Water is the lifeblood of the West, and how we manage water in Colorado is key to our future as a state. But there are inherent tensions over water use: between the Front Range, Eastern Plains and the Western Slope, between rural and urban communities and between agricultural and municipal uses. In fact, each river basin has its own unique challenges, characteristics, needs, and resources.
All of Colorado needs secure supplies of clean water today, and we each need to do our part to carefully plan for water use to support future growth and prosperity. With Colorado's population expected to double by 2050, putting enormous new demands on already-stretched water supplies, it is in the best interest of each of us to work together to manage our most precious natural resource. Meeting our shared water challenges will require consensus, comity, and compromise. That is an approach that has served Colorado well for many years.
As your senator, I take that approach in support of state and local efforts, which is where the primary responsibility for setting water policy lies. Colorado knows Colorado water best. But the federal government can facilitate state and local policy by, for example, building and maintaining dams and reservoirs, promoting and implementing large-scale conservation measures, and providing for the safety and security of existing supplies and facilities. I also feel a special obligation to make sure that state and local efforts do not pit one part of the state against another – it is in every Coloradan's interest that no community be sacrificed.
Meeting Future Needs
Colorado is a top destination for Americans on the move. As more and more people move to the state – and as more and more businesses set up shop here – we will need water to support them. In the process, we need to respect existing interstate water compacts to ensure that Colorado's water stays in Colorado, and we need to preserve our heritage of agriculture, respect for the environment and enjoyment of the outdoors. Finding solutions to these challenges is daunting. I can help by engaging stakeholders statewide – listening more than talking – and encouraging collaborative action.
There will not be any silver bullet solution, however. Rather, we need to pursue many solutions - silver buckshot, if you will - to succeed.
Conservation is one way, both using less water and using what you need more efficiently. Many Colorado communities are national models for water efficiency. The federal government should support these local efforts to drive down per capita water consumption and continue successful programs like the joint Department of Energy-Environmental Protection Agency WaterSense program and the Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program. We should also support research and development into conservation mechanisms such as improved agriculture delivery.
On the water storage front, repairing and maintaining existing reservoirs so they can store water to their full capacity is one of the first options we should pursue. We should also look at expanding existing dams and reservoirs, and building new ones where appropriate to improve storage capacity in the state. For these projects to work, however, it is essential that they be done responsibly and with local support from impacted stakeholders.
Similarly, trans-basin water diversions are an important tool, since over three-quarters of Colorado's water is on the western side of the Continental Divide, while over three-quarters of our population is on the eastern side. But we should set a high bar for their use. Both the basin of origin and the receiving basin need to benefit in mutually-agreeable ways.
Finally, since agriculture is responsible for the majority of water consumption in Colorado, it is tempting to look to it as a solution to the looming water crisis. But "buy and dry" policies designed to transfer water to municipal use at the expense of agriculture are short-sighted and ill-advised since we all depend on agriculture. As a former state legislator and friend once told me, "Mark, if you eat, you're in agriculture." In addition, agriculture is an integral part of our Colorado heritage, creates valuable wetlands for wildlife, and is an important economic driver for the state that should be protected. However, novel approaches to water sharing, such as temporary leasing programs, hold promise and deserve to be explored.
While we address our current and future water supply needs, it is important that we not lose sight of the value of non-consumptive uses of water; that is, water needed to maintain aquatic habitats and to support recreation and the enjoyment of the outdoors. Outdoor recreation contributes over $13.2 billion annually to Colorado's economy and supports over 125,000 jobs, and having access to healthy rivers and streams is part of the reason we live in Colorado. So I will continue to encourage solutions that work in concert with nature and improve the natural environment.
As Colorado continues to battle a prolonged drought, our communities need accurate and reliable data to plan for changes in water availability. The Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program manually collects snowpack data so water managers can plan thoughtfully for changing water supply realities. Accurate water supply forecasting is crucial for success in agriculture and for keeping our communities and small businesses strong. That's why I urged Undersecretary Robert Bonnie of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fully fund Colorado's manual snow course sites and pursue smart planning to keep the sites operating in future years.
