Low water in dry conditions Colorado Wolford Mountain Reservoir

Low snow levels at Wolford Mountain Reservoir in the Rocky Mountains outside Kremmling, Colorado.

A legislative committee advanced four bills on Thursday that would add well inspectors, crack down on water rights speculators, research water management technologies and clarify public comment procedures.

The Water Resources Review Committee advanced Bill 5, which would set a minimum number of six well inspectors during the next fiscal year. The price tag is estimated at $279,000 in the first year, with the original bill tentatively tying funding to whether voters pass Proposition DD in November. The initiative would legalize sports betting, with tax money going to the state’s water plan.

If DD were to fail, the legislature would have to raise well permit fees by 45%. However, the committee approved an amendment to remove the funding alternatives from the legislation until further consideration. The bill would also prioritize high-risk wells for inspection.

Currently, there are two full-time inspectors and a chief inspector who has duties other than inspections.

“When people pay for a fee, they’re supposed to get service in return. But a lot of these folks never see a well inspector at any point,” said Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono.

Earlier this year, the Colorado Office of the State Auditor found that 4,000 wells were constructed in fiscal year 2018. However, only 310 were inspected—and fewer than 10% of the high-risk wells.

"That's not even close to acceptable," said Saine.

Bill 6 would require the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources to recommend changes to the state’s water anti-speculation law. A spokesperson for the House Democrats said that committee members have heard about people purchasing Western Slope water rights, holding them while the price appreciates, and then selling the rights for a profit.

“I don’t think a hedge fund invests in anything without an expectation of making money off of it. Do we know if that’s speculation? We don’t,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail. “Do we have the needed laws in place to prosecute what could be water speculation under the expectation of demand management? That’s some of what we need to look at.”

The committee also advanced Bill 2, which clarifies public comment procedures for any changes to a program for demand management, as well as Bill 3, which directs the University of Colorado and other state agencies to study the feasibility of new water management and monitoring technologies. These include sensors, aerial observation platforms and satellite-based remote sensors.

Two other bills, touching on the State Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund and general water quality permits, failed to advance. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, withdrew the first bill, with legislators indicating they may revisit the subject matter if Proposition DD passes. A second water quality permits bill stalled on a 5-5 vote.

Editor's note: This story was updated to acknowledge an amendment to Bill 5.

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