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Colorado Water Congress supports Referendum A

Bob Berwyn

When it comes to water issues, the Colorado Water Congress is clearly one of the most influential groups in the state. Wednesday evening, the organization’s board of directors voted 14-7 in support of Referendum A, the November ballot measure that would create a mechanism to provide $2 billion in funding for new water projects. The water congress is comprised of more than 100 different groups with an interest in water policy, including many of the big Front Range providers, as well as conservancy districts and agricultural interests.&quotThis is a group of individuals that is knowledgeable about water issues, and, I think, have a vision for the future. I’m hoping they’ll take a leadership role on this,&quot Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone said before the vote.&quotI think it is very significant because a lot of people want to know what the Colorado Water Congress thinks,&quot said Dick MacRavey, the organization’s executive director. Eighty-five percent of what we support gets signed,&quot MacRavey said, explaining that the group has endorsed 115 water measures over the years, and 112 of those were subsequently approved by the State Legislature.But many West Slope and headwaters communities have serious concerns about the measure, perceiving it as a classic Front Range water grab.&quotIt’s not what I know about Referendum A; It’s what I don’t know that bothers me,&quot said Summit County Commissioner Tom Long, expressing concern about unclarity in the measure’s language.Referendum A would enable local water districts, municipalities and the private sector to fund water development through the issuance of bonds. The measure directs the Colorado Water Conservation Board to prioritize, bond and build new storage projects and store Colorado’s compact water share, as well as provide state support for increased conservation. Proponents said the measure protects and enhances agriculture, provides environmental benefits and provides fair mitigation to the affected basin of origin.&quotWe have one chance and once chance only to capture the water that falls on the state as snow. Then it is gone,&quot said Republican State Rep. Diane Hoppe, urging the water congress board to support the referendum.&quotWe invited the environmental community to the table but they never showed. The same people who oppose this are the people who would take cars off our roads and cattle off the range,&quot said Republican Sen. Jim Dyer, also speaking in support of the measure.Other supporters used scare tactics: &quotThere are enemies on the East and West coast powerful interests on the East and West coast who will eat our lunch unless we work as one Colorado,&quot said Senate President John Andrews. &quotWho is going to celebrate if Colorado fires a blank on this? Forces on the East and West coast who don’t care one bit about Colorado’s water except how much they get.&quotOpposing the referendum, State Senator Jack Taylor from Steamboat Springs said, &quotThere already is funding in place. We feel there is danger in this. Water can leave the West Slope without basin of origin protection. We’re being asked to sign a blank check, and there’s too much of a rush.&quot Construction must start by 2005, and that’s unrealistic given the permitting processes involved, Taylor added.Rep. John Salazar from the San Luis Valley,&quot said, &quotTaking water out undermines economic basis of communities. Many of my constituents feel that Ref. A destroyed emerging collaborative spirit of water planning.&quot&quotOne of the problems is that there’s no money for feasibility studies and environmental compliance. You can get the money once you get ready to start construction, but a lot of projects never get off the ground because they (proponents) dont have the money to do the studies,&quot said Sen. Jim Isgar, representing agriculture communities in the Four Corners region. &quotThe $2 billion could be used to acquire existing water rights for private Front Range entities. Those 1041 powers (local land use controls) won’t protect you then,&quot he warned.Stone said that, as a West Slope county commissioner, he acknowledges some of the concerns about basin-of-origin mitigation. Since the referendum is a change in state statute, it can be tweaked, and Stone said he would support a bill during the next legislative session to address some of the concerns that may not have been considered when the measure was written.&quotI’m disappointed that some West Slope legislators don’t see the advantage of developing water that will stay on the West Slope,&quot Stone said, accusing opponents of fanning the flames of the old east-versus-west conflicts.Stone said the death of the Homestake Project in Eagle County made it clear that no new projects can be built on the West Slope without local buy-in.It’s not clear that the Water Congress has the same level of influence with Colorado voters as it does with the Legislature, and it’s the voters who will decide the issue in November. And the fact that the organization’s board is split likely reflects the mood of state residents, said water expert and University of Colorado law school Dean Professor David Getches.&quotIts very important that the Colorado Water Congress is going into this in a measured way,&quot said Getches, noting that the group often has been unanimous in its pro-water development stance.&quotThere are traditional water development advocates on both sides of Referendum A,&quot Getches said, explaining that the measure doesn’t benefit water users most in need. &quotIt doesn’t help farmers. It mostly benefits housing development interests,&quot Getches said.&quotThe one thing I’d say that seems to me to be such a key issue right now is whether this proposed initiative really is broad-gauged in that it would consider all possibilities for the use of those funds if the electorate passes it,” said CU Prof. Charles Wilkinson. &quotIt seems to me the mindset is the money is for new projects. It would help to have some clarity on that. Whether all options are open, or whether, in fact, there hasn’t been an implicit decision made to proceed with new projects. I think that would be very controversial once people see which canyons will be flooded,&quot said Wilkinson, a renowned water law and water policy scholar and author of influential several works on western water issues.


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