Bill either leads to loss of water or it doesn’t

Two parties have vastly different takes; measure heads to governor

DENVER — Depending on who’s doing the talking, a bill that won final approval in the Colorado Legislature on Monday either could take away some people’s water rights or do nothing of the kind.

The debate was over SB23, which was introduced by Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Snowmass Village Democrat whose district includes Delta County.

The bill is designed to allow ranchers to implement water conservation measures on nonconsumptive water and donate that water for in-stream flow use without losing rights to the water they still own.

Supporters of the measure, all Democrats, say it is entirely voluntary and is intended to increase stream flows to benefit aquatic life and the environment.

Republicans, however, said it will have the unintended consequence of stealing junior water rights from people downstream from those ranchers who implement such water-saving measures as lining their ditches.

They argued that the bill creates a new water right — a saved water right — and could lead to junior water users having no water in a stream, saying that once water is designated for in-stream flow, it can’t be used for anything else.

As a result, those junior water rights owners will have to go to court to protect their water rights, Republicans said.

“The argument that this has not created a new water right is just absolutely wrong,” said Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. “We’re creating a conserved water right, and the future of that conserved water right may be to absolutely eventually sell that conserved water right, which is somebody else’s water.”

The House Democratic sponsor of the measure, Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder, said opponents are completely wrong about what it will do.

“There’s a lot that has been said about this bill that isn’t at all true,” Becker said. “This bill simply gives irrigators incentive to conserve water without running the risk of abandoning that water. It is a purely voluntary bill. It does not steal anyone’s water. It doesn’t do that.”

Still, some lawmakers had hoped to persuade the House to kill the bill and send the measure back to draft because not everyone in the water community agrees it is the right thing to do.

The Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado ranchers association, for example, supported the measure. Several other water users, such as Aurora Water and several water conservation groups, opposed it.

The bill, however, passed on a narrow 35-30 vote, with only two Democrats joining Republicans opposing it. The measure cleared the Senate in March on a 25-9 vote.

“The water community came to us and the environmental community also had their say, and they just didn’t agree,” said Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Glenwood Springs. “We tried to divert water 30 years ago and had these same problems of upstream juniors and downstream juniors and in-stream flow have been with us for a long time.”

The bill heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper for his signature. It is unknown if he will sign or veto it.


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