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December 15, 2023

Speaker McCluskie, Senator Roberts on Drought Task Force Recommendations

Denver, CO – The Colorado River Drought Task Force and the Sub-Task Force on Tribal Matters today released a report with recommendations including tools, programs, and resources that can be used to make communities that rely on water from the Colorado River more resilient to drought.

“The health of the Colorado River is crucial to Western Slope communities and the millions of Americans who rely on its water,” said Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon. “This task force served as a critical first step to discuss dozens of policy ideas, seek vital public input and put forward recommendations to protect our waterways. The recommendations would increase the water available for streams and rivers, boost funding to strengthen our water-related infrastructure, and expand flexibility and clarification in existing programs to create more drought-resilient tools for water management. I am committed to continuing conversations about threats to the Colorado River.”

"Here on the Western Slope, our water is our lifeblood. It powers our agriculture producers, our small businesses, and is the centerpiece of the environment we cherish. Today, ongoing and worsening drought, exacerbated by climate change, is an immediate and dire threat to our state’s water,” said Senator Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco, and sponsor of SB23-295 that created the Task Force. “That is why we created the Colorado River Drought Task Force as an important step in a comprehensive, collaborative, and ongoing approach to addressing this pressing challenge. The Task Force’s recommendations announced today, while not everything I expected, are a positive step in the right direction. Strategies like mitigating water loss in transit, allowing further flexibility in the sharing of stored water, and expanding the state’s work to curtail wasteful, nonfunctional turf, among others, are all going to play a role in protecting our critical water supply. Further, the Task Force started conversations on several other larger ideas that should continue to be worked on and strongly considered in the years ahead. I owe an enormous thanks to every member of the Task Force for their hard and comprehensive work – their efforts will be an important part of the ongoing efforts to safeguard our state’s water supply and to lead the nation in bold, innovative solutions to this vital issue.”

Recommendation 4 suggests allowing storage water owners, such as reservoir managers, to temporarily loan their water rights to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which would allow for in-stream flows without a decreed in-stream flow water right. This would allow for reservoirs across the state to provide critical water to environmental needs - ensuring there is enough water in streams to protect our wildlife during drier times.

The Colorado River Drought Task Force also made recommendations to:

  • Continue funding that is consistent with demand for the Technical Assistance Grant program using state funds,

  • Reduce water losses in transit and leakage by increasing funding levels to state programs for aging water-related infrastructure, including replacing and upgrading diversion structures, headgate and conveyance efficiency improvements,

  • Continue funding to improve measurements of streams and snowpack and require more measurement to demonstrate efficiency in small projects

  • Increase funding levels of the Turf Removal Program to $5 million per year and increase the amount of funding one entity can access, and

  • Fund assessment and remediation of invasive plants that are disrupting riparian ecosystems

The Sub-Task Force on Tribal Matters made recommendations to:

  • Provide a grant to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to allow expert analysis of the potentially available water, the impacts of contributing that water to the Colorado River system, the appropriate level of compensation, funding sources for a pilot program for forbearance of water development, and potential benefits for all involved,

  • Request the US Congress to fully fund $35 million that is authorized for the Indian Irrigation Fund,

  • Remove the requirement for matching funds of at least 25 percent for Water Plan Implementation Grants and provide the Colorado Water Conservation Board discretion to waive or reduce matching fund requirements for grants to Tribal Nations and Tribal enterprises, and

  • Include cultural values for protection when deemed suitable.

The Colorado River Drought Task Force also considered tools that require more conversation and stakeholding, giving legislators crucial information on policies they can continue to work on. These programs include:

  • Allowing industrial users on the Yampa River to maintain their water rights by not being subject to abandonment through 2050, and to loan water, which would address environmental flow needs.

  • Providing permission to the State Engineer to consider environmental needs when shepherding water to the state line if the Upper Colorado River Commission has determined additional water is needed in Lake Powell.

The task forces were created by SB23-295, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Speaker McCluskie and Senator Roberts and Representative Caitlin and Senator Will. The Colorado River Drought Task Force includes representatives from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, regional water conservation districts, local governmental officials, agricultural producers, environmental non-profit organizations, and others that have diverse experience with complex water issues.

A sub-task force consisting of representatives from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Department of Natural Resources was also established to provide policy recommendations to the General Assembly to address tribal needs.

The Colorado River provides water to Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico. Over 40 million people rely on the Colorado River for their water supply, and record-breaking heatwaves and droughts in the Southwestern US have only exacerbated water conservation issues.

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