Senate Bill 23

On June 5th, Governor Hickenlooper vetoed Senate Bill 23, an agricultural water conservation bill crafted over the course of a year in close partnership with many water interests, including the Governor’s own water policy experts. The bill was designed to incentivize the implementation of irrigation efficiency improvements that would ultimately benefit agricultural operations and Colorado’s rivers and streams. Interestingly, the bill would have only affected West Slope irrigators. Under the bill’s provisions, ranchers, farmers and other agricultural water users could voluntarily implement irrigation and water efficiency measures and ensure that water they save would benefit Colorado’s rivers without risking abandonment of their water rights or harming other users. The result would have been increased private investment in upgrades to and modernization of irrigation infrastructure, healthier rivers and streams, and more resilient farms and ranches. SB 23 had support from many rural Coloradans, major water providers, Colorado’s leading conservation organizations, and Colorado Water Congress, the state’s leading voice for water policy.
“SB 23 was a chance for Colorado to demonstrate leadership among all western states struggling with a limited water supply and the balance between all-important human uses of water and the needs of our rivers and streams,” said Russ Schnitzer, agriculture policy adviser for Trout Unlimited. “This sends a signal that despite the Governor’s expressed commitment to water conservation, he is willing to bow to those who oppose change in any form. With this veto, innovative, common sense water efficiency solutions benefitting Colorado farms and ranches have been cast aside in favor of perpetuating the status quo locked in 19th century water management concepts.”

Critics of Senate Bill 23, however, warned that while the intent of the bill is laudable, there were two major flaws with the legislation: that a transfer for instream use has the potential to harm intervening water rights and that it also could injure upstream junior rights holders. Another principal concern is that the process could represent a cost to surrounding water users who take it upon themselves to investigate whether the change would harm their rights.

In response to the Governor’s veto, conservationists are up in arms and Hickenlooper is drawing intense backlash. The Clean Water Fund contends that the veto amounts to a “failure to lead” and has launched a similarly-named campaign against the Governor. The campaign includes massive ad buys and will see banners proclaiming the governor’s “failure to lead” flown over a Rockies game and the Western Governors Association Conference. The group is also launching an online, social media-driven campaign. “It’s just too bad SB 23 had to become so political,” were the comments of one water expert.