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Forrest Czarnecki Kira Puntenney-Desmond, left, and David Peterson, right, with Colorado State University check stream gauges on seasonal streams in the Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins in September 2020. The pair works with the university to track and record seasonal stream flows in the largest river system in the northern part of the state, which are an important part of water supplies. (Forrest Czarnecki/The Gazette)

A House panel on Monday unanimously advanced a bill that would provide $40,000 to Colorado universities to study the application of emerging technologies to water management.

House Bill 21-1268 closely mirrors an effort spearheaded by former Fort Collins Democratic Rep. Jeni Arndt that cleared the House last year before dying in the Senate. The legislation seeks to provide a total of $40,000 split between the University of Colorado and Colorado State University for feasibility studies and pilot programs on blockchain, telemetry, improved sensors and advanced aerial observation platforms to improve water management.

Under the bill, the release of those state funds is contingent upon the universities raising at least a matching level of funds through gifts, grants and donations.

“This is really going to bring water management into the 21st century,” Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, told the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee. Will is serving as the bill’s prime sponsor in the House along with Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada.

Will and Titone told the panel much of the technology listed in the bill has already been brought to market but not traditionally used in water management. Blockchain, Titone said, could be employed to help track and account for where water is going. Will pointed to the possibility of satellite telemetry improving efficiency by saving water commissioners travel time.

“We may be able to utilize some of these different techniques or data streams that were not traditionally being used for water management and then applying them to this particular study that we're doing now,” Titone said.

Representatives from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority both supported the broad outline of the bill but highlighted the need for an amendment to clarify the term “water trading” as it appears in the bill.

According to Zane Kessler of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the state has seen an influx of hedge fund-backed investment firms buying up agriculture land for its water rights since Arndt ran the bill last session. Colorado's water law prohibits speculation and requires that all water be put to beneficial use, an umbrella that encompasses uses like irrigation, commercial, domestic, industrial, municipal, environmental, recreation, fire protection, snowmaking and power generation, among others.

Kessler called for the bill sponsors to add an amendment “that either more narrowly defines water trading in the bill, or maybe something simply that includes a legislative statement clarifying that nothing in the bill is intended to authorize, enable, or otherwise to facilitate speculation in water and water rights.”

Will and Titone said the issue was only recently brought to their attention and added they weren’t able to develop language for such an amendment ahead of the hearing. Still, both pledged to draft the amendment and add it when the full House considers the bill.

That was enough to bring Rep. Marc Catlin, a Montrose Republican and newly minted vice chair of the panel, on board.

“As long as we get that second reading amendment — and I do trust both of you — so I just want to make sure we put that on the record because that's getting to be something that all of us in Colorado are concerned about,” Catlin said in affirming his support. “Studying the idea that we can deliver the right amount of water to the right place at the right time and in the right way is a good, positive thing.”

All 11 members of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee voted in support of the bill, advancing it on to the House Appropriations Committee.

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