A Review of 2022’s Water-related Legislation in Colorado

River District looks back at State Legislative highlights, prepares for Interim Committee hearings this summer 

Colorado River District staff maintains a regular presence at the state capitol each legislative session to ensure that Western Colorado’s water users and environmental needs are represented under the “golden dome.” The 2022 state legislative session adjourned for the year just before midnight on May 11, 2022.   

In a memorandum written to the River District’s Board of Directors, Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler noted that the 2022 legislative session was marked by unprecedented spending fueled by a strong state budget and billions in federal COVID aid.

Another factor was the upcoming elections cycle. “Elections loomed large throughout much of the session,” said Kessler. “Both sides of the aisle worked to bolster their credentials ahead of the upcoming midterm election cycle.” 

Kessler’s memo included the following recap of water-related bills that were approved by the legislature in 2022, along with a few notable measures that were unsuccessful.  

  • House Bill 1316, State Water Plan Projects: HB 1316 appropriated $8.2 million from the water plan implementation cash fund to be used by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) for grant-making for projects that assist in the implementation of the state water plan. $7.2 million of that amount comes from sports betting revenue, legalized in 2019 through Proposition DD. 
  • Senate Bill 215, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Cash Fund: created the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Cash Fund and directs the state treasurer to transfer $81.5 million to it from the general fund. The money is to be used as the nonfederal match funding necessary for the state or a local government to be eligible to receive federal approval and federal funds for certain categories of infrastructure projects allowed under the federal “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.”
    Importantly for River District constituents and the broader water community, SB 215 required 25% of the appropriation is to be allocated to “water, environmental and resiliency programs as set forth in the federal act.” 
  • House Bill 1379, Wildfire Mitigation and Watershed Restoration: HB1379 appropriated $20 million in ARPA funding from the Economic Recovery and Relief Cash Fund for projects to restore, mitigate and protect watersheds from damage caused by wildfire-induced erosion and flooding. Committee testimony emphasized how investing in mitigation protects against the need for very expensive recovery efforts in the future. 
  • House Bill 1151, Turf Replacement Program: HB1151 required the CWCB to develop a statewide program to provide financial incentives for the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf landscaping with “water-wise landscaping.”
    Local governments, certain districts, Native American tribes, and nonprofit organizations with their own turf replacement programs may apply to the CWCB for money to help finance their turf replacement programs. In areas where local turf replacement programs do not exist (mostly rural) the bill provides CWCB will contract with a third party(s) to establish and administer one or more turf replacement programs. 
  • Senate Bill 28, Groundwater Compact Compliance: created a Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund to help pay for the purchase and retirement of wells and irrigated acreage in the Republican and Rio Grande basins. It appropriated $60 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) revenue that had been transferred into the state’s Economic Recovery and Relief Cash Fund. The bill aims to reduce groundwater pumping in the Republican River Basin for purposes of interstate compact compliance, and in the Rio Grande Basin to help meet aquifer sustainability standards required by state statute and rules.
    It is estimated that some 25,000 acres of irrigated land must be permanently fallowed in the Republican Basin, and another 40,000 acres in the Rio Grande Basin, by 2029. If the targets are not met, the state engineer may have no choice but to curtail the use of wells without compensation. 
  • (Died in Committee) Senate Bill 29, Investment Water Speculation: This bill rested in Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources from the beginning of the session until the end. It originated in the Water Resources Review Committee and was drafted to provide a new – or at least enhanced – legal framework to analyze and control the purchase of water rights by entities for what is thought to be speculation.
    The bill defined “investment water speculation” as the purchase of agricultural water rights “with the intent, at the time of purchase, to profit from an increase in the water’s value in a subsequent transaction, such as the sale or lease of the water, or by receiving payment from another person for nonuse of all or a portion of the water.”
    As originally drafted, SB 29 drew widespread criticism as overreaching and careless. In late April the original language was ultimately stricken and replaced with a call for another committee study on the water speculation issue during the interim session, though the “strike-below” version of the bill never got out of committee. 
  • (Postponed Indefinitely) Senate Bill 126, Prioritization of Water Storage Projects South Platte Basin : SB 126 would have required the CWCB to prioritize funding for projects that increase or improve water storage in the South Platte River Basin as a means of increasing the beneficial consumptive use of undeveloped water entitled under the South Platte River Compact and in a manner that reduces reliance on transmountain diversions. The bill passed the Senate but was voted to postpone indefinitely by the House committee of reference. 

Kessler also highlighted the upcoming meetings of Colorado’s Interim Water Resources and Agriculture Committee – a bicameral, bipartisan committee that meets outside of the 120-day legislative session to learn about and address key water and agricultural issues. The Interim Committee’s meeting schedule for 2022 includes hearings in Denver on August 4, Steamboat Springs on August 24, and in Denver again on September 22.