Water Lines: Drought, flood & controversy
Free Press Weekly Columnist
Colorado experienced a fair amount of tumult and controversy related to water in 2013.
We entered the year facing an epic drought, which then dissipated. Epic floods on the Front Range in September inflicted significant damage to water infrastructure. And epic amounts of indignation flared as the U.S. Forest Service attempted to require ski areas to transfer their water rights to the federal government as a condition of permit approvals.
All of these issues are reflected in proposed water legislation that has been introduced in the Colorado legislature in 2014. Here’s a sampling:
STRETCHING WATER SUPPLIES
The drought intensified ongoing discussions on how to stretch existing water supplies to meet urban and environmental needs without drying up irrigated agricultural land. Several proposed bills speak to this long-term challenge.
• Senate Bill 14-017 seeks to limit the replacement of irrigated farmland with irrigated lawns. The bill would prohibit approval of new subdivisions that buy agricultural water rights to serve their residents unless lawns are limited to 15 percent or less of the total area of the residential lots.
• House Bill 14-1026 seeks to make it easier for agricultural users to lease some of their water right to other users as an alternative to permanent “buy and dry.”
The bill would allow those who free up water through fallowing some land, deficit irrigation (giving crops less water than they really want) or planting less thirsty crops to ask the state engineer for permission to change the use of that water without having to designate exactly what the new use will be. Water court wouldn’t be involved unless there was an appeal.
• Senate Bill 14-023 seeks to remove “use it or lose it” disincentives for irrigation efficiency improvements that could benefit streams.
The bill would allow irrigators west of the Continental Divide, who reduce water diversions through increased efficiency, to transfer or loan the rights to the “saved” water to the state to improve streamflows and would ensure that those rights are not legally abandoned. This only applies to water that was not consumed under pre-efficiency practices, but rather lost in transit, and is only allowed if it won’t damage someone else’s water right.
September’s extreme flooding on the Front Range didn’t just wash away roads and homes; it also severely damaged irrigation infrastructure. Legislators have responded with bills aimed at providing financial relief and easing legal hurdles to rebuilding:
• HB 14-1002 would appropriate $12 million for a new grant program to repair water infrastructure damaged by a natural disaster.
• HB 14-1005 would reduce legal hurdles for rebuilding irrigation diversions in cases where flooding changed the stream in such a way that the original diversion point would no longer work.
The bill allows water-right holders to relocate a ditch headgate without filing for a change in water court, as would normally be required, as long as the change won’t damage someone else’s water right.
Colorado ski areas and other water interests strongly opposed a recent U.S. Forest Service policy requiring ski areas to transfer their water rights to the federal government as a condition for approving permits.
Ski areas sued, and the Forest Service backed down last fall, but the residue of the controversy can be seen in HB 14-1028. This bill would label any water right obtained by the federal government as a condition for a permit as “speculative” and cause it to revert back to the original owner.
These bills and others related to water are monitored by the Colorado Water Congress, a trade group representing Colorado water providers and users, at http://www.cowatercongress.org/state_water_activities.aspx.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
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