have made great progress, that meeting in Glenwood is going to be really telling because that’s going to be, as I understand it, the drafting meeting,” Davis said. “Words matter, and when we start putting pen to paper and start actually writing things out, disagreements might become more evident, and it might become harder.”
Legislators aren’t expecting one single piece of legislation or policy change to be the answer, Roberts said. It’s going to be a complex mix of policy changes, funding, local solutions and federal changes.
“What we’re looking for is for them to talk about every possible thing, and then put in the report what had broad support, what didn’t get broad support and why,” Roberts said. “It’d be great if they had bill proposals that the state legislature could consider in the coming years, but we also are definitely interested if they think we’re not adequately funding something or if we could access federal funds in different ways.”
Short time frame notwithstanding, task force members said they were hoping to provide solid, well thought out recommendations that the legislature can act on and that work for water users across the state. Jackie Brown, of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Inc., said the discussions so far will help the group as it starts the drafting process.
“It felt like we were having productive conversations,” she said. “That is representative of the trust-building that is taking place at the task force, that we’re better able to have some hard conversations and participate because there’s a foundation that’s being built.”
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 11:58 a.m. Oct. 19, 2023, with the full name of state Sen. Dylan Roberts of Eagle County, who co-sponsored the 2023 drought task force bill.