Measure is another attempt to regulate water transfers

DENVER — Water users in river basins that lose water to other basins would see some form of mitigation if a bill that cleared a House panel Wednesday becomes law.

But exactly what mitigation a basin gets would depend on whatever deal is made before water is transferred, say, from the Colorado River basin to the Denver metropolitan area.

Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, said he intentionally designed House Bill 1159 that way so that different areas would have more say in what losing large amounts of water would do to their areas.

“The bill puts in place the mechanism for voluntary mitigation agreements,” Pace told the House Agriculture Committee, which approved the measure 9-4. “This wouldn’t stop all transfers, but it would put some sideboards in place.”

The Legislature has tried similar mitigation or basin-of-origin bills several times over the past decade. No proposal has gotten far. The most lawmakers have done is approve a law that required water-court judges to consider what environmental impacts removing large amounts of water would do to river basins.

Pace said his ideal bill would bar all transmountain diversions, but this measure doesn’t do that.

But Sara Duncan, intergovernmental affairs coordinator for Denver Water, said an originating water district could impose mitigation requirements so high no one could meet it.

As a result, the bill would give an unfair advantage to regions of the state that have the water, she said.

“That advantage is you have to go trying to craft some sort of agreement to which there are no real clear definitions,” Duncan said. “It would be easy and not unexpected for the basin exporting the water to put on terms and conditions that would be impossible to meet.”

Supporters, however, said the measure would offer balance to the state’s water wars. They said the advantage now goes to people with money who primarily live on the Front Range.

The effect of many water transfers over the years has been farmland drying up as water goes to growing metropolitan areas, and that only will become worse over the next few decades, Pace said.

Chris Treese, external affairs manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told the committee the measure offers equity to everyone.

“There really is common ground in this,” Treese said. “My hope is this is a road map to how we will build water projects and to have mitigation.”

The measure now heads to the full House, where it’s uncertain whether Pace has enough votes to get it passed.

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