Water is the lifeblood of our state.  Our agricultural economy, tourism industry, and quality of life in this beautiful state depend on it.  Because of climate change and the projected growth that will take place in Colorado over the decades ahead, we need innovative leadership to protect, conserve, and manage our water.  I will bring innovation to the office of Attorney General, and that includes leadership on water as a top priority.

The State of Water in Colorado

In 2018, we are, once again, experiencing drought-like conditions.  For Colorado, the natural form of water storage is our snowpack, which serves as a reservoir, holding water until it melts in the spring.  This year, our snowpack level is far below average, with some areas of the state hovering around only 50% of normal.  These areas are unlikely to return to the norm, which is a painful consequence of climate change.  And the projected growth of Colorado’s population—which could see a 50% increase by 2050 from 2015 levels—means that we cannot be complacent in how we manage our water.

As a headwater state, Colorado’s water flows to eighteen states and Mexico and is subject to nine different formal agreements.  The Colorado River Compact is particularly important among these agreements.  Our Attorney General needs to understand this agreement and other compacts in order to protect Colorado’s interests.  Over the years, collaboration, negotiation, and litigation over our water rights has taken place regularly—nearly 120 years of litigation in the case of the Arkansas River—and our Attorney General needs to ensure that Colorado defends its position effectively.

This necessity is dramatically demonstrated by the current controversy in the Colorado River Basin with the Central Arizona Project’s refusal to join a collaborative effort to create a more sustainable river system.  Together with the other three Upper Basin states (Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico), Colorado’s Attorney General must stand up to protect our allocation of Colorado River water and to ensure that our state is not held liable for non-compliance with any relevant agreement.  At the same time, we must work hard to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with the other states to enable us to manage our water supplies during an extended drought.

The guidelines governing Colorado River management will expire in 2025, which means that the states and federal government will begin discussions on this issue no later than 2020.  We must use this opportunity to avoid the potential of the continued draining of Lake Powell and Lake Mead on account of shortsighted water management decisions.  To guide these discussions to a fair and appropriate conclusion, Colorado needs to lead, setting an innovative and collaborative spirit that prevents a possible death spiral in how we manage our water.  As our next Attorney General, I will do just that.

Colorado’s Water Plan

The good news is that Colorado’s Water Plan provides a valuable framework for managing our water.  An overall theme of the Plan is that all of Colorado must work together to ensure that we manage and use our water effectively.   As the Plan states:

Because our water challenges are great and demand our united focus. Because other governments watch Colorado’s water positions closely. Because discordant infighting weakens Colorado’s position in interstate and international arenas, invites unnecessary federal intervention in our water affairs, and dulls our responsiveness. It’s undeniable: our water challenges necessitate that we pull together as one, innovate, and become more agile.

As the Plan provides, we must “recognize that water rights are property rights whose owners are free to respond to the economics of the marketplace and to continue to work within our local control structure.”  Within the framework of the Plan, Colorado’s Attorney General needs to protect water rights, ensure the continued vitality of agricultural communities, protect outdoor recreational economies that rely on our rivers, and allow reasonable transfer arrangements.  Our Attorney General must realize that alternative water transfer arrangements present an opportunity, a risk, and a challenge.

Alternative water transfer agreements offer both risk and opportunity.  If managed effectively and reasonably, they allow for a win-win proposition—enabling those with water rights that can be utilized more efficiently to sell access to them.  If they are not overseen appropriately, the risk is that such arrangements can result in a “buy and dry” scenario. Communities, like Crowley County, can be destroyed and local food production can be imperiled if water rights are sold off wholesale.  The challenge is thus to allow for reasonable transfers, encourage innovation, and protect local agricultural economies.

For a good example of an innovative approach to water management, consider the case of the Lower Arkansas Valley Super Ditch Company.  That company maintains ownership of the water rights for farmers, allows for certain leasing arrangements, and maintains agricultural communities.  Under such a model, leases are enabled by reducing some consumption (for instance, by switching to different crops or by using split season irrigation) and creating leasable water while maintaining substantial levels of agricultural productivity and economic activity.

