Colorado legislators to consider expanding program that has increased Yampa River flow in dry years
Legislators also discuss sports betting tax to fund water projects and using blockchain to trade water
Editor’s note: Information about instream flows was corrected at 6:45 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg’s name was also corrected.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Water leaders from across the state converged on Steamboat Springs this week as part of the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference.
The Colorado Water Congress is a group of people who work and live in water, explained Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger.
“It’s a group of water users all getting together and talking about water issues, so it’s a pretty focused stream,” Monger said. “It’s great to have them in Steamboat. They’ve been in Steamboat a couple of times before, and it’s always nice.”
In a legislative update, attendees heard about three proposals that could change water management in the state. Reps. Dylan Roberts, Jeni Arndt and Donald Valdez and Sens. Kerry Donovan, Jerry Sonnenberg and Don Coram sat on the panel.
“As somebody who represents Routt County and other Western Slope counties, we know what a dry year looks like,” Roberts said. “We just had one last year, and we’re fortunate to have a wet year this year, but we have to continuously plan for those dry years and look at any legislation that helps us to preserve and conserve as much water as possible, prevent forest fires and protect agriculture, because they’re the ones that really lose out when we have dry years.”
Changes to a program that increases river flow in dry years
The instream flow program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to designate water rights to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream.
In the Yampa River, this program has been used to release reservoir water to boost flows through Steamboat in dry summers.
Under the current law, the program allows people who hold water rights to temporarily loan reservoir water to the state to boost flows in a stream three times over the course of a 10-year period. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has already used loaned water for an instream flow in the Upper Yampa River three times in 2012, 2013 and 2017.
Though reservoir water has been released in other years, including last summer, it was under a different legal mechanism.
Roberts, a Democrat who represents Routt and Eagle counties, introduced a bill that would allow for more instream flow releases.
“Once the 10-year period is done, you’re done forever, and you can never do it again,” Roberts explained. “So while city of Steamboat and the Yampa River has taken advantage of that program, they’ve started their 10-year clock. Once we hit 10 years in 2022, they won’t be able to use it again, so if we have a really low water year on the Yampa in 2023 or 2024, we won’t be able to use the instream flow to keep the Yampa running through town.”
The bill, as currently proposed, would allow these loans for five of every 10 years and allow it to be renewed twice once those 10-year periods end.
This would improve stream habitat, Roberts said, as well as limit economic impacts due to river closures placed during low flows that impact tubing outfitters, fishing shops and the businesses that benefit from recreation in the area.
Monger, who sits on the board of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District, said the program has “been a great thing.” The district operates Stagecoach Reservoir.
“(The district’s) actually been fortunate enough to have some available wet water that we can send down through to the city of Steamboat Springs, and it helps with water quality as well as water temperature,” he said. “It’s been a great thing, and the upper Yampa sells a little bit of water for its revenue sources to be able to take care of the water, so that’s a good thing.”
It would also expand the program by allowing more water to be released to create more habitat for aquatic species, whereas currently, these releases are smaller releases designated only to preserve the existing natural environment.
This is the part that concerns Monger, and the reason he believes a previous iteration of the bill failed in committee during the last legislative session.
“If you have too much instream flow, you’re just sending water down to Utah, and that’s not what we need to have,” he said.
He wants to be sure the state and other organizations are able to quantify how much instream flow is too much.
On Wednesday, the legislature’s Water Resources Review Committee discussed the bill in Steamboat.
Roberts said the committee would discuss the program in general and discuss it with experts involved in the instream flow program to better understand elements of the previous bill that experts and fellow legislators did or did not like.
Ballot measure to legalize sports betting with tax revenue funding water projects
Earlier this year, the legislature passed a measure that will ask voters to legalize sports betting with tax revenue from the practice funding the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan.
If approved by voters, Colorado would allow some casinos to offer a sports book, essentially a room with a betting board and “every game known to man” on television screens, as Donovan put it. Casinos could also contract with online sports betting companies, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, to operate web-based sports betting. People could bet on college, professional and Olympic games.
While sports betting has taken place in the state, it’s currently illegal.
“This is a chance to legalize an action that we know is happening on the ground and to provide regulation protection under that act if people choose to bet on sports betting,” Donovan said.
A 10% tax on each wager would be paid by casinos, with the bulk of the revenue funding the Colorado Water Plan. Some revenue would be directed to administrative costs, a hold harmless fund and a gambling crisis hotline.
The Colorado Water Plan outlines a number of actions such as conserving more water used by cities and industry, storing more water, establishing plans to protect critical watersheds and increasing public awareness of water issues. The Yampa-White-Green River Basin Roundtable would implement the plan locally.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis requested $30 million to fund the plan and statewide drought planning. The legislature granted $8.3 million to fund the water plan and $1.7 million for drought planning.
“I’m not crazy about sports betting. Obviously I think that’s a big conversation and a big decision for our state to make,” Roberts said. “But why I ended up supporting this and co-sponsoring this bill is that I think it’s being undersold a bit, because if this passes, we have a dedicated stream of funding for water projects every single year.”
He added that though the legislature granted funds to the water plan, that could change as new legislators eventually take their place.
“The other implication to look at is that because the Supreme Court said a state can go ahead and start legalizing sports betting, if we don’t do this, we’re going to lose out to other states,” he continued. “People from Colorado are going to go bet in Kansas or Nebraska, and they’re going to send their tax dollars there. Let’s keep our tax revenue in Colorado and put it towards something like water.”
Using new technology to trade water rights in real-time
Another law, passed earlier this year, establishes an advisory group to study possible uses of blockchain technology within agriculture.
Blockchain is a way to track transactions, and it uses the same record-keeping technology as bitcoin. Each transaction within the network, whether the blockchain network is trading water or money, is recorded in a block and includes data about transactions under a unique signature, sort of like a username. Each transaction is verified by the network of computers in the blockchain.
Evan Thomas, director of the Mortensen Center in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, presented on possible applications of blockchain in the world of water rights. Blockchain could create a system to trade water by using sensors that track how much water is used or conserved to create “water credits.”
“(Those water credits are) entered into the blockchain,” Thomas said. “Somebody requests a transaction. They say ‘I need to buy more water this month, so I want to buy somebody else’s water credits.’ You enter in that transactionm, and they buy and sell points. The sensor identifies water use and water consumption, (and) turns that into a blockchain node.”
Thomas said this is a worthwhile tool to study in its applications for water rights, but that it is one part of a “suite of tools” that should be examined to update how water is traded.
Currently, water trades are typically completed in the form of leasing stored water or water from other users.
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