Sen. Simpson faces new, old challenges in legislative session
‘I have a significant hill to climb’
ALAMOSA — Republican Senator Cleave Simpson had some significant wins in last year’s 73rd Colorado General Assembly, his second legislative session after being elected to serve in 2020. But 2023 may prove to be more difficult, especially when it comes to his impact on how the state manages water, the issue that drove Simpson to run for the Senate in the first place.
“The climate is changing,” he says. “We can’t call this a drought anymore. It’s lasted 20 years. What we’re seeing is aridification, which means the issue of water is going to look very different in the future. My whole reason to run for the Senate was to add to that discussion about water. To elevate the conversation and help guide the state in crafting good water policy and legislation.”
Last year, in addition to rallying broad-based, bi-partisan statements of opposition among legislators to RWR’s attempt to export water from the San Luis Valley, Simpson was the primary sponsor of SB22-028 “Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund“, a bill that designated $80 million to help finance groundwater use reduction efforts in the Rio Grande River basin and the Republican River basin, including efforts to buy and retire irrigation wells and irrigated acreage in the river basins.
SB22-028 passed unanimously in both the House and Senate without a single no vote being cast — not in committee and not on the floor of either chamber. Even Simpson, who shies away from boasting about legislative victories, admits that a unanimous vote throughout the entire legislative process “doesn’t happen very often.”
But this year, Simpson is facing new challenges.
Out of the 100 members who make up the General Assembly, 40 are new to the office, including some senators Simpson has not met yet and others whose “mood” toward legislation is still unknown. For a senator who makes it a practice to reach across the aisle and gain bi-partisan support whenever possible, that’s a big unknown.
State resources, instrumental in building programs to support water conservation, are also more limited than in the previous two years when significant federal funding was allocated to the state.
According to Democratic Senator Rachel Zenzinger, who chairs the powerful Joint Budget Committee, the state has a budget excess of $1 billion but “inflation is eating it up”, which means there will be “no funding for any pilot programs or big agenda items.”
When Senate President Stephen Fenberg was recently asked by the Colorado Sun about legislative priorities for this session, he listed protecting reproductive rights, gun safety and — topping the list — providing enough affordable housing to meet the state’s growing population. When asked the same question, Sen. Zenzinger brought up funding for public education as her top priority.
Water was not mentioned by either leader.
Simpson was not surprised by the omission, even as issues with the Colorado River Compact and water scarcity are gaining more attention. When asked if water is still viewed by legislators as primarily a rural issue instead of one that impacts the entire state, Simpson is careful in his answer.
“I don’t have great confidence that there is awareness (among legislators). I think they’re sensitive to the issue but I don’t know that it matters," he said. "I don’t know that they care. Last year, to get a bill through without a single no vote in committee or on the floor is pretty spectacular. That happened because they had an appreciation for the challenges, at least in that instance. But in regard to water, overall, I don’t have great confidence that they do. I have a significant hill to climb but we’re working in that direction.”
That “work” starts with education.
Legislators need to be educated on a broad range of complex issues, Simpson says, and cites himself as an example.
“I spent the last two years learning about criminal justice reform and diversion programs and getting more funding for DAs to help people get the help they need. These are complex issues. You have to carve out the time to learn,” he said.
Water is an especially complex issue to understand in a governing body where “time to learn” is limited, and Simpson is only one of a few in office who actually holds water rights. That complexity, and the ineffectiveness that results, have prompted him to start out at the basic level with some of his colleagues who are new to the issue.
“If I can get them to understand that an acre-foot of water equals a football field filled with a foot of water, that helps them grasp that 13 or 14 million acre-feet of water is the same as 13 or 14 million football fields of water,” he said.
That provides legislators with a sense of scope.
“That’s a good start,” he said.
But that simple goal is not enough. In a further effort to “climb that hill” in bigger strides, last week, Simpson was the primary sponsor of the bi-partisan SB23-010 concerning the functions of the Water Resources and Agricultural Review Committee, a committee that has been interim and, in Simpson’s view, not functioning at the level that is needed.
“(That bill) really was the result of an extremely high level of frustration about the lack of effectiveness. Given all the challenges in water, I didn’t think the committee lived up to its potential," he said. "Let’s elevate the importance of the water conversation here. One way to do that is to elevate the committee. Remove the interim status, make it permanent and let the chair call the committee. Let’s get organized and have the state engineer come here and spend an hour with committee members and explain the river compacts and other issues.”
He also has other legislative priorities that he hopes to act on.
“I’m an advocate of water conservation and land conservation and more intricately connecting the two," he said. "I have two sessions under my belt experiencing the policy space. I don’t want to make bad policy, so I take my time in making sure that the policy crafted is good policy.”
In the beginning of his third year representing a district with a new name (District 6) and new borders making it more mountainous, more politically diverse and includes western counties up to the Utah border, Simpson continues to be adept at looking at the massive issue of water through two lenses.
There is the day-to-day legislative work of educating colleagues, building relationships and crafting policy that helps him on that uphill climb.
But there is also the bigger picture with a hill that only seems to get higher.
“The first Colorado Water Plan was finalized in 2015 and there was the recognition that the state needed to devote $100 million per year to close the gap between the supply of water and the demand. Last year was the first year that almost happened. But typically we aren’t even close,” he said.
And with a budget that is expected to allow little room for projects not listed as a priority for leadership, “not even close” may be the norm, again.
“At some point, you run out of resources," he said. "There isn’t enough water. You can’t breathe the air. At some point, I think natural barriers are going to kick in.”