Leading on Innovative Water Management in Colorado
This week, I attended the Colorado Water Congress for a discussion about how we will manage Colorado’s water in the years ahead (read my full remarks here). As I often discuss, this is one of my top priorities as Attorney General. It is often reported that Colorado has the most water lawyers per capita of any state; many of those lawyers work in the Department of Law to creatively manage this critical, and increasingly vulnerable, resource.
The Colorado Water Congress is a tremendous institution. It was founded with support of the Colorado Attorney General and its mission is to bring together a range of stakeholders to develop an innovative approach to how we manage our water and water rights. As a newcomer to this community, I am grateful to the Colorado Water Congress and those leaders who helped develop a culture of collaboration in all these discussions; they have created a system of true listening, learning, creativity, and innovation. In doing so, they have developed a model of collaborative problem solving that applies to a range of policy areas.
Because Colorado’s water rights are property rights and we function as a headwater state, we always need to be ready and willing to protect our rights through litigation. Our first and best course of action, however, is to be prepared for and effective at working together on innovative problem solving. A strong start, as a roadmap for this, is set out in the Colorado Water Plan.
Conversations around water are happening in creative and collaborative ways across the state. Consider, for example, the work happening in in the San Luis Valley, led by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, to develop groundwater management plans. And our office and the State Engineer’s office worked very effectively, along with local governmental and law enforcement entities, to address flooding concerns from this year’s snowpack combined with avalanche debris above Lake City.
As some in the popular press have emphasized, the Colorado River Compact and the challenges of compliance with our obligations are a big deal for the state. Our office contains an entire group of attorneys dedicated to handling matters regarding the Colorado River basin, which includes developing collaborative solutions and avoiding the specter of litigating with our surrounding states.
Colorado’s success in effective water management includes our Drought Contingency Plan, which ensures Colorado can control its own destiny and enables the Upper Basin to develop plans for using existing storage in Upper Basin reservoirs. In the face of climate change, we have to prepare appropriate responses for a future with less water as our population continues to increase and patterns of precipitation and runoff change. The Drought Contingency Plan, which demanded careful negotiation and took an act of Congress to complete, protects critical elevations at Lake Powell if hydrology continues to be dry or worsens.
As our Water Plan makes plain, there is a right way and a wrong way to manage our water challenges. The wrong way is exemplified by what happened in Crowley County, where a “buy and dry” plan destroyed the economic lifeblood of that community. While we must continue to respect constitutional doctrines, property rights, and the rule of law, we also must continue to explore innovative ideas for achieving optimum use of the state’s waters in a manner that sustains our agricultural communities. We also need to take appropriate action, where necessary and appropriate, to protect our rivers in the face of our shifting hydrologic realities.
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The Department of Law is committed to securing a constructive water future for Colorado and the states that rely on us for their water, too. In conjunction with the Colorado Water Congress, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and local basin roundtables, the tremendous water lawyers in the Department of Law will work together to create solutions that work for everyone. Collaborative problem solving is how we work here in Colorado, particularly in the area of water law. We should never take this work for granted and, indeed, we need to champion it as a model for public policymaking more broadly.