Guest column: State legislation provides hope for ranchers, farmers facing water crisis

Jay Fetcher
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Colorado has witnessed firsthand the challenges posed by climate-driven drought, the worst that Colorado has faced in more than 1,200 years.

Most of western Colorado relies on water from the Colorado River and its tributaries; however, water scarcity has become an ever-present concern, threatening our drinking water supplies, ability to grow food locally, maintain wildlife and ecosystems, and support a vibrant recreation economy.

However, amid these turbulent times, I find encouragement in the recently enacted Senate Bill 23-295. This legislation establishes the Colorado River Drought Task Force. Sponsored by House Speaker Julie McCluskie, Sens. Dylan Roberts and Perry Will, and Rep. Marc Catlin, this marks a crucial step toward addressing the challenges faced by ranchers and farmers and also ensuring the sustainability of our ecological heritage while keeping our rivers healthy and flowing.

Agriculture production is more than just a profession; it is a way of life that has been passed down through generations. Our livelihoods depend on the availability of water for irrigating our fields, livestock, and maintaining the delicate balance of our ecosystems. However, we have had to adjust our operations to the prolonged drought that has left us managing with reduced water supplies.

The Colorado River, a vital source of water, has experienced a 20% reduction in flows in just the past 20 years, necessitating immediate action from our state legislature, and when identifying solutions it’s important for those of us in the agricultural industry to lead, rather than to be led.

The passage of Senate Bill 23-295 establishes the Colorado River Drought Task Force, an entity charged with developing comprehensive strategies and collaborative solutions to address the water crisis. This legislation recognizes the complex nature of the problem and brings together stakeholders from various sectors, including ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, water providers, and water management authorities.

One of the key strengths behind the Colorado River Drought Task force is its emphasis on collaboration and innovation. By convening this diverse group, the legislation fosters an inclusive approach, ensuring that agricultural operators’ perspectives are heard and integrated into the decision-making process. This collaboration will necessitate listening to others’ perspectives and needs, to identify solutions allowing our farms, ranches and rivers to become more resilient to the impacts of drought.

Water is our most important natural resource, and SB 23-295 recognizes this vital aspect by ensuring that economic and environmental impacts are considered when formulating water management strategies. By supporting agriculture through this legislation, the state is investing in the future of our communities and preserving the economic and ecological vitality of rural Colorado.

Our neighbors in New Mexico and Utah passed legislation this past year increasing their state’s resilience to climate-driven drought, and the Colorado River Drought Task Force represents a significant step forward in combating the challenges facing Colorado. By harnessing the collective wisdom and expertise of various stakeholders across this state, the task force can chart a collaborative and sustainable path toward water security and safeguard the future of our agricultural heritage. I applaud this legislation and the sponsors for their proactiveness toward tackling this vital issue and look forward to seeing the results of the task force in the coming months.

Jay Fetcher stands in the doorway to the shop on his family ranch near Clark in northern Routt County.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Jay Fetcher is a conservationist and rancher who lives in Steamboat Springs.

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