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Water conservation the focus for Colorado lawmakers

Committee hears need for legislation to protect supplies

DENVER – An all-star cast of water resource leaders from Durango and Southwest Colorado briefed lawmakers Wednesday after legislation that originally sought to place limits on the size of suburban lawns.

After a battle this year over Senate Bill 17, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, did her own watering-down, amending her bill to investigate only water-conservation practices.

The original idea was to limit the size of new lawns in an effort to conserve water. The proposal gained momentum after years of farms drying up when farmers sold their water rights to cities.

But opposition from cities and developers mounted. What evolved was a conversation about water conservation, which could lead to legislation.

The idea was the brainchild of Durango water engineer Steve Harris, who told the Water Resources Review Committee on Wednesday that one idea could be to address a ratio of inside water use to outside use.

The state currently stands at about 50-50 inside to outside. But the Southwest Basin Roundtable recently passed a goal calling for 60 percent inside, 40 percent outside by 2030, and a higher standard of 70-30 for entities using permanent agricultural dry-up.

Ag dry-up occurs when someone purchases land and moves the water into the municipal system.

“Our roundtable drew a line in the sand … ” Harris said. “We realize that a lot of people aren’t going to like it, and they don’t, but at least we did something.

“The inside use has been decreasing because of better fixtures,” he told The Durango Herald after his presentation. “If you want to decrease the outside use and measure it, you check the ratio. As you decrease the inside use, it even more decreases the outside use.”

Harris believes it is a more moderate approach than limiting the size of suburban lawns.

“After going through Senate Bill 17, I now know what it’s like to be between people and grass in Colorado,” Harris said, laughing.

Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said SB 17 started the discussion of finally mandating water conservation.

“If we actually have something meaningful for conservation practices in the state, something that’s quantifiable, then it reduces the pressure on agriculture and agricultural dry-up,” he said.

Another idea that popped up was committing to water storage in Colorado. Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, pointed out that even though the population of Colorado has more than doubled since 1970, water storage has increased by only 15 percent.

“We can’t control the droughts that we are clearly observing in Western Colorado, but the one thing that we can control is to save it when it falls, and we’re failing to do that by failing to build extra storage, while still watching the population more than double,” Brophy said. “That is a failure on the part of leadership of Colorado.”

Roberts said her bill became more than just a study, suggesting that it is the first step toward meaningful reform.

“It’s not really a study, it’s a discussion,” she said. “We didn’t set out to do a report. This is what we wanted. We wanted this conversation.”

Roberts said she will not move quickly to propose legislation, pointing out that there are still many discussions to have, including touring Colorado to receive feedback.

“To have a full day … dedicated to water conservation statewide is very important … ” she said. “It was a significant step in the conversation we have to have as a state, but it’s certainly by no means the final step.”

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said one idea may be to budget residential water resources, in which consumers would pay a premium for using more than the allotted amount. Whatever the solution, he said, the state must act.

“We’re very concerned that Western Colorado is going to feel all of the pain,” he said. “We’re in the middle, and we’ve got both sides pulling on us, the Front Range and the Lower Basin. It’s very important that we’re there at the table and that we don’t just roll over.”


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