Colorado water crisis: Legislature to focus on water in upcoming session

Colorado’s top lawmakers spared no superlative in describing the need to address the state’s water crisis at the annual pre-legislative breakfast Wednesday morning.

The annual Business Legislative Preview, hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, serves as an unofficial start to the legislative session. While crime, housing, and decarbonization were all discussed, it was water that incoming Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie said would be “the centerpiece” of the legislative agenda.

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno joined McCluskie on the Democratic side of the panel, and incoming Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen and House Minority Leader Mike Lynch represented the Republican side. Each side noted the political reality of the upcoming legislative session.

Democrats defied even their own expectations, Moreno said, by winning seats in each chamber this November to hold a supermajority in the House and be one seat shy of the two-thirds threshold in the Senate.

But each side underscored the importance of water and the desire to be part of the conversation. They also noted the complexity of laws governing the resource, other states’ rights — and over-slurping of — water.

“For almost all of us up here, and quite frankly probably most of you folks in the room, this is an issue we don’t have the depth of knowledge we ought to have,” Lundeen said. “Water is critical, it’s not only critical today, but it’s critical to the future of Colorado that our children and grandchildren will live in.”

He warned of the state’s “parched” future if something isn’t done to secure water and pledged his caucus’ engagement on the issue. Lynch likewise said water “will dictate the future of this state.” Each emphasized the need for new reservoirs to store water before it flows out of state.

Lynch specifically praised the recently approved Northern Integrated Supply Project, which will build two new reservoirs in Northern Colorado that will hold a combined estimate of more than 215,000 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land in a foot of water, and, at about 326,000 gallons, supply two households with water for a year.

McCluskie said it’ll be on lawmakers and policy setters to leverage federal dollars for the Colorado Water Plan and prevent the direst predictions from coming true.

“(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,” McCluskie said. “We know that, for far too long, the lower basin states have exceeded their use and the amount of water we have available to supply the Western half of the United States.”

While she didn’t explicitly call for more storage, McCluskie said after the panel that more storage isn’t off the table — but it will be part of a broader conversation. She predicted efforts around water will be “the most challenging work the state has ever done.”

“We need to have conversations that are difficult, whether it’s around usage, whether it’s around next steps in conservation or tactics that communities have to embrace to protect our resources,” McCluskie said.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who chairs the powerful Joint Budget Committee, said she’s heard requests that include the Attorney General asking for money to hire lawyers that specialize in water in anticipation of legal fights, money for conservation efforts, and burn scar rehabilitation to protect water quality from the soot and debris left by wildfires.

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