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With no clear path for water legislation, lawmakers want to create a new task force

The Colorado River runs near Kremmling, Colorado. Nearly 80% of the river's water is used for agriculture, putting the sector under pressure as the region tries to reduce demand.
Nick Cote
Colorado lawmakers aren't sure how to tackle water shortages on the Colorado River, pictured here near the town of Kremmling. They want a new task force to figure out the best next steps to take.

Back in January, Colorado Democrats said water legislation would be a centerpiece of their agenda this year. Now, with just a few weeks left in the legislative session, they want to create a task force to figure out how the legislature should address the Colorado River’s water shortages next year.

“I had hoped we would have been able to get there before now. We have not been able to,” House Speaker Julie McCluskie said. “Come January next year, if we aren’t ready to take action, I’ll be deeply disappointed.”

McCluskie, whose Western Slope district includes the Colorado River’s headwaters, is part of a group of bipartisan group of lawmakers sponsoring a bill that would launch the Colorado River Drought Task Force. The measure is expected to be introduced in the Senate this week.

“We have an incredible challenge in front of us, but it's also one that we can turn into a great opportunity, I think, if we get this right,” Sen. Dylan Roberts, who represents a vast swath of Northwest Colorado, said. “The legislature needs to have a role in creating programs and tools for people on the ground to deal with the drought in the coming years and deal with what might happen on the Colorado River if the federal government steps in.”

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to 40 million people across seven Western states: Colorado, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Warming temperatures and increasing demand for water have driven water levels along the river’s basin to record lows, including at some of the country’s largest reservoirs.

Last year, to stabilize water levels, federal officials called on the seven Colorado River states to come to an agreement over how to cut back their water use, but the negotiations were not successful. Now, the federal government is working on a new plan for cuts and dam releases on the river, which will be finalized this summer.

One of the Colorado River Drought Task Force’s primary duties would be to recommend water legislation that lawmakers can introduce during next year’s legislative session. The measures would cover drought management and the state’s role in regional water conservation. The group would also help prepare for and manage the federal government’s upcoming plan.

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

The fifteen-member body would include water managers, local officials, farmers, engineers, and environmentalists. The speaker of the House and the president of the Senate would each appoint several members, and the minority leaders in both chambers would each appoint one. Colorado’s resident Native American tribes, the Southern Ute Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, would also have representatives on the task force.

The group would have to convene its first meeting by July 31, and it would be able to hold up to twelve meetings by the end of the year. The bill sponsors say it will also hold public meetings and invite public input.

Speaker McCluskie says water issues within Colorado, and along the Colorado River Basin, are so complex and involve so many different interests that a task force is necessary to figure out the right next steps.

“I am optimistic that Colorado can still show up as a leader in the West on how you handle water and how you handle drought and how you respond in this moment in a responsible, thoughtful, but very deliberate and intentional way,” McCluskie said.

The task force, however, will likely face the same political obstacles that have hampered state lawmakers’ efforts to come up with water legislation. Water is a vital and often scarce resource in Colorado, and varying interests in it around drinking water, agriculture, conservation and recreation often conflict with one another.

Once officially introduced, the bill will go before a legislative committee. If approved there, it will head to the Senate floor and then the House of Representatives.

I’m the Statehouse Reporter at KUNC, which means I help make sense of the latest developments at the Colorado State Capitol. I cover the legislature, the governor, and government agencies.