Water Policy Wins in Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico before Coronavirus Closures

Audubon backed 8 wins before many western legislative sessions ended early.

In the arid states of the American West, stretching water supplies is challenging—particularly in the face of a changing climate and a growing population. Historically, across the Colorado River Basin states, policies have not typically focused on enhanced flows in rivers or specifically on benefits to the environment. Today, more creative and flexible approaches to water management with conservation funding can enhance water security for communities, improve the profitability of farms and ranches, and support keeping water in rivers.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and related stay-at-home orders, Audubon’s Western Water team worked with legislators, water leaders, agricultural partners, other environmental nonprofits, hunters, anglers, brewers, and more to advocate for water policies to support birds and the places they need.

We are proud to share the highlights of these eight water policy wins. Several legislatures were able to adjourn before restrictions in March, but states are facing financial implications that may impact funding for water conservation and projects. In some states, we are waiting for legislatures to come back into session. Here is where we stand in key Western Water states:

New Mexico: Funding for the Strategic Water Reserve (Learn more here.)

During the short 2020 New Mexico Legislative session that ended in February, Audubon and a coalition of groups successfully advocated for $750,000 for the Strategic Water Reserve. Originally passed in 2005, the New Mexico Strategic Water Reserve allows the State to purchase or lease water rights to ensure sufficient water in rivers to address threatened and endangered species and fulfill interstate compact water needs. Audubon New Mexico’s Director of Policy, Judy Calman, joined partners in this effort and was able to inform key legislators about the importance of funding the Reserve.

Audubon was also successful in securing support from Governor Lujan Grisham to include a $500,000 appropriation to the Department of Game and Fish for work on threatened and endangered species.

Utah: Package of Important Water Bills Passes (Learn more here.)  

In the lead up to and during Utah’s 2020 legislative session, Audubon’s Marcelle Shoop, Saline Lakes Program Director, worked alongside other key stakeholders to develop solutions to increase Utah’s flexibility in managing water resources. After concluding in March, the legislature passed and Governor Herbert signed several significant pieces of water legislation including the following:

  • Water Banking Act (SB 26) - This Act authorizes the 10-year water banking pilot program allowing water rights holders the opportunity to temporarily and voluntarily lease their water rights included in a water bank. These provisions are intended to facilitate sustainable agricultural production, meet municipal demands, and help meet water quality standards and provide for a healthy and resilient natural environment.
  • Split-Season Uses and Applications to Change Water Use (incorporated into HB 130) - This flexible tool facilitates short-term seasonal water uses for the benefit of agricultural, environmental, and other water uses. For example, a farmer could decide to irrigate a first cutting of hay and then forego subsequent cuttings that year, while leasing the remainder of the water for that irrigation season, including sharing water for the benefit of the environment.
  • Watershed Council Act (HB 166) - Recognizing that “collaborative solutions developed by diverse stakeholders have historically proven to be the most effective means to address Utah’s water needs and to develop water policy,” this bill authorizes the creation of local basin councils as a forum for addressing watershed issues with local interests and expertise. The legislation identifies 12 watersheds for local councils, including a Great Salt Lake watershed.

Audubon also succeeded in prioritizing Great Salt Lake, essential for millions of birds, with new state funding for a Great Salt Lake Coordinator, who will work with several Utah departments such as Natural Resources and Environmental Quality, plus Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, and more.

Colorado:  Expansion of Instream Flow Program (Learn more here.)

The Colorado legislature suspended operations due to COVID-19 on March 14, but lawmakers plan to return in May for the remaining days of the session. Legislative priorities will be very different from when lawmakers left as the state economic picture is not looking good. An essential task for legislators still to come is to set the state budget for next year with a potential $3 billion budget shortfall.

However, Audubon does have a very bright spot to celebrate. After a multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort from Audubon, with leadership from Abby Burk, Rockies’ Western Rivers Program Manager, partners, and other stakeholders to expand Colorado’s existing program to loan water to the environment, an instream flow bill (HB20-1157passed with wide bipartisan support. In March, thanks in part to more than 1,450 Audubon network members who sent letters to their legislators in support of this bill, Governor Polis signed this bill into law.

During this interrupted legislative session, we saw another bill to authorize the Colorado Water Conservation Board to use augmentation water for instream flows (HB20-1037) get signed into law. A study on strengthening of water anti-speculation law also passed. However, the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s “Projects Bill,” which allocates funds to implement Colorado’s Water Plan, has not been introduced yet. We expect to see the “Projects Bill” introduced after the legislature reconvenes.  

Arizona:  Progress on Groundwater Legislation

(UPDATED 5/26/2020): The Arizona Legislature officially adjourned the 2020 regular session.

The Arizona legislature paused at the end of March after adopting a baseline or “skinny” budget, which essentially keeps funding at current levels. On Tuesday, May 26, the legislature officially adjourned the 2020 regular session. A special session on the budget is likely to be convened this summer to deal with the new budget reality facing the state, as well as pertinent COVID-19 related measures.

If the session had continued normally, Audubon was hopeful that HB 2675—which would encourage conservation and leave more water in Arizona’s rivers—would receive additional consideration. Audubon and our partners remain focused on protecting water resources for birds, fish, other wildlife, and people and that includes groundwater.

Audubon Arizona’s Haley Paul, Policy Manager and Acting Deputy Director, co-authored an op-ed emphasizing that new groundwater legislation is encouraging, but state must now follow through. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Audubon testified at the Legislature, advocating for SB 1635, prospective Irrigation Non-Expansion Areas, where the Arizona Republic covered our testimony, as well as HB 2896, Rural Management Areas, which would allow communities to opt-in to groundwater protections.

Early in the session, leaders from the Western Rivers Action Network, including hunters, anglers, birders, and beer brewers, showed up for Audubon’s annual Western Rivers Day at the Capitol, where we discussed water security with dozens of legislators including the Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. We also discussed the latest rollbacks of the federal Clean Water Act, which would negatively impact Arizona’s streams and wetlands —and the role the state can play in providing protections.

California:  State Action for the Future of the Salton Sea

The California legislature suspended its session mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers recently reconvened and are expected to work through August 31.

Governor Newsom and his team have given assurances that this year the state will finally achieve progress on projects to control dust and create habitat as the Salton Sea shrinks. Meanwhile, the 650,000 people that live near the sea and the hundreds of species of birds that depend on it wait for the completion of projects. Frank Ruiz, Audubon’s Salton Sea Program Director, points out, “If Gov. Newsom really wants to be held accountable, then this is his chance. If he intends to be true to his word, 2020 will no longer be about waiting. It will be about doing.”

Audubon continues to work with stakeholders to prioritize and advance the dust mitigation and restoration projects on the ground as part of the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP). Although significant funding has been secured, additional state funds are needed to implement the SSMP. An economic recovery package could help to address the air quality and habitat issues at the Sea. Health conditions around the Salton Sea have continued to gain attention, particularly in light of the pandemic.

We also continue to advocate for sustainable groundwater management and are monitoring the dialogue around and implementation of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. In January, several agencies filed their initial plans to protect overdrafted groundwater resources, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.

Looking Ahead

The new realities created by the COVID-19 crisis highlight the importance of a secure water supply to increase resilience to this pandemic, to climate change, and to future crises. Looking ahead to the completion of these legislative sessions and into 2021, it is imperative that state leaders adopt the policies necessary to increase water management flexibility and protect the health of our communities and ecosystems.