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Colorado could get $2 billion in water power

Matt Zalaznick

Senate Bill 236, also known as the Dyer-Entz bill, is a slightly controversial piece of legislation that would allow towns, water authorities and other agencies to issue up to $2 billion in bonds to shore up water supplies. The bill survived Democratic opposition in the state Legislature and is headed this weekend for Gov. Bill Owens’ desk.

“The current drought has taught everybody in Colorado a lesson about the importance and need for water storage and increased water capacity,” said Sen. Jim Dyer, R-Littleton, a sponsor. “We can see the physical and economic damage that our lack of infrastructure has created, and this bill moves to ease the threat of future droughts that will inevitably hit Colorado.”

Owens has supported the proposal, his press secretary, Dan Hopkins, said Friday.

“He’s likely to sign it,” Hopkins said.

Because the bill was passed at the end of the legislative session, Owens has 30 days to sign the bill. The governor has more time to consider bills passed late in the session because of the legislation that tends to pile up on his desk this time of year, Hopkins said.

Dyer says his bill allows funds also to be spent on projects that would protect endangered species, the environment and agriculture. But Democrats, including Eagle County’s representative in the state House, Rep. Carl Miller of Leadville, said the Dyer-Entz bill would facilitate a plunder of Western Slope water by Front Range consumers.

“There’s only one intention and that is to get more water from Western Slope,” Miller has said. “We’re actually giving them a blank check and then they can come in and do whatever they want.”

The bill would have been more palatable if it included a list of projects the bond money could be spent on, said Miller, whose bill to tap into the sprawling Denver Aquifer was defeated earlier in the legislative session. Miller is not alone in arguing the untouched aquifer is a major solution to Front Range water shortages.

“If they’ve got a vision for new major water projects, we should say by statute where they’re going to be,” Miller said.

But Mary Brown, who lobbies for Western Slope water interests such as Vail Resorts and the Eagle County Water and Sanitation District, said the bill is not so controversial.

“I don’t see it as detrimental really to anybody,” Brown said. “It’s just a funding opportunity.”

The Dyer-Entz bill does not weaken environmental, financial or other approvals water projects will require, Brown says, adding the bill could simply remove a financial hurdle once a project has received all the necessary approvals.

“If the only stumbling block was funding, this bill could provide a way to get over that stumbling block,” Brown says. “It creates new mechanisms that weren’t there before.”

There is little threat of a Front Range water-grab, Brown said.-

The co-sponsor, Sen. Lewis Entz, a Republican who represents a rural district north of Alamosa, has said the bill will protect farmers and ranches from losing water to metropolitan areas.

“This bill was drafted and now amended to represent the entire state, and I think we have succeeded,” Entz said. “If this bill passes, everybody will benefit.”

Current law requires legislative approval for any water project that costs more than $100 million. The Dyer-Entz bill raises that cap to $500 million.

“Senate Bill 236 is the product of bipartisan efforts that included the support of so many varied interests – rural and urban, Front Range and Western Slope,” Dyer said. “This bill benefits everybody in Colorado, and it does so without raising any taxes, which was very important to me while carrying this bill.”

But, Miller has said, the best way to bolster the state’s water supplies is not to spend vast sums on new dams and reservoirs.

“I think what we have to do as a state is to repair and enlarge existing storage before we go to some major project,” Miller says. “If we would just repair and expand existing storage, I’ve been told we could recapture 250,000 acre-feet a year.”

The Dyer-Entz bill also requires the Colorado Water Conservation Board to recommend at least two large water projects and requires the governor to approve at least one of those by 2005. But the final say it up to Colorado voters.

If signed by Owens in the next few weeks, the $2-billion bonding measure will go to voters in November, Dyer says.-

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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