Ranchers and growers in the Roaring Fork Valley and elsewhere in the Colorado River basin would have a new incentive for conserving water without jeopardizing their water rights under legislation moving forward in the Colorado Legislature.
The drought-fueled measure, put forth by state Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Democrat from Snowmass Village, passed unanimously in the Senate last week and now moves to the House, starting with the Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, is the sponsor.
While the legislation, Senate Bill 13-19, was amended to gain the necessary support - losing its most ambitious provisions in the process - Schwartz on Thursday called the measure a critical first step and one that will lead to further conversations this summer about water conservation.
With Colorado likely facing a second straight summer of severe drought, Schwartz said she hopes to encourage water conservation among agricultural users without punishing them in the process.
"We need to modify our thinking and our attitudes about how we use water," the senator said.
The legislation was originally to apply statewide, but concerns among the state's seven river basins were varied, and ultimately, the bill's focus was narrowed to the Gunnison, Colorado main stem and Yampa/White river basins.
Under current water law, if a water user reduces the amount of water they divert, the action could potentially reduce their historical consumptive use - a measurement that could jeopardize their water right going forward. It's often referred to as the "use it or lose it" aspect of Colorado water law. If you're not using it, you don't get to keep it.
Under Schwartz's bill, a water user who enrolls in various conservation programs could reduce their water use in drought years, but the reduction would not be considered by a water judge in determining that user's historical consumptive use.
"What we're trying to say is, 'If you're willing to do this, your historical consumptive use is protected,'" Schwartz said.
The conservation programs include those enacted by local water districts. Last year, for example, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which provides water to the eastern half of Eagle County and is a main user of water from Gore Creek and the Eagle River, worked with its customers to conserve water but also convinced other water diverters to do with less, according to spokeswoman Diane Johnson. Entities such as golf courses and the town of Avon, which uses raw water to irrigate its parks, got on board, she said.
Schwartz's bill would mean those entities wouldn't get dinged in a calculation of consumptive use if that voluntarily reduction is repeated, she said.
"Gail's bill is quite significant," said Basalt attorney Ken Ransford, secretary for the Colorado Basin Roundtable. The group is one of nine in the state that focuses on water-management issues under the umbrella of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Ransford has watched Schwartz's legislation closely. Its passage would mean an important incentive for conservation, he said.
"It's a significant change in the law. It takes away a disincentive to a landowner who wants to enroll their land in a conservation program," he said.
Without a change in the law, a landowner still could enroll land in a program and divert less water - irrigate 50 acres instead of 100, for example - but could be dinged for the reduction over time, he said.
Gone from the legislation, however, are provisions that would have provided incentives to irrigators to increase the efficiency of their watering systems without jeopardizing their water rights.
The concept proved a difficult sell, but it's one Schwartz hopes to pursue this summer, when she will chair the Water Resources Review Committee, a standing legislative committee that meets each year. Further legislation on efficient agricultural water use could come out of the group, she said.
"Right now, if you improve your system and save water, you've just lost that water," said John Ely, Pitkin County attorney and the county government's point person on water issues. "Almost anybody can improve their system, ... but until there's a reason to do so, all you're going to get out of it is a loss of your water."
"There's almost a disincentive to adopt efficient irrigation systems," Ransford agreed.
The complexities of allowing a user to draw less water to irrigate the same acreage by more efficient means, leave more water in a river as a result and still maintain one's full water rights, however, threatened to unravel the bill's chances. Sections of the legislation aimed at creating such incentives have been dropped, but Schwartz hasn't given up hope for the concept.
"I think we had an opportunity to really look at agricultural efficiency and finding ways that we can encourage farmers and ranchers who are diverting water to employ efficiency measures," she said. "I guess the bottom line is that's a bigger conversation."