Colorado: More lip service, but no action on water conservation

Snake River melt-off.
Snake River melt-off.

Gov. Hickenlooper vetoes measure that could have benefited all Colorado water users, including the environment

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Colorado’s old-school water buffaloes are more than willing to pay lip service to conservation, but when they actually have a chance to walk the walk … well, it’s business as usual.

Bowing to pressure from agricultural users, Gov. John Hickenlooper this week vetoed a bill that would have encouraged voluntary conservation measures and given incentives for private investment in conservation.

Hickenlooper tried to downplay the veto by saying that he would pursue similar legislation if re-elected, but that’s not nearly enough in a state that is now in a perpetual struggle to find enough water to sustain the economy and a healthy environment.

As usual, the environment got the short end of the stick.

Hickenlooper explained his decision to veto S.B. 23 in a press release:

“This decision was not easy; it was a close call,”  the governor wrote in a letter to the Colorado Senate. “That is because the bill’s goals are important for our water future and we appreciate and honor the thousands of hours that went into crafting this legislation. Despite these efforts, there was a breakdown in consensus toward the end of the legislative session that divided the water community and, in our view, would make implementation of the policy more difficult.”

The governor directed the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to work with lawmakers on a pilot concept in preparation for the next legislative session that addresses concerns raised by opponents of SB 14-023.

“Making the topic of this legislation an administration priority next year would give us an opportunity to re-engage stakeholders who have concerns about SB 14-023, and build a broader base of support for passage next year,” the governor wrote. “If I am re-elected by Colorado’s voters to a second term, my administration will be committed to pursuing bipartisan resolution of this important issue,” Hickenlooper said.

Conservation groups panned his decision, saying the bill would have been a step toward living up to the administrations stated intent to make conservation a priority. They pointed out that the measure had support from a broad coalition of water users and accused Hickenlooper of caving to special interests.

The bill was designed to bring investment to rural western Colorado to incentivize the implementation of irrigation efficiency improvements that would ultimately benefit agricultural operations and Colorado’s rivers and streams. Under the bill’s provisions, ranchers, farmers and other agricultural water users in western Colorado could voluntarily implement irrigation and water efficiency measures and ensure that water they save can benefit Colorado’s rivers without risking abandonment of their water rights or harming other users.

“SB 23 was a chance for Colorado to demonstrate leadership among all western states struggling with a limited water supply and the balance between all-important human uses of water and the needs of our rivers and streams,” said Russ Schnitzer, agriculture policy adviser, Trout Unlimited.

“This sends a signal that despite the Governor’s expressed commitment to water conservation, he is willing to bow to those who oppose change in any form. With this veto, innovative, common sense water efficiency solutions benefiting Colorado farms and ranches have been cast aside in favor of perpetuating the status quo locked in 19th century water management concepts,” Schmitzer said.

“For the Governor to veto such a tool after his own water policy experts testified in support and following passage by the General Assembly is baffling and disappointing.”


According to a 2013 Colorado College poll, the vast majority of Coloradans agree that using the state’s existing water resources more efficiently is a priority. In fact, low water levels in rivers is a major concern of Coloradans, second only to unemployment. In addition, water managers agree that Colorado’s growing population is driving an imbalance between water supply and demand, which is jeopardizing the $9 billion recreational economy and Colorado’s natural mountain environment.


“Faced with a dry future and growing water use, Colorado needs innovative, collaborative policies to reverse the imbalance between water supply and demand and the increasing strain on our rivers and streams,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director, Conservation Colorado. “This legislation is precisely the type of collaborative innovative policy Colorado needs, so the Governor’s action today is a disappointing set back. Given the opportunity to lead on conservation, the Governor instead chose to enforce the status quo. This casts serious concerns about his commitment to water conservation and his commitment to ensuring water resources for Colorado’s fish, wildlife and outdoor recreation are protected in the developing state water plan.”


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