Colorado is well-positioned to continue its international leadership position in the adoption of advanced water technology.  With the benefit of access to broadband Internet technology, for example, farmers can collect and act on real-time water use data, consuming less water as a result and engaging in better crop management.  Colorado can continue to be a pioneer in developing and adopting such practices, which will become increasingly important as our nation adapts to the challenges of climate change.

The Opportunity for Innovation in Water Law and Policy

The trend lines, as noted above, are clear—we cannot simply stay our current course and weather the challenges of growth and climate change.  Thankfully, with the guidance of the Water Plan and the ingenuity of Coloradans, we are poised to manage our emerging challenges in water law and policy through innovation.  This innovation includes action along three frontiers:  (1) conservation, (2) re-use, and (3) storage.  The challenges ahead demand that we make progress on all three fronts.

Under the Water Plan, the Colorado Water Conservation Board plays a central role in overseeing Colorado’s water policy.  The Attorney General sits on this Board as an ex officio member.  By all accounts, our current Attorney General is missing in action and not a leader in this field.  As Colorado’s next Attorney General, I will engage proactively on the Board and work collaboratively with its members to meet the challenges ahead.  I will also engage with the Basin Roundtables, which provide a crucial form of local governance and feedback on the development of an effective water policy here in Colorado.

Finally, I will work with the lawyers I will oversee in the office of Attorney General to encourage more innovative thinking about how to move water law and policy forward to address emerging challenges.  In particular, our water law framework must encourage new technologies in water use and conservation that enable our water to go farther.  Only through innovation can we protect vital industries, notably, agriculture and tourism, that depend on our water.

Water Conservation

Under the Water Plan, Colorado has announced a goal of conserving 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water by 2050.  This goal will require a range of initiatives, including “xeriscaping,” building water-saving actions into land use planning, using water-free urinals, developing and communicating social norms for water use, and other techniques for conserving water.  The Water Plan also wisely calls for better integration of water conservation into land use and development decisions, so that new development incorporates water-saving techniques consistent with local government goals. As Attorney General, I would work with the Water Conservation Board and the Department of Local Affairs to encourage these measures, including developing competitions for developing and implementing such techniques.

Water Re-use

In the 1980s, Denver Water pioneered “direct potable reuse,” or DPR, through research and development efforts.  This technique is only starting to be used, and the Colorado Legislature, led by Representative Jeni Arndt, passed three bills last session to allow reclaimed water to be used for toilet flushing, to be used for industrial hemp, and even to allow reclaimed water to be used for edible crops.  To be sure, when water is reused, there are water quality concerns, which are addressed by Regulation 84, which requires effective testing and oversight.  Going forward, we need to pursue such avenues as a means of using our water more intelligently.

Water Storage

Given the increased demand for water and the decline of the natural storage and flows our state has relied on for generations (that is, the declining snowpack and runoff caused by climate change), the need for strategic new storage projects is self-evident.  We need to be smart about new storage and carefully consider increasing the capacity of existing reservoirs, developing aquifer storage and recharge, and creating new off-stream storage opportunities.  As Attorney General, I will support such efforts, including evaluating ways to make the permitting process more efficient, such as allowing multiple permits to be pursued at the same time (rather than in sequence).  In short, the future of water will necessarily include strategic storage opportunities that are supported by affected constituencies.  Colorado is poised to be a leader in this area.

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The future of water in Colorado calls for innovation, collaboration, and creative problem solving.  This is the very spirit I will bring to the Colorado Attorney General’s office.  Colorado faces a simple math challenge—our population is increasing and natural storage and flows of water are decreasing on account of climate change.  We can meet this challenge, but only with the innovative and collaborative leadership that Colorado is known for.