Sen. Michael Bennet says federal money to address drought should flow into Colorado soon

Inflation Reduction Act includes $4B for Colorado River

The view from the top of Flat Top Mountain in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in Garfield County. Below the peak is the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District owned Yamcolo Reservoir, which could have its inflow boosted by a water project on Coal Creek.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, says it will be “months, not years” before billions of dollars meant for water infrastructure, forest health and drought mitigation will start to have an impact in places like the Yampa Valley.

In a speech at Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs on Tuesday, Aug. 23, Bennet touted money for water in the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed at the end of last year, as well as drought-focused dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Joe Biden in August.

“We’re going to start seeing it soon — months, not years,” Bennet told the Steamboat Pilot & Today after his remarks.

Some of the money from the infrastructure bill — including $688 million for water projects in Colorado — is already landing, Bennet said.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $4 billion to prop up a Colorado River Basin in crisis, as states have so far failed to agree on how to cut their water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water.

Democrats have heralded the Inflation Reduction Act as the biggest investment ever to address climate change.

“The No. 1 reason the Colorado River is providing less water every year is climate change,” Bennet said. “Between the voluntary (Yampa River) closures and the threat of mandatory closures, Steamboat’s economy faces a stark new reality. The same is true for Colorado’s $46 billion outdoor recreation sector and our $47 billion agriculture sector.”

According to Bennet, the initial version of the bill didn’t include anything to address the long-standing drought in the West. Bennet added that Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia wanted the act to include $1 billion, while Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema wanted $5 billion for the Lower Basin alone.

“I was saying, Joe, if it’s ($1 billion) we’re never going to get this done, and in the end we settled on ($4 billion),” Bennet said. “And it couldn’t come soon enough, obviously, because the conditions are as dire as we’ve seen them.”

The Colorado River provides water for more than 40 million people in seven Western states, but the system is in crisis after the driest 22 years on record in the West have the water level in Lake Mead and Lake Powell at all-time lows. The Yampa River flows into the Green River, which is the largest tributary of the Colorado River.

Bennet said he believes many of these cuts need to come from the lower end of the basin, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada. The upper basin includes Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, in addition to Colorado.

“We know temporary mandates are not going to cut it, and any long-term solution requires permanent reductions in use by the lower basin,” Bennet said. “All parties have to live within what the Colorado River can provide.”

The money in the Inflation Reduction Act is specifically meant to purchase or save water to be left in the river and prop up the nation’s largest reservoirs.

Holly Kirkpatrick, a spokesperson for the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said while there is more to learn about how the Yampa Valley can utilize this funding, there are several local projects that could already use some of the funding included in the infrastructure law.

One potential project for the district would be a new diversion of Coal Creek into the Yamcolo Reservoir, which could give the reservoir a better chance of filling. Kirkpatrick also thought of other local projects, such as work Oak Creek needs to do on Sheriff Reservoir or the wastewater treatment plants Routt County is in the process of replacing.

“It’s still early in the process, so we don’t know exactly what that looks like,” Kirkpatrick said. “We are exploring all of those options and trying to establish the best way for us to play a role in getting some for that funding for water projects here in the Yampa basin.”

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