Get Big Pivots

Colorado legislative committee approves many millions for water projects in Colorado — including $250,000 for a study crucial for Baca County


by Allen Best

Unanimous votes in the Colorado Legislature are rare, but they do happen. Consider HB24-1435, the funding for the Colorado Water Conservation Board projects.

The big duffle bag of funding for various projects was approved 13-0 by the House Water and Agriculture Resources Committee. It had bipartisan sponsors, including Rep. Marc Catlin, a former water district official from Montrose.

“Colorado has been a leader in water for a long, long time, and this is bill is an opportunity for us to stay in that leadership position,” said Catlin, a Republican and a co-sponsor.

“This is one of my favorite bills,” said Rep. Karen McCormick, a Democrat from Longmont and former veterinarian. She is also a co-sponsor.

The bill has some very big-ticket items, including $20 million for the Shoshone power plant agreement between Western Slope interests and Public Service Co. of Colorado, better known by its parent company, Xcel Energy. Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, called the effort to keep the water in the river “incredibly important” to those who make a living in the Colorado River Basin.

Mueller also pointed out that keeping water in the river will benefit of four endangered species of fish that inhabit what is called the 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River near Grand Junction.

Another $2 million was appropriated for the turf-replacement program in cities, a program first funded in 2022. Another mid-range item is telemetry for Snotel sites, to keep track of snow depths, the better to predict runoff. It is to get $1.8 million.

Among the smallest items in the budget is a big one for Baca County, in Colorado’s southeast corner. The bill, if adopted, would provide the Colorado Water Conservation Board with $250,000 to be used to evaluate the remaining water in aquifers underlying southeastern Colorado. There, near the communities of Springfield and Walsh, some wells long ago exhausted the Ogallala aquifer and have gone deeper into lower aquifers, in a few cases exhausting those, too. Farmers in other areas continue to pump with only modest declines.

What exactly is the status of the underground water there? How many more decades can the agricultural economy dependent upon water from the aquifers continue? The area is well aside from the Arkansas River or other sources of snowmelt.

A study by the McLaughlin Group in 2002 delivered numbers that are sobering. Wes McKinley, a former state legislator from Walsh, at a meeting in February covered by the Plainsman Herald of Springfield, said the McLaughlin study numbers show that 84% of the water has been extracted. That study suggested 50-some years of water remaining. If correct, that leaves 34 years of water today.

Tim Hume, the area’s representation on the Colorado Groundwater Commission, has emphasized that he believes this new study will be needed to accurately determine how water should be managed.

How soon will this study proceed? asked Rep. Ty Winter, a Republican from Trinidad who represents southeastern Colorado. Tracy Kosloff, the deputy director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, answered that the technical analysis should begin sometime after July. “I would think it is reasonable to finish it up by the end of 2025, but that is just an educated guess.”

She said the state would work with the Baca County community to come up with a common goal and direction “about how they want to manage their resources.”

Unlike the Republican River area of northeastern Colorado, where farmers also have been plunging wells into the Ogallala and other aquifers, this area of southeastern Colorado has no native river. In the Republican Basin, Colorado is trying to remove 25,000 acres from irrigation by the end of 2029 in order to leave more water to move into the Republican River. See story. A similar proposition is underway in the San Luis Valley, where farmers have also extensively tapped the underground aquifers that are tributary to the Rio Grande. See story.

The closest to critical questioning of the bill came from Rep. Richard Holtorf, a Republican who represents many of the farming counties of northeastern Colorado. He questioned the $2 million allocated to the Office of the Attorney General.

He was told that $1 million of that constantly replenishing fund is allocated to the Colorado River, $110,000 for the Republican River, $459,000 for the Rio Grande, $35,000 for the Arkansas and $200,000 for the South Platte.

Then there’s the litigation with Nebraska about the proposed ditch that would begin in Colorado near Julesburg but deliver water to Nebraska’s Perkins County. Colorado hotly disputes that plan.

Lauren Ris, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said Colorado is “very confident in our legal strategy.”

Holtorf also noted that the severance tax provides 25% of the funding for the water operations. The severance tax comes from fossil fuel development. As Colorado moves to renewable energy, “what happens to this Colorado water if we kill the goose that lays the golden egg?”

Ris replied said future declines in the severance tax is a conversation underway among many agencies in Colorado state government.

Allen Best
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