2021 State And Federal Policy Updates: State Legislature Faces COVID Delays, DC Expands Some Western Water Programs


Facing a spike in statewide COVID-19 case numbers, leaders of the Colorado Senate and House of Representatives moved to delay the lion’s share of Colorado’s 2021 legislative session by as many as five weeks.

The legislature convened briefly on January 13 to swear in new members and to pass a handful of other measures but then recessed until at least mid-February.

Last year, the Colorado Supreme Court provided clarification to the General Assembly’s rule (Joint Rule 44) that allows the legislature to pause its work during a declared public health emergency and return at a later date without those days in recess counting towards the constitutional 120-day limit. That Supreme Court ruling led to an abbreviated session in 2020 that was halted in March and resumed at the end of May.

COVID also halted hearings by the Interim Water Resources Review Committee and the Wildfire Matters Review Committee last summer. Under normal circumstances, those Interim Committees meet in the summer months to hear from experts on a variety of issues facing the state’s water and watersheds and to propose legislative solutions to those issues.

“In the absence of Interim Committee hearings this summer, we’ve seen significantly less public discussion on water- and natural resource-related legislation for the upcoming session,” said Zane Kessler, the River District’s director of government relations.

Kessler noted the District expects to see several legislative proposals related to water and wildfire issues when state senators and representatives return to the Capitol in February.


In a last-minute burst of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed H.R. 133 on December 21, 2020. The bulk of the omnibus funding package’s attention aimed at funding the federal government and providing COVID relief to individuals and businesses throughout the country, but tucked into a 5,500-page bill were several provisions important to West Slope water users.

“This should be considered a small win for Western water,” said Kessler. “The final package included the long-awaited Water Resources Development Act of 2020 and also expanded a number of important grant programs within the Bureau of Reclamation that address water efficiency, conservation and drought response in the West.

H.R. 133 reauthorized and expanded participation in the Bureau of Reclamation’s Cooperative Watershed Management program, an important, collaborative conservation program. The program provides grant funding to watershed groups to encourage diverse stakeholders to create local solutions to address their water management needs. The program was reauthorized for five years and now includes representatives from disadvantaged communities as eligible participants of a watershed group.

The omnibus package increased authorizations for the Bureau’s popular WaterSMART grant program by $170 million and was expanded to make non-governmental entities eligible for WaterSMART grants under certain circumstances.

Kessler highlighted that the bill authorized $15 million for a Snow Water Supply Forecasting program at the Department of the Interior. If funded, the program could provide more accurate data about expected runoff and improve water system operations throughout the West.