2017 #coleg: Water Resources Review Committee meeting recap

San Luis Valley via National Geographic
San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

With uncertainty surrounding state funding for water projects, officials in the San Luis Valley hosted state lawmakers Tuesday with an eye toward reminding them why the region was a good investment.

Local water officials emphasized the initiative water users have undertaken to solve their own problems and the collaboration they’ve displayed in implementing water projects with multiple partners and benefits.

“We used to have an attitude that’s adversarial,” said Nathan Coombs. “That’s dissolving away.”

His remarks were directed at the Water Resources Review Committee, which held a two-hour hearing and earlier in the day toured a string of projects in the south end of the valley.

Coombs is the manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District and he also heads up the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

Since lawmakers created the roundtables in each of the state’s major river basins in 2006, none have secured as much funding as the $12.8 million the Rio Grande did for its 29 projects.

But the revenue stream used by the state to fund roundtable projects faces some uncertainty.

The Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting projects the severance tax on oil and natural gas producers, a portion of which goes toward water projects, will decline by 77.6 percent, from $218 million to $63 million, this year.

The decline is due to slumping oil and natural gas prices and also to a state Supreme Court ruling in the spring on tax deductions for producers of oil and natural gas.

Travis Smith represents the Rio Grande basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which administers and gives final approval to projects from the roundtables.

He told lawmakers the board was working on a way to redress the funding decline and could vote on a proposal when it meets later this month.

Lawmakers would likely not see the proposed fund juggling until they consider the water projects bill in next spring’s session.

“It will require your support,” Smith said.

Regardless of that potential funding fix, local officials used the hearing to bring home why the Rio Grande basin was a good place to park state funds.

Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, pointed to the creation of Subdistrict No. 1 and planning for five others to come on line.

Inspired by the forced shutdown of groundwater wells along the South Platte and Arkansas rivers, groundwater users in the valley devised the subdistrict as a voluntary mechanism in which groundwater users taxed themselves to restore the aquifer.

“Subdistrict No. 1 is unique in that it’s a community solution to a community problem,” he said.

Since its creation in 2012, the subdistrict, which takes in the most densely irrigated area in the valley, has reduced groundwater pumping by a third among its roughly 3,000 wells.

Lawmakers also heard how the valley’s projects place an emphasis on having multiple benefits for multiple user groups.

One of the four examples included the Rio Grande Cooperative Project, which funded the rehabilitation of two reservoirs and invested in software to research the timing of their water releases.

Partners included Trout Unlimited, the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District.

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