DENVER – District 6 Sen. Jim Isgar is making legislative progress with his bill that, for the first time in Colorado, would legally allow some rural residents with exempt wells to begin capturing rainwater from their rooftops to water livestock and gardens.
Senate Bill 80, which unanimously passed the Senate this week, could legalize a common practice in arid Colorado.
“We don’t see a lot of people rushing forward to say I’m breaking the law,” Isgar said. “But it’s possible people have been using runoff in a questionable way that this would make legal.”
Colorado water law currently forbids rainwater catchment anywhere in the state because it must be allowed to move into rivers and streams for use by those who hold the water rights.
Isgar’s bill would apply only to owners of exempt wells, which are not administered under the priority system. Exempt well permits are issued only to those who can not get water from a municipality or water district but its uses are restricted.
“There hasn’t been a lot of opposition because it’s tied so closely to the well permit,” Isgar said. “You cannot expand usage beyond what the well permit allows.”
Isgar said allowing rainwater catchment actually could reduce injury to downstream users because it would reduce well pumping that draws down the aquifer.
SB 80 now goes to the House, where it will be sponsored by Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan. She also is sponsoring a more controversial rainwater catchment bill that has yet to reach the House floor for debate.
Looper’s House Bill 1129, which has the backing of the State Engineer’s office, sets up a pilot project for up to 10 developments to collect rainwater from rooftops and impermeable surfaces to see what the impact would be on downstream water users.
“We will pick the projects that truly give us the data we need,” Kevin Rein, a Division 1 water engineer. He said the State Engineer’s office is hoping to collect a minimum of two years of data on small, medium and large projects.
The House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved the bill, but only after Looper offered an amendment to require participants to augment 100 percent of the rainwater collected.
“The bill now clearly states there must be a substitute water supply plan in conjunction with 100 percent augmentation,” Looper said.
HB 1129 is awaiting a hearing in the House Appropriations Committee along with any other bills that require state funding.
The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled later this week to take its first look at the annual “projects bill,” which outlines next year’s spending on water projects approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Most of the appropriations are to continue projects that previously have been authorized, such as a $1 million appropriation for the Colorado River water availability study or $1.5 million to develop a statewide grant program for water projects that prevent the permanent dry-up of agricultural land.
“There’s really nothing controversial in it and the money’s there because we get 10 percent of the FML (federal mineral lease) dollars,” said Isgar, who is sponsoring the bill.
Isgar also said Western Slope concerns about a “water grab” are being addressed in a pair of bills aimed at helping South Platte River irrigators whose wells have been shut off or sharply curtailed because they don’t have augmentation plans in place.
The House on Monday passed and sent to the Senate a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, which eliminates the requirement that depletions from well pumping prior to 1974 must be accounted for in augmentation plans that still are pending in Division 1 water court.
House Bill 1174 affects about 400 wells users that the Central Water Conservancy District accepted into its plan after the demise of the Ground Water Appropriators of the South Platte (GASP).
The Senate sponsor of HB 1174 is Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, who also has introduced what could be the most controversial water bill of the 2009 legislative session.
Senate Bill 147 would allow the State Engineer to approve substitute water supply plans in permanent augmentation plans for the repayment of out-of-priority depletions from the stream prior to 2003. The bill would apply only to wells in Division I (northeast Colorado) and would expire in 10 years.
“Right now you can’t use substitute supply plans for augmentation,” said Hodge, who’s bill is scheduled for hearing next week in the Senate Agriculture Committee. “This would just give them a quicker way to get water when it’s available.”
A similar bill was introduced last spring when water providers said they had some surplus water to sell because of the heavy snowpack. It was immediately opposed by surface water users and Western Slope interests.
“There’s language (in SB 147) to say we’re not taking more water from the Western Slope,” Hodge said. “We needed to assure the Western Slope that this wasn’t a water grab.”
One of the bigger water-related issues could be fee increases that the administration is proposing to help fill a $1 billion hole in the state’s budget for next fiscal year.
State Engineer Dick Wolfe said his office is recommending $3.1 million in fee increases to reduce spending from the general fund. They include increasing well permit fees from $100 to $600 per application; increasing well inspection fees from $40 to $60; removing the $3,000 cap on fees associated with dam design review; and increasing from $300 to $2,000 the cost of administering each substitute water supply plan.
Isgar said the proposed fee hikes are too high.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate to shift that much cash fees,” he said. “I don’t object to fees per se, but it’s another thing to raise fees beyond what it costs to administer the program just to support the general fund.”