Water conservation

River District addresses controversial water speculation bill

An organization that works to keep water on the West Slope is trying to rewrite an unpopular bill aimed at preventing speculators from profiting from the water.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District Board of Trustees voted at its January quarterly meeting to present lawmakers with an amendment to Senate Bill 29, which deals with water investment speculation. The River District is attempting to use the principle of abandonment of the Water Act to combat speculation in water investment. Invoking the well-known adage of “use it or lose it”, the amendment says that if someone is paid for not using their water, they could be punished by losing their right to water.

Every 10 years, engineers from the Colorado Division of Water Resources examine each water right to see if it has been used at some point during the previous decade. If this is not the case, the water right could end up on the abandonment list and the owner must oppose the registration in the water court to try to keep the water right. . In Colorado, a user must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning using the water for what it was decreed for, such as growing crops.

The River District proposes that someone’s right to water can be considered forfeited in less than 10 years – perhaps only a matter of days – if they are paid for not using their water. The concept would not apply to approved water conservation programs, such as those implemented by state officials.

“The amendment we’re talking about essentially creates a penalty for someone not using water if they’re paid to do so and it’s not part of a state-sanctioned program,” he said. said River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “We have to make sure that people are using their water rights for purposes they are not decreed for, or not, and that’s really where we see the potential threat of speculation coming in.”

As an example, Mueller said municipal suppliers in water-strapped lower basin states, such as Arizona, could pay farmers in western Colorado to let their water run downstream. for the benefit of Arizona water users. He said he has yet to see lower basin features pay to reduce water use in Colorado, but that may happen in the future.

“Our concern is focused on how to prevent that or have a meaningful penalty, and the Abandonment Act seems like a really good way to do that,” he said.

The “strikethrough” amendment, if lawmakers accept it, would essentially replace the current version of the bill.

Mark Harris, executive director of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, checks the entrance to Tunnel 3, where water from the Highline Government Canal crosses the mountain to Palisade, continuing into the Grand Valley, in this photo from 2020. A representative from the Grand Valley Water Users Association is concerned about a proposal making its way through the state legislature that would give regulators the power to fine entities accused of water investment speculation. Credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

The opposition of agriculture

The River District Amendment is an attempt to revise the current proposed legislation, which has not found support from agricultural water users. Even the bill’s Western sponsors — Kerry Donovan, an Eagle County Democrat, and Don Coram, a Montrose Republican — acknowledge that it is flawed.

The bill, as currently proposed, seeks to prevent a purchaser of agricultural water rights from taking advantage of the increased value of water in a future sale by giving the state engineer of the Department of Water Resources the ability to investigate allegations of speculation and impose fines. Lawmakers are trying to prevent out-of-state investors from cashing in on a shrinking public resource in a water-strapped future driven by climate change.

The bill has been introduced in the Senate and will be considered by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

But he has faced opposition from agricultural producers, one of the very groups he is trying to protect who say they don’t want the state scrutinizing their private property dealings.

Although some owners of agricultural water rights recognize that there could be negative impacts on their communities if the water is sold to investors, they do not want the state to complicate the process of selling their ranch. or places restrictions on who they can sell to or their ability to make a profit. This leaves some wondering: who is the bill for?

“Why do people introduce a bill if the constituency is not interested and they don’t feel like the bill is being properly considered?” asked Joe Bernal, a Loma farmer and president of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, an organization that provides irrigation water to farmers in the Fruita area.

The Colorado Farm Bureau is also concerned about the bill and, in an October letter to the Water Resources Review Committee, says the bill could unintentionally negatively impact farmers and ranchers. Farm Bureau state affairs director Austin Vincent said the organization was aware of the River District’s proposal but had not taken a position on it.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District represents 15 counties on the West Slope and often advocates for agricultural water interests. The organization has always played an active lobbying role. Some council members thought it was better to oppose the bill or ignore it altogether – assuming that it, as currently drafted, will die on its own – than to try to rewrite the law.

The board was split 8-5 in favor of presenting the amendment to lawmakers. Pitkin County District Attorney and River District Representative John Ely voted against moving the amendment forward.

“I thought it was easier to object to something that you think was badly written than to try to change it,” he said. “It’s a lot of work to rewrite a bill.”

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, second from left, and State Senator Kerry Donovan, second from right, both representing Western Slope districts, participate in a panel at the Colorado Water Congress in January . Donovan is one of the sponsors of a bill that aims to tackle water investment speculation.
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Speculative concerns

Last year, lawmakers tasked a task force of water managers and policy experts from all water sectors to explore ways to strengthen the current anti-speculation laws of the State. The group, which included Bernal and River District General Counsel Peter Fleming, came up with a list of eight concepts on how to prevent speculation in water investments. But the group did not give clear recommendations to lawmakers because they could not reach a consensus on the concepts to implement.

This inability to find consensus and make recommendations, to Bernal, meant lawmakers had to abandon their attempts to introduce a bill.

“It seems to me that this legislation has taken on a life of its own. For what reason, I don’t know,” he said at the Colorado Water Congress conference last month in Aurora. “I would like to know why lawmakers are not listening to the expert team.”

But Donovan said it’s now up to lawmakers to delve into the report and figure out how to navigate from there. She said lawmakers would get feedback from stakeholders on next steps.

“Many of us recognize that it will be difficult to push forward this session an anti-speculation investment bill, but enough of us have heard from our constituents that it is an issue important enough that we must at least try,” she said. “My goal this year is just to keep the conversation going.”

The anti-speculation bill is, in part, an attempt by lawmakers to address concerns in the Grand Valley, where a New York-based private equity firm has acquired irrigated farmland. Water Asset Management is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association. But under Colorado’s water law, as long as WAM continues to put the water to good use by keeping the land in agricultural production — which it appears to be doing — it doesn’t count as speculation.

Even though Bernal does not support the proposed anti-speculation bill, he is still wary of WAM.

“I am concerned that outside interests are buying up properties in the valley and large blocks of it,” Bernal said. “As a community, we are keeping our eyes wide open.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in conjunction with the Vail Daily. This story originally appeared in the February 4 edition of Go everyday.