Senate Bill 23 veto reopens conversation on water efficiency measures

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— The decision about what to do with Senate Bill 23 wasn’t easy, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wrote. “It was a close call.”

But, ultimately, those sentiments were delivered in a veto letter, and the bill that provided incentives for Western Slope water efficiency measures will have to be reworked and revisited in another legislative session.

The veto sparked immediate blowback from conservation organizations that criticized Hickenlooper’s actions as incompatible with his rhetoric on water issues in the state.

For more

To learn more about Senate Bill 23, read our two-part series.

Part 1: Western Slope water bill draws opposition

Part 2: Opponents of Senate Bill 23 express concern about upstream water users

The Clean Water Fund has launched a “Failure to Lead” campaign in response to the decision, including flying banners over public events.

Five conservation organizations signed onto a news release that detailed the support Senate Bill 23 had received from water and conservation organizations.

“This sends a signal that despite the Governor’s expressed commitment to water conservation, he is willing to bow to those who oppose change in any form,” Russ Schnitzer, agriculture policy advisor with Trout Unlimited, said in the release. “With this veto, innovative, common sense water efficiency solutions benefitting Colorado farms and ranches have been cast aside in favor of perpetuating the status quo locked in 19th century water management concepts.”

While it’s true the bill enjoyed the backing of multiple water organizations and the governor’s own administration testified in its support, Hickenlooper’s veto letter pointed out that the message was not unanimous.

“Our membership was somewhat split on this,” said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, after the veto.

While the Colorado Water Congress worked with legislators for months and eventually supported the bill, the Colorado River Water District, which represents Western Slope counties, saw its opposition specifically cited in Hickenlooper’s veto letter.

Agricultural interests were similarly divided. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association supported the bill while the Colorado Farm Bureau opposed it.

Senate Bill 23 was intended to provide a process for water rights holders in certain divisions to implement agricultural efficiency measures without putting their rights at risk of abandonment.

The efficiency savings would have been transferred to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for an instream use, while giving the original rights holders the option to get that water back in the future.

The Colorado River Water District praised the veto in a news release and stated that the approach taken by Senate Bill 23 was “too costly and likely ineffective.”

In his letter, Hickenlooper directed the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Water Conservation Board to work with legislators on a pilot concept ahead of the next session.

Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said it’s too early in the process to talk about what a pilot program might look like, but an approach will be developed in the coming months.

“It’s just too early to talk in detail about any specific project or timeline,” he said.

Colorado River Water District spokesman Chris Treese said the conversation about agricultural efficiency and instream flows will continue and that the organization plans to be involved in the pilot program discussion.

“Since we took a stand, we certainly want to be on forefront,” said Jim Pokrandt, of the Colorado River Water District.

Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder, the House sponsor of Senate Bill 23, said any pilot program would require its own legislation in the next session.

“Of course, many ranchers, water districts, county governments, and others supported the bill as is,” Becker wrote in an email. “But if it takes a pilot to get it done, then that's fine with me.”

The Colorado Water Congress will discuss the legislation in the upcoming weeks, Kemper said, and another year allows more time to get stakeholders on the same page.

“I don’t think it was an urgency, especially with weather this year,” he said, referencing the above-average snowpack in many basins.

Treese said he can’t point to a single point in the negotiations about the bill where consensus broke down but he’s hopeful about the prospects for agreement in the future.

“The only way anything good happens is through near unanimous consensus,” Pokrandt said.

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206, email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @MLSchrantz

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