STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Colorado Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, both Democrats, and U.S. Representatives Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Joe Neguse (D-CO), all but held hands Wednesday to sing Kumbaya about Colorado water issues and solutions.
The politicians attended the Colorado Water Congress’ 2023 Summer Conference at the Steamboat Grande in Steamboat Springs.
There wasn’t a word of disagreement among the senators and representatives – despite the presence of Republican firebrand Boebert, who has consistently downplayed the threat of climate change and blocked efforts to address it. Everyone emphasized the value of communication and cooperation to protect Colorado water, agriculture, and forestry.
All the state’s river basins, but especially the Colorado River Basin, are stressed by climate change, over-appropriation, competition between urban and rural water interests, and especially the thirsty states of California and Arizona, which have over-appropriated/allocated the declining supply of water in the overall Colorado River Basin.
The Colorado politicians followed the lead of prior panels and individual speakers, beginning with keynote speaker Patty Limerick, professor of History of the American West at the University of Colorado – Boulder. Limerick emphasized that curiosity and empathy for others are the keys to bridging disputes among water users and converting strangers into neighbors,
Bennet, Colorado’s senior senator, said it’s good for legislators to react to what has happened with climate change, the ongoing drought, wildfires, and other knock-on effects. But that’s not enough, he said. “What are we working on in advance?” he asked, noting that scientists are making predictions that are years and decades in the future.
An example of protecting the future water quality in Colorado, he said, was blocking oil drilling in the headwaters of Colorado’s rivers, noting that fracking and oil spills up there could create lasting damage. And then there’s honoring and fulfilling past commitments. Like Sen. Hickenlooper, Bennet expressed delight that the Arkansas Valley Conduit will reach the finish line in five years, after a start in the 60’s.
“We have to continue to invest in America,” said Bennet, acknowledging that such investments have lagged or been absent in the past.
“The Inflation Reduction Act is the biggest federal infrastructure investment since the Eisenhower Administration,” said Bennet,. This funded the construction of the interstate highway system, not to mention schools, ports, airports, water projects, bridges, and more.
“We even approved $40 billion to bring broadband Internet to rural areas, so rural students have access to critical information and farmers can move toward precision agriculture to save water and soil resources,” said Bennet.
Boebert said there was excellent collaboration between members of the Colorado congressional delegation, and water was the most critical issue before them. She said she and Neguse serve on the House Natural Resources Committee and both pursue legislation to protect Colorado water interests.
Boebert readily confessed that she had not voted for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, nor the Inflation Reduction Act – both of which brought massive dollar amounts to national and Colorado water, forestry and infrastructure projects.
“There were good things in both bills,” but poison pills were sprinkled throughout, so she couldn’t vote for them, she said.
She did, however, lobby federal departments and agencies to get a number of district and state projects and programs funded, she said.
The former governor and now junior senator of Colorado, Hickenlooper said a wet winter and spring do not constitute full drought recovery. Many more years of extra wet precipitation would be required to make serious recovery from the long-term drought, he said.
Fortunately, Congress and President Joe Biden passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) last year, with huge wins for Colorado and the Colorado River Basin, said Hickenlooper.
He praised Neguse for his negotiation skills in shepherding IRA projects and programs in the House, and was praised in turn by Neguse and Bennet for the innovative step of creating a bipartisan caucus of senators from Colorado Basin states.
Ultimately, the federal government appropriated $4 billion for water management of the Colorado River Basin, including:
- $500 million for water management of the Upper Colorado River Basin;
- $200 million for Bureau of Reclamation’s drought mitigation programs;
- Creation of the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conversion and Efficiency Program and
- $165 million for southeastern Colorado water projects.
That includes completing the Arkansas Valley Conduit project by connecting Pueblo Reservoir water to 39 communities and 50,000 customers.
The conduit project has been in the works for decades, since President John F. Kennedy visited Pueblo in 1962 to announce the Frying Pan – Arkansas Project. Hickenlooper said southeastern citizens had grown old and died, waiting for Conduit completion. The finish line is now in sight, he said.
Hickenlooper said the bipartisan Basin Caucus was founded in direct response to the ongoing drought and was driven not by partisan ideology, but by a desire to address drought-driven issues by building relationships.
“I’m very encouraged that California and Arizona are moving towards voluntary water consumption reductions,” said Hickenlooper.
Neguse said the ongoing drought and climate change have created “an uncertain future” for Colorado and other Basin states. Cooperation and collaboration across the state, state lines and the aisle in Congress are required to address that future, said Neguse. “That’s the Colorado way,” he said, emulating the practices of the Colorado Water Congress.
There’s a real urgency to deal with drought, water and national forest issues, said Neguse, and federal investments in those areas is a real game changer. “We’ve got to protect our watersheds from wildfire,” he said.
In response to questions and comments from Colorado Water Congress leaders, congressional delegates focused on what has worked well for them in the past couple of years.
Hickenlooper said he’s having some success getting politicians from back East to come out West and experience our environment. Just recently, he reached across the aisle to bring Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy to Denver for some instructive sight-seeing.
Boebert said she appreciated bipartisan support in establishing a regional headquarters for Bureau of Land Management in Grand Junction, even though she and others wanted the national headquarters.
Neguse said that after the East Troublesome wildfire in Colorado, he was able to create a House caucus of representatives interested in forest management and wildfire mitigation.
Bennet said that when smoke from California wildfires crossed the nation to blanket the East Coast, he pointed it out to Senate Leader Chuck Schumer. “He had a wake-up call with that,” said Bennet.
“Oh, that’s what you’ve been talking about,” said Schumer in Bennet’s anecdote.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the regional headquarters established in Grand Junction was for the Bureau of Reclamation, not Land Management.