‘We will create incentives instead of disincentives in terms of creating efficiency in agriculture’ — Gail Schwartz

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From the Durango Herald (Joe Hanel) via the Cortez Journal:

Legislators are considering changes to Colorado water law that would take the first serious legal steps toward encouraging conservation instead of maximum use of water. But their ideas are controversial. “We need the ability to respond to the drought,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who is sponsoring a bill to allow more year-to-year water storage in reservoirs to save for the next dry spell.

Currently, Colorado water law takes a “use it or lose it” attitude, and other legislators want to make a big change to the legal doctrine that dates back more than a century. “This is really the first time that we will create incentives instead of disincentives in terms of creating efficiency in agriculture,” said Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The law is at once simple and maddeningly complicated. Basically, people can claim a water right by being the first to use unclaimed water on a stream, and they can keep the right as long as they’re still using the water. But the law doesn’t allow users to save for a non-rainy day. Courts can partially revoke a water right if the owners don’t use it. Schwartz’s Senate Bill 19 would forbid water judges from reducing farmers’ water rights after they install more efficient irrigation.

In the House, Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, is sponsoring House Bill 1044, which allows people to capture graywater – used water from showers and washing machines – for reuse.

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling…farms in Northeast Colorado, and he and his neighbors depend on water that’s “wasted” upstream in the Front Range cities. “That’s why when I’m in Denver, I always flush twice,” Sonnenberg said.

He represents another side in the debate – one that looks to more reservoir storage as a solution to drought. “We’ve got to keep Colorado’s water in Colorado, and the only way to do that is water storage,” Sonnenberg said.

Sonnenberg is a sponsor, along with Roberts and Fischer, of Senate Bill 41, which takes on Colorado Supreme Court decisions that future drought mitigation and firefighting cannot be used to justify a water storage right. Roberts said the law discourages prudent planning for droughts. “The idea of it is to push back on those court cases and say, no, you can store water for firefighting and drought mitigation,” Roberts said.

Water bills typically attract intense lobbying, and Sonnenberg said his ideas aren’t popular at the influential Colorado Water Congress. “We have legislators trying to make water policy and lawyers who represent the Water Congress trying to stop water legislation,” Sonnenberg said…

The House Agriculture Committee will hear four water bills Monday, including the graywater bill. Roberts’ storage bill has its first hearing Thursday.

Also Thursday, Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, has the first hearing for his bill to make it easier for gas and oil companies to use produced water for dust suppression.

And finally Thursday, the Water Congress holds its annual convention, which will attract the state’s most powerful water lawyers to Denver.

From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

The interim Water Resources Review Committee sent six bills and two resolutions to lawmakers for the 2013 legislative session. That committee was co-chaired by Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling), then chair of the House ag committee. Its ten members also included Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray).

Monday, Sonnenberg will ask for ag committee approval on two measures from the interim water committee. They are: House Bill (HB) 13-1013, on protecting water rights for lease holders, and House Joint Resolution 13-1044, which opposes efforts by the US Forest Service to obtain the water rights on lands leased to ski areas and other permitted uses. Both measures are tied to problems with the Forest Service, which wants the water rights of the state’s 22 ski areas that lease national forest lands. The Forest Service changed a long-standing policy last year that allowed the ski areas to use the water rights as they saw fit. The new policy, now the subject of a federal lawsuit, requires lease holders to turn over their water rights to the Forest Service…

More 2013 Colorado legislation coverage here.

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