Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., has been pushing hard for two pieces of water legislation in Washington, D.C.
As Gardner told The Tribune this past week, one bill is picking up steam.
The other, not so much.
The bill that’s seeing movement, if eventually passed, would require federal regulators to approve or deny permits for reservoir projects within 270 days after a state’s governor endorses that water project.
If a decision isn’t made within 365 days of the governor’s endorsement, the project would be automatically approved, according to Gardner’s proposed legislation, which also looks to create a federal “Office of Water Storage.”
Many stress the need for new storage projects — the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative report shows that Colorado could face as much as a 600,000 acre-foot supply gap by 2050, and could see as many as 700,000 acres of irrigated farmland dry up.
But while there’s the need for more water, a lengthy federal-permitting process has some proposed reservoirs about 10 years or more deep into the permitting effort.
Many water users, particularly farmers, have expressed frustration that during the above-average snowpack years of 2009, 2010 and 2011, the South Platte River basin watched about 1.4 million acre-feet of water above what’s legally required flow into Nebraska, according to numbers provided by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud.
That much extra water was flowing into Nebraska because there weren’t enough reservoirs in the basin to capture the abundant snowmelt, they say, and having more reservoirs would have made a huge difference in enduring the 2012 drought.
Gardner’s other bill, which is at a standstill, he said, would reform tax provisions and allow irrigation and ditch companies to receive additional sources of income and still maintain their nonprofit status. The legislation requires, however, that the extra revenue be used exclusively for operations and maintenance of the ditch and irrigation company.
Many in Colorado are eager for passage, since routine upgrades and repairs to these water-delivery systems can add up into the millions of dollars.
Current law says that mutual ditch and irrigation companies must receive 85 percent of their income from shareholder investments to maintain nonprofit designation.
In recent years, though, a number of ditch companies have seen an influx in revenue, mostly from an upswing in oil and gas activity on their land, and that increase in dollars has put some companies past the 85 percent threshold, leaving them to be taxed on the additional revenue.
The U.S. Joint Committee on Taxation estimated last year that Gardner’s bill would take away about $31 million in tax revenue from the federal government between 2012 and 2021 — “definitely worth it,” Gardner said, stressing how important irrigated agriculture is to the economy and to the nation’s food security.
In Colorado alone, agriculture has a $40 billion impact.
We asked Gardner several questions about the bills:
Q — So, what’s the latest on your bill to speed up the permitting process on new water-storage projects?
A — It’s really seeing a lot of support ... bipartisan support, I should stress. We offered it as an amendment to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. Dozens of amendments were filed, but ours was only one of about 10 that was accepted. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act Chairman (U.S.) Rep. (Bill) Shuster (R-Penn.) is still wanting to have more discussions on the language of the bill, and we’re still waiting to have those conversations. But overall, things are moving along well with that bill.
Q — And how about the nonprofit/irrigation bill?
A — Unfortunately, we’re not seeing as much success over there. It, too, has received bipartisan support, but it’s just not going anywhere. I know how critical it is for farmers and ranchers in Colorado and elsewhere, but we’re just not making much progress.
Q — Why is that?
A — Basically, (the Committee on Ways and Means) Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) is being told not to take up any smaller bills that are looking to change any tax code. He’s being pushed by others to hold off on anything until we sit down and look at comprehensive tax reform. It’s frustrating, but that’s where things stand, and I’m not sure how soon we’ll see movement on that.
Q — What do you think could speed up the process for that bill?
A — I really think it comes down to people in the East not understanding water needs in the West. In any way we can, we have to make Washington understand how critical both of these bills are, and how important other water legislation is. We’re already behind. We can’t be slowed down any more in catching up to meet our water needs.
Q — Aside from the push of your two bills, what other good do you see going on in Washington along the lines of water legislation?
A — We’ve really seen some good, smart legislation pass that will help develop and speed up the process of getting in place small hydropower projects on irrigation ditches, and other similar projects. That will be a big boost for farmers and ranchers, and rural Colorado as a whole. I have to tip my hat to Rep. (Scott) Tipton (R-Colo.) for all of his work on that.