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State lawmakers propose plan after half of Colorado’s waters lost federal protections

Colorado lawmakers are pursuing legislation to safeguard some of the state’s most fragile waterways from pollution after a U.S. Supreme Court decision rolled back federal protections.

Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday night introduced a bill that requires the state to create a permitting process for people who want to fill in, dredge or pave over waterways. Colorado has had no method to regulate these dredge-and-fill activities since the May court decision removed federal protection for more than half of Colorado’s waters.

Conservation advocates said it left large swaths of the state’s water supplies vulnerable to irreversible harm from pollution and damage.

“Now is such a critical time for Colorado to step up and protect our waterways, in the worst drought that we’ve seen in more than 1,000 years,” said state House Speaker Julie McCluskie, who is sponsoring the bill. “With disappearing waterways and wetlands, we need to take every step possible to make sure there is no more risk incurred in Colorado.”

House Bill 1379 would require the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to develop a permitting process by May 1, 2025. That process would need to minimize harm to the environment when people want to dig up or fill in waterways while building housing developments, roads or utilities. The permitting process would mirror the federal process that no longer applies to wetlands and seasonal streams.

“We live in an arid environment that is going to become more arid because of climate change, and we need to be doing everything we can to protect our water supplies,” said Josh Kuhn, senior water campaign manager at Conservation Colorado.

The Supreme Court last year ruled that wetlands and streams that only flow seasonally were not protected under the federal Clean Water Act.

Both wetlands and seasonal streams serve critical roles in the state’s environment, conservation advocates said. Seasonal streams deliver snowmelt to larger streams during runoff season. Wetlands act like a sponge in the ecosystem — they absorb floodwaters, serve as critical animal habitat and act as a buffer to wildfire.

Half of Colorado’s wetlands have disappeared or been destroyed since the late 1800s, according to the Colorado Wetland Information Center.

“Wetlands, headwater streams, and washes are profoundly connected like capillaries of the circulatory system to larger waters downstream,” Abby Burk, senior manager of the Western Rivers Program at Audubon Rockies, said in a news release. She called the waterways “essential for birds and vital natural systems,” which support the resilience of water supplies in Colorado’s drying climate.

The bill is the second in the 2024 legislative session to address the Supreme Court decision.

A bipartisan measure introduced in February, Senate Bill 127, would place regulation authority in the Colorado Department of Natural Resources instead of CDPHE. It has not yet been debated in any committee — the first step in the legislative process after a bill is introduced. It includes less stringent requirements than the bill introduced Wednesday, advocates said.

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