Water Congress conference emphasizes collaboration, cooperation, urgent need to address Colorado water issues

Colorado's congressional delegation gathered at the Water Congress Conference held in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 23. From left: Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Lauren Boebert, Sen. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Colorado’s congressional delegation came together in a panel at the annual summer Colorado Water Congress conference in Steamboat Springs this week highlighting that elected leaders in Colorado are working toward solutions regarding critical water supply issues.

Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents the second congressional district including Routt County, Rep. Lauren Boebert as well as Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet discussed the importance of Colorado River water as a national-level concern. The Colorado River, with headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, provides 40% of Colorado’s water supply and serves some 40 million Americans.

Neguse, who once served on then Gov. Hickenlooper’s cabinet, said, “The governor would remind us that there was no margin in making enemies and that collaboration was ultimately the key ingredient to solving any problem or challenge facing our state.”

Hickenlooper pointed out that this week’s Colorado Water Congress conference is the largest ever and “that’s a reflection of how bad the situation has gotten.”

Neguse, Hickenlooper and Bennet used the word “we” repeatedly in their short remarks focusing on the importance of cooperation in complicated water issues. The four elected officials listed Colorado water projects that garnered millions of dollars in federal funds. Hickenlooper said the bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2021 included $300 million for Colorado River Basin drought contingency plans, and the Inflation Reduction Act from August 2022 included $8 billion for water infrastructure funding.

Hickenlooper told water agencies and officials “you have to help us help you” to make sure Colorado entities seek out all pools of federal funding for water projects.

Neguse and Bennet complimented Hickenlooper for his work in bringing together senators from seven states to work in a bipartisan Colorado River Caucus focused on ongoing dialogue on the Western water crisis.

“We know the situation we face is challenging. It’s demographics, drought and climate. It’s all more people, less water. That’s a scary formula that we face.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis

“The senators were really focused on saying, all right, how can we provide carrots to make sure there are incentives for everyone to work together,” Hickenlooper explained.

Prolonged drought and low runoff conditions accelerated by climate change have led to historically low water levels in lakes Powell and Mead, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Last summer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said the basin states would need to conserve 2-4 million acre-feet of water in 2023.

“Obviously we had a wet winter and to a large extent a wet summer, but that doesn’t mean that this aridification is going to change,” Hickenlooper said. “Hopefully we’ll have another wet winter, but I’m skeptical. I think we need to be prepared for the worst.”

After the senators and representatives spoke and answered several questions from panel moderator Christine Arbogast, vice president of the Colorado Water Congress, Gov. Jared Polis addressed the ballroom full of hundreds of attendees for about seven minutes.

“Given the stakes of what’s going on right now, it’s very important for the state of Colorado to stand up and fight for our rights as a state, be in the strongest possible position, given the challenges we face with demographics, climate change, drought and the changing water situation across the West,” Polis said.

“We know the situation we face is challenging,” Polis said. “It’s demographics, drought and climate. It’s all more people, less water. That’s a scary formula that we face. But we know that we have the opportunities to step up and solve problems.”

Polis listed various active water-saving measures ranging from leak detection programs to “Colorado-scaping” education to swap turf for water efficient and climate-appropriate landscaping including tax credits for turf replacement.

The governor encouraged people in the water community to speak up about the need to integrate water usage and planning, noting integration “had been done on a haphazard basis before but is at the level that we have to do this thoughtfully as a state.”

The governor called housing a very important example of how to “achieve solutions that make sense” such as constructing more water efficient housing options such as duplexes, quad-plexes and multi-family housing.

“That can use 30-50% less water for the same number of people rather than continuing to sprawl with exurban single-family plots,” Polis said.

The governor said the Colorado Department of Agriculture is hiring for the first time an agriculture water advisor.

“Ag is our single biggest economic sector, and the discussions we have around water are really critical for the future of ag in the state,” Polis said.

The Colorado Water Congress includes more than 400 organizational members and hundreds of individual members representing water industry interests from across the state.

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