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Colorado's demand for water is slated to surpass supplies by 2050. Did lawmakers do enough to address the crisis?

Elise Schmelzer, The Denver Post on

Published in News & Features

DENVER — As Colorado’s rivers shrink and its soils dry out, state lawmakers this year passed a slew of water bills that advocates say will help reduce water use and protect the critical natural resource.

Nine major bills aim to reduce water use in cities, replace nixed federal protections of wetlands and minimize the amount of toxic “forever chemicals” leaching into water supplies. Gov. Jared Polis already has signed four of the bills into law, while four more await his signature and one will go to voters.

“It was a pretty big year for water under the dome,” said Bart Miller, the healthy rivers director at Western Resource Advocates, who has been monitoring Colorado water policy for 20 years. “It feels like the state is stepping up to take advantage of this moment of time — and not just sit idly by — as climate change makes our climate drier and our rivers shrink.”

But momentum must continue if Colorado is to avoid looming water shortages, lawmakers and advocates said. Critical conversations about paying farmers and others to use less water and making sure that conserved water is used thoughtfully must turn into policy, they said.

Colorado’s demand for water is expected to outpace its supply by 2050 as the population grows and climate change sucks moisture from streams and snow, according to state water experts. By that time, municipal and industrial water users every year could be short up to 240 billion gallons. Shortages already faced by Colorado’s agriculture sector will grow.

Lawmakers in recent years have responded to that crisis and momentum has grown around water policy at the Capitol, advocates said.

 

The biggest achievement this year, lawmakers and advocates said, was the passage of House Bill 1379, which fills a gap in wetlands and stream protection created by a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year.

Colorado was the first state to pass legislation to address the decision, in which the court ruled that the federal Clean Water Act did not protect wetlands and temporary streams. The May 2023 ruling left more than half of Colorado’s waters without protections and regulations for construction activity.

Polis has not yet signed the bill, which would create a program in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to regulate dredge and fill activities.

“It was critical to make this a priority for the legislature this session,” said House Speaker Julie McCluskie, one of the bill’s sponsors. “In a drought that has stressed our water resources in significant ways, there couldn’t be more urgency to make sure we’re protecting every waterway as best we can.”

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