As a Westerner, I understand the importance of water to life. That is why I co-sponsored bipartisan legislation – the Hydropower Improvement Act (S.545) – to establish an expedited process for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to consider qualifying conduit hydropower facilities, such as tunnels, canals, pipelines and aqueducts. This would encourage the development of new small projects that might otherwise be time-consuming and costly to carry out, ultimately helping to develop hydropower in Colorado, build a clean energy economy and promote energy security and job growth.
I secured a major victory for Colorado and the West when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) joined me in unveiling a new policy that unleashes the power of private groups and individuals, so-called Good Samaritans, to help clean up abandoned mines and protect our precious water. In addition to the physical hazards of dilapidated structures and open mine shafts at abandoned mines, the toxic soup of heavy metals, like arsenic, lead and mercury, coming from some of these sites flows into our watersheds, impairing drinking water and killing aquatic and plant life for miles downstream. This new policy, which EPA developed at my urging, gives Good Samaritans additional assurances they need to help us clean up these mine sites and protect our precious waterways from toxic mine runoff.
In the arid West, water is our most precious natural resource, and generations of Coloradans have joined together to solve Colorado’s many water challenges. The year 2012 is a particularly significant year for water in Colorado, because it marks numerous anniversaries that have had an enormous impact on how water is managed in the state. I introduced a Senate resolution (S.Res.465) to recognize these anniversaries, the importance of water to the State of Colorado and the contributions of many of the organizations that have innovated and cooperated over the past century to develop, protect and conserve this scarce resource. The resolution also recognizes Governor John Hickenlooper’s designation of 2012 as the Year of Water in Colorado. The resolution passed the Senate on May 16, 2012.
I signed a letter with Senators Barbara Boxer and Michael Bennet to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson asking EPA to give additional certainty to Good Samaritans for cleanup of abandoned hardrock mines. Good Samaritans continue to struggle with liability under the Clean Water Act for work they would like to do to remediate abandoned hardrock mines that pollute many Colorado watersheds.
The Upper Colorado and San Juan Rivers Endangered Fish Recovery Programs are ongoing partnerships that ensure Endangered Species Act compliance for many critical water projects in the Upper Colorado River basin. They are also recognized as model collaborative conservation programs successfully working towards recovery of four endangered fish species. That is why I cosponsored the Bureau of Reclamation Fish Recovery Programs Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S.1224). The bill reauthorizes these two programs and ensures they continue to receive federal support. In this way, we will continue responsible development of our water resources and preserve the environmental conditions important to Colorado’s economy and way of life.
I introduced the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel Remediation Act to clarify that the Bureau of Reclamation has the authority to treat water that has become backed up in the Leadville Mine. In 2008, a blockage formed in the tunnel that backed up a large volume of water, thereby creating a potential safety hazard to the community in the event of a catastrophic failure. My bill will give the residents of Leadville, as well as the entire Arkansas River Basin, an additional measure of certainty that the federal government will maintain safe conditions at the tunnel. The bill successfully passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on November 10, 2011.
On February 16, 2011, I joined President Obama at the White House for an important milestone in his effort to develop a 21st century conservation agenda - the America's Great Outdoors initiative. America's Great Outdoors is a plan to promote community-level stewardship of public lands and reconnect all Americans to the outdoors. As Chairman of the National Parks Subcommittee in the Senate and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Outdoor Recreation Caucus, I am particularly interested in connecting Americans with outdoor spaces and improving conservation of our public lands and waters. At the event, President Obama unveiled a report that will guide the initiative, focusing goals and actions around three main ideas: connecting all Americans to the outdoors, conserving and restoring our natural landscapes, and working with local stakeholders to protect our lands and waters. I am particularly proud that the President's plan builds off of successful conservation programs in Colorado.