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Wins for Water: The 2023 Legislative Session in Review

Jun 06, 2023

The 2023 legislative session began with the promise that water would be the “centerpiece” of this year’s agenda; and indeed, it resulted in conversations around water that fueled many late-night committee meetings, achieved headlines across the state, and ultimately, bills on the Governor’s desk. 

This year, Water for Colorado supported and closely watched three key bills. Each one passed and was signed into law by Governor Polis, although substantial changes were made along the way. 

Senate Bill 23-270: Projects to Restore Natural Stream Systems

SB23-270, is a solid win for Colorado’s streams. The bill was led by the Department of Natural Resources staff and sponsored by Senators Dylan Roberts and Cleave Simpson, along with Representatives Karen McCormick and Marc Catlin. The bill moved through significant water community dialogue, education, and input throughout the arc of the legislative session. Significant amendments during the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hearing resulted in unanimous support and forward movement through the General Assembly for the final version that passed. 

The original bill draft was based on the science of utilizing the “historic footprint” for where stream restoration could take place. However, that was not a concept that many legislators and water stakeholders were familiar with and hence the language evolved to things they were familiar with. The final bill defines a set of minor stream restoration activities that are not subject to water rights administration. These include stabilizing the banks or substrate of a natural stream with bioengineered or natural materials, installing porous structures in ephemeral or intermittent streams to stop degradation from erosional gullies and headcuts, and installing structures in stream systems to help recover from and mitigate the tremendous impacts that occur to water supplies from wildfires and floods. This language in SB23-270 provides clarity for project proponents and the water rights community, and also provides protections for completed stream restoration projects or those projects that have secured permits before August 1, 2023. 

While this bill is an important step forward in facilitating stream restoration activities that improve the health and resilience of our streams and landscapes, Water for Colorado will continue to work with stakeholders and regulators to clarify a path forward for stream restoration projects that do not fit within the minor stream activity categories. 

People work on a stream restoration project (Photo Credit: Abby Burk)

Senate Bill 23-295: Colorado River Drought Task Force

SB23-295, sponsored by Senators Dylan Roberts and Perry Will, along with Speaker Julie McCluskie and Representative Marc Catlin, creates the Colorado River Drought Task Force.  The Task Force has been charged with developing recommendations for how to manage drought concerns and water conservation in the Colorado River Basin. The Task Force will begin meeting by late July, hold up to 12 meetings before the end of the year, and conclude by submitting a written report of findings and recommendations in advance of the 2024 legislative session. It will be composed of representatives from a wide variety of stakeholders and interest groups – from agricultural producers to Tribal nations to conservation organizations — and will strive to be representative of Colorado’s diversity. The Task Force meetings, and public input that will be part of the process, is a new and focused opportunity for finding more alignment around more flexible solutions for water management. 

Gov Polis, surrounded by members of the DNR and bill sponsors, signs SB270 and SB177 into law

Senate Bill 23-177: Colorado Water Conservation Board Water Projects Appropriations

SB23-177, sponsored by Senators Dylan Roberts and Cleave Simpson, along with Representatives Karen McCormick and Marc Catlin, appropriated appropriated a total of $95 million in state funds to support Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) projects to address water resource needs. Highlights include over $25 million from state sports betting revenue to help fund implementation of the Colorado Water Plan; more than $34 million for fish and other species recovery projects across the state, from the San Juan River to the Upper Colorado River to the South Platte; and $500,000 to support the state’s watershed restoration program. Snow science research, floodplain mapping, and endangered species recovery programs also benefited. A total of $95 million in state funds were allocated to support the continued success of CWCB projects to address water resource needs in our state.  

Each of these legislative efforts open more opportunities for collaboration across stakeholders, ensuring that water remains one of the most prominent conversations across the state. From important sources of funding to furthering discussions around addressing the impacts of drought on the Colorado River Basin,  Water for Colorado  is eager to build upon the successes of the 2023 legislative session. 

We’re grateful to the lawmakers who prioritized addressing water supply issues this year and ensured its continued place on the chamber floors, and to the Governor for signing them. We look forward to continuing to work together, and for the continued progress we can make on building a secure, resilient water future for Colorado.

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