The River District Goes to Washington

National water conversations heat up

On the second day of the First Quarterly General & Enterprise meeting of 2023, Colorado River District Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler gave an update on staff efforts at the federal level. In the days after the board meeting, Kessler stated, he planned to travel alongside General Manager Andy Mueller and Director of Strategic Partnerships Amy Moyer to Washington D.C. to meet with Colorado’s two Senate offices. Meetings were also planned with leadership at the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and at U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).

“I think we’ve got a number of federal priorities in each of those areas, and the conversations at the BOR are obvious,” said Kessler. “At USFWS, we’ll be talking specifically about the reauthorization of the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program. We’ll have our job cut out for us to make sure folks in the majority in the House understand why this is important to protecting our ability to develop our water in Colorado and in the Upper Basin as a whole. And in the Senate majority, making sure that they understand that this helps us comply with the Endangered Species Act.”

Priorities for the meeting with leadership at USDA included briefing Secretary Vilsack’s Chief of Staff and the Chief of Staff from the F-PAC mission area – food, production, and conservation – on NRCS priorities, PL 566, Farm Bill priorities, and the ongoing work staff is doing on the Lower Gunnison Projects.

“One of my goals and objectives is that I and others from the District are out in D.C. at least on a quarterly basis to make sure these folks know ‘we’re here, we’re working, and we’re in need of assistance,’” Kessler emphasized.

The Director of Government Relations also walked Directors through federal omnibus package updates as they related to River District Priorities.

On December 23, in the waning hours of the 117th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $1.65 trillion FY23 omnibus funding package by a vote of 225 to 201. The U.S. Senate approved the measure one day prior by a vote of 68-29. Although the House was the last chamber to move on the omnibus, the lion’s share of the package was negotiated and hammered out by leadership in the Senate. Included below are a handful of legislative, appropriations and emergency funding highlights from the bill.

Inclusion of CRWCD Legislative Priorities

With the help of Senators Hickenlooper and Bennet, three bipartisan water bills important to the River District were included in the omnibus package. Those include:

  1. 3693 – Upper Colorado and San Juan River Basins Recovery Act
    This legislation from Senators Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Romney (R-UT) makes minor but needed amendments to the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s federal authorizing legislation. The House companion legislation, H. R. 5001, was led by Rep. Neguse (D-CO) and cosponsored by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO).The bill authorizes Reclamation funding through FY 24 for the programs, modifies the capital projects ceilings for the Upper Colorado and San Juan programs, changes the date for submittal of a key report by the Secretary of the Interior to Congress on the recovery programs post-2023 activities, and removes a restriction related to signing of the recovery program’s cooperative agreements.The legislation had passed the House, was sent to the Senate, passed by the full Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and was awaiting attachment to a larger bill that is assured passage by the Senate.
  2. 4579/H.R. 9173 – The Colorado River Basin Conservation Act
    Led by U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and John Barrasso (R-WY) and co-sponsored by Senator Bennet (DCO), this bill reauthorizes the authority of the Upper Colorado River Commission to enter into water conservation contracts with water users in the upper basin (System Conservation Pilot Program). As originally drafted, the reauthorization would have lasted through 2026, but was cut in half and, as enacted, reauthorizes the program through the end of 2024.
  3. Amendment of the Bureau’s Small Storage Program
    The Omnibus bill amends the minimum size limitation of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Small Storage Program (SSP), which was authorized and funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (otherwise known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) earlier this year. By striking ‘‘2,000’’ and inserting ‘‘200’’ this allows the Bureau’s SSP funding to be used for small water storage and groundwater storage projects with a minimum size of 200 acre-feet. This amendment was priority for Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and may also prove to be helpful for proposed storage projects on the Grand Mesa.

For more on Omnibus appropriations, see the Federal Affairs memo, beginning on page 329 of the First Quarterly board packet.

2023 Farm Bill Updates & Analysis

The planning and budgeting process for the 2023 Farm Bill has begun, and Congressional Agriculture committees are starting to outline the next five years’ spending for national conservation, food, farm and nutrition programs. District staff is working to prepare for the next farm bill by engaging directly with Colorado Congressional staff, and by working through national agriculture and conservation organizations (Family Farm Alliance, National Water Resources Association, etc). It is expected that a large portion of our work at the District will be devoted to the 2023 Farm Bill conservation title, which encompasses many of the programs important to on farm and off-farms water conservation efforts West Slope.