Gov. Jared Polis spoke about how Colorado needs smart growth to preserve water amid crisis on the Colorado River.
Editor's Note: This story was first published by the Colorado Times Recorder.
U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennett and House Representatives Lauren Boebert and Joe Neguse all but held hands to sing Kumbaya regarding their support for Colorado water issues and solutions on Wednesday.
The politicos each spoke at the 2023 summer conference of the Colorado Water Congress at the Steamboat Grand in Steamboat Springs.
There wasn't a word of mutual criticism among the politicians – three Democrats, and Republican Boebert. Everyone emphasized the values of communication and cooperation to protect Colorado water, agriculture and forestry from the ravages of climate change or threats from Colorado River Lower Basin states California and Arizona.
All the state's river basins, but especially the Colorado River Basin, are stressed by climate change, over-appropriation, competition between urban and rural water interests, and especially the thirsty states of California and Arizona which have over-appropriated the declining supply of water in the overall Colorado River Basin.
The politicians followed the lead of prior panels and individual speakers, beginning with keynote speaker Patty Limerick, professor of History of the American West at the University of Colorado – Boulder. Limerick emphasized that curiosity and empathy to others are the key to bridging disputes among water users and converting strangers into neighbors.
Rep. Lauren Boebert – CD3
Boebert said there was excellent collaboration between members of the Colorado congressional delegation and water was the most critical issue before them. She said she and Rep. Neguse serve on the House Natural Resources Committee and both pursue legislation to protect Colorado water interests. She said she's passed three bills and 26 amendments in the House.
Boebert readily reminded the crowd that she had not voted for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, nor the Inflation Reduction Act – both of which brought massive dollar amounts to national and Colorado water, forestry and infrastructure projects.
“There were good things in both bills,” she said, but there were poison pills sprinkled throughout, so she couldn't vote for them. She did, however, lobby federal departments and agencies to get a number of district and state projects and programs funded.
Sen. John Hickenlooper
The former governor and now junior senator of Colorado, Hickenlooper said a wet winter and spring do not constitute full drought recovery. Many more years of extra wet precipitation would be required a long-term drought, he said.
Fortunately, Congress and President Joe Biden passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) last year, with huge wins for Colorado and the Colorado River Basin, said Hickenlooper.
He praised Neguse for his negotiation skills in shepherding IRA projects and programs in the House, and was praised in turn by Neguse and Bennett for the innovative step of creating a bipartisan caucus of senators from Colorado Basin states.
The upshot is that the Colorado congressional delegation was key, not just instrumental, to include:
$4 billion for water management of the Colorado River Basin, including
$500 million for water management of the Upper Colorado River Basin;
$200 million for Bureau of Reclamation's drought mitigation programs;
Creation of the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conversion and Efficiency Program and
$165 million for southeastern Colorado water projects.
That includes completing the Arkansas Valley Conduit project by connecting Pueblo Reservoir water to 39 communities and 50,000 customers.
The conduit project has been in the works for decades, since President John F. Kennedy visited Pueblo in 1962 to announce the Frying Pan – Arkansas Project. Hickenlooper said southeastern citizens had grown old and died, waiting for Conduit completion. The finish line is now in sight, he said.
Hickenlooper said the bipartisan Basin Caucus was founded in direct response to the ongoing drought and was driven not by partisan ideology, but a desire to address drought-driven issues by building relationships.
“I'm very encouraged that California and Arizona are moving towards voluntary water consumption reductions,” said Hickenlooper.
Rep. Joe Neguse – CD2
Neguse said the ongoing drought and climate change have created “an uncertain future” for Colorado and other Basin states. Cooperation and collaboration across the state, state lines and the aisle in Congress are required to address that future, said Neguse.
“That's the Colorado way,” he said, emulating the practices of the Colorado Water Congress.
There's a real urgency to deal with drought, water and national forest issues, said Neguse, and federal investments in those areas is a real game changer. “We've got to protect our watersheds from wildfire,” he said.
Sen. Michael Bennett
Bennett, Colorado's senior senator, said it is good for legislators to react to what has happened with climate change, the ongoing drought, wildfires and other knock-on effects. That's not enough, he said. “What are we working on in advance?” he asked, noting that scientists are making predictions that are years and decades in the future.
An example of protecting the future water quality in Colorado, he said, was blocking oil drilling in the headwaters of Colorado's rivers, noting that fracking and oil spills up there could create lasting damage. And then there's honoring and fulfilling past commitments. Like Sen. Hickenlooper, Bennett expressed delight that the Arkansas Valley Conduit will reach the finish line in five years, after a start in the 60's.
“We have to continue to invest in America,” said Bennett, acknowledging that such investments have lagged or been absent in the past.
“The Inflation Reduction Act is the biggest federal infrastructure investment since the Eisenhower Administration,” said Bennett. Ike saw the construction of the interstate highway system, not to mention schools, ports, airports, water projects, bridges and more.
“We even approved $40 billion to bring broadband Internet to rural areas, so rural students have access to critical information and farmers can move toward precision agriculture to save water and soil resources,” said Bennett.
In response to questions and comments from Colorado Water Congress leaders, congressional delegates focused on what has worked well for them in the past couple years.
Hickenlooper said he's having some success getting politicians from back East to come out West and experience our realities. Just recently, he reached across the aisle to bring Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy to Denver and some instructive sight-seeing.
Boebert said she appreciated bipartisan support in establishing a regional headquarters for Bureau of Reclamation in Grand Junction, even though she wanted the national headquarters.
Neguse said that after the East Troublesome wildfire in Colorado, he was able to create a House caucus of representatives interested in forest management and wildfire mitigation.
Bennett said that when smoke from California wildfires crossed the nation to blanket the East Coast, he pointed it out to Senate Leader Chuck Schumer.
“He had a wake-up call with that,” said Bennett. “Oh, that's what you've been talking about,” said Schumer in Bennett's anecdote.
Polis calls for smart growth to save water
As four members of the Colorado congressional delegation left the stage before a Colorado Water Congress audience, Colorado Governor Jared Polis bounded on stage to praise them as a “great team” to work with in Washington D.C.
He then said he's just been enjoying the peak of the Palisade peach crop the night before, when 38 peaches were brought into appetizers, salads, main entrees and desserts for a dinner with friends and staffers.
Polis said it is no wonder that agriculture is the state's biggest economic sector, when it produces not only peaches, but melons and corn. The state's agriculture is facing numerous threats and challenges, internally and externally, he added, from thirsty suburbs and the thirsty states of California and Arizona. His administration is working hard to protect Colorado water and thus agriculture, by finding connections between water and housing, industry and more.
Polis said de-turfing Colorado yards can help reduce urban/suburban water use by 30-50 percent. Smaller yards for duplexes and townhomes will also help, with water-smart plants and trees.
“We face a real challenge because at the same time we're looking at more people coming to our state, there will be less water,” he said, citing drought driven by climate change and water use reductions for every state in the Colorado River Basin.
Polis said he's issued executive orders to integrate smart water management into virtually every aspect of the state's economy, local and regional government. He said he is directing his cabinet leaders and department heads to cut red tape and facilitate water-smart policies, grants and loans whenever possible. He's directed state water negotiators to protect Colorado's interests and to make sure that California and Arizona make important cuts and concessions before Colorado has to make those decisions.
“Our greatest strength is our ability to communicate and collaborate,” he said. “I am very much an optimist because I foresee a smart growth future for Colorado citizens.”
Top Photo Caption: Colorado's Federal Delegation participates in a panel discussion during Colorado Water Congress at the Steamboat Grand in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 23. (Brodie Farquhar/The Yampa Valley Bugle)