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Sports betting bringing in millions more than expected for Colorado water projects

Since Colorado launched legalized sports betting in 2020, the state has collected nearly five times more money for water projects than anticipated.

DENVER — Since Colorado launched legalized sports betting in May 2020, the state has collected nearly five times more money for water projects than anticipated, gaming officials said.

The start of the National Football League’s season provided yet another welcome financial bump, with about $44 million in bets during its first weekend (Sept. 9-13), according to Daniel Hartman, director of the state’s Division of Gaming.

“Football is going full bore. It was a big opening for us,” Hartman said. “It really is the biggest market for sports betting.”

RELATED: Half of US offers legal sports betting as NFL season begins

Money collected from gambling proceeds goes toward work meant to conserve water, protect natural habitats, improve infrastructure and more, according to Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. And more money equals funding new projects under the Colorado Water Plan at a time when Colorado River reservoirs downstream are low.

> This story is powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative. 9NEWS joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve the public.

Hartman said his office earmarked about $8 million from sports betting for the plan, which sets priorities through 2050 for projects in the following five categories: agriculture; conservation and land use; engagement and innovation; environment and recreation; and water storage and supply.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board doles out the money, and Ris said it tries to fund projects that check more than one box, like work with Colorado Springs Utilities that brings water from the Eagle River Basin to Colorado Springs and Aurora -- which she said “opened up quite a bit of fish and boating habitat.”

Before voters legalized sports betting, Ris said her department was awarding grants with whatever money officials found in their “couch cushions.”

> The video above is from August 2, when Colorado had collected more than $8 million because of sports betting

At the outset, legislative analysts projected gambling could bring in between $9.7 million to $11.2 million in its first year, revenue department spokeswoman Suzanne Karrer said. But shortly after voters agreed to legalize the practice, state officials cut their estimates for 2020-2021 to between $1.5 million and $1.7 million in part because casinos weren’t willing to pay $125,000 every other year to host sports betting, Karrer said.

Even when the pandemic shut down leagues for a few months, gamblers flocked to sports betting — made easy through apps. The $3 billion in bets from May 2020 to July 31, 2021, translates into $9.4 million in state revenue, Hartman said.

“People found a new way to watch and enjoy sports while they were at home and not actually in the stadiums,” he said.

Colorado had four online businesses taking bets in 2020 (casinos were closed); in 2021, there are now 25 online “operators” and 17 casinos in the towns of Cripple Creek, Central City and Blackhawk.

Ris said the board can’t give out any of this windfall until next summer, after the 2022 General Assembly grants it permission to spend the money.

RELATED: After months of sports betting, how much tax money has Colorado made?

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