Colorado River runs through a dry landscape.
Colorado River runs through a dry landscape.

The Colorado River near the Utah border. Photo: Abby Burk
The Colorado River near the Utah border. Photo: Abby Burk

Western Water Initiative

Important Things Ahead for Colorado Water Policy in 2023

Audubon supports proactive water resilience strategies for 2023 Colorado legislation.

Water is our most precious natural resource and life-sustaining force for Coloradans, birds, and other wildlife. On January 9, Colorado lawmakers headed to the Capitol to start the 120-day legislative session. As a centerpiece of the session, water will connect and unite lawmakers and constituents with ripple effects for years to come.

At a critical time for water, leadership from all three legislative chambers have commented on the importance of Colorado's water to the sustainability and vitality of our state. "(Water) is the conversation, it will be the centerpiece of our agenda this year, if for no other reason than that Colorado has to be seen as a leader in this space," said Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie. "The conversation around water is going to be a big one," said Senate President Steve Fenberg.

On January 17th, Governor Jared Polis, in the State of the State address, remarked: "Water is life in Colorado and the west, it's as simple as that. But we're at a crossroads. Increased demand, chronic and extreme drought, conflicts with other states, and devastating climate events are threatening this critical life source— and we've all seen the impacts. Wildfires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres and devastated entire communities. Farmers and ranchers across the state fear that Colorado won't have the water resources to sustain the next generation of agricultural jobs… When Colorado is 150, I want our state to have the water resources necessary for our farms, communities, and industries to thrive, and the tools in place to protect our state's waterways and defend our rights." 

Clearly, water is a legislative priority. Big water ideas are in the wind, but proponents need to share concepts broadly. Our decisions about water influence all areas of life for people and nature. We’re doing a better job of including and valuing a diversity of input in water decisions, but we need to do more. A diversity of water stakeholders must support legislative proposals that support multiple beneficial uses.

Audubon Rockies is busy working with lawmakers, agencies, and partners to prioritize healthy, functioning, and resilient watersheds and river systems for people and birds—the natural systems that we all depend upon. There are already seven bills on our water watch list, plus several draft bills. Here are three water priority areas for Audubon in the 2023 Colorado legislative session. Please make sure you’re signed up to hear about opportunities to engage with them.

Stream Health 

Colorado's ability to thrive depends upon the health and function of our natural stream systems. Healthy, functioning stream systems provide critical habitat to most of Colorado's wildlife; improve wildfire resilience, drought mitigation, flood safety, water quality, forest health, riparian and aquatic habitat; and provide many other ecological benefits that are beneficial to all Coloradans.

Stream restoration practices have been successfully implemented across Colorado for more than 30 years by federal, state, and local agencies, conservation organizations, water providers, and private landowners. The projects are usually designed to address the environmental, public safety, infrastructure, and economic impacts of degraded river corridor conditions. However, recently there has been increased uncertainty about stream restoration practices in regards to water rights issues. Project proponents need a clear path to initiating and completing a stream restoration project. 

Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is on track to introduce proposed 2023 legislation to provide clarity and certainty on where stream restoration projects may take place based on the historical footprint (the presence of a stream and its riparian corridor’s location before disturbance occurred) without being subject to water rights administration. Without a legislative solution, Colorado could miss out on the critical benefits of healthy functioning river corridors and the significant funding currently available for watershed restoration work through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act.

This stream restoration legislation is a top priority for Audubon. We have partnered with DNR to host a water legislator webinar series on this bill. 

Join me on February 2, 8-8:45 AM for a bill orientation webinar with DNR leadership, bill sponsors, and leading experts. Register here.

Climate Resiliency 

Despite near-term optimism from a snowy December and January, climate change and unprecedented drought conditions in recent years are threatening Colorado's ability to satisfy water users, environmental needs, and potentially interstate obligations. We need more flexible ways to manage and deliver water to support the Colorado we love. The Colorado River Basin has been in an extended drought going on 24 years. There are real consequences for people, birds, and every other living thing that depends on rivers in this region. Colorado needs tools and resources to proactively respond to drought conditions and maximize the benefits to the state, its water users, and river systems from once-in-a-generation competitive federal funds that have recently been made available to address the Colorado River Basin drought. Audubon will be watching this session for legislation to support that will provide new innovative solutions to the water threats we face.

Water Funding & Projects 

Governor Polis' proposed budget request includes a historic $25.2 million to advance the state's Water Plan implementation and expansion of staff and funding to capture competitive federal funds. These much-needed proposals should be well-received by lawmakers, given that water security, drought, and fire are on everyone’s mind for this legislative session. We must ensure that these funds are invested wisely in water projects and water resources management strategies. The strategies must be equitable and fair for vulnerable communities and improve the health of Colorado’s watersheds for people and nature. Funding and water projects that support our river ecosystems are intrinsically related to our public health, economy, and the Coloradan ways of life.

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