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More dams won’t make it rain

Ken Neubecker

At first blush Referendum A almost makes sense. Under scrutiny, however, the whole thing falls apart. Proponents make several claims that simply don’t hold water, nor do they “save” Colorado’s water.

First, they claim, that because of the drought we need more storage.

Storage is not the problem. Lack of precipitation is the problem. Dillon, Green Mountain, Williams Fork, Ruedi, Blue Mesa and other large reservoirs were all practically empty last summer.



We have plenty of water storage. As Gov. Owens said, “We cannot change what nature has in store for Colorado” and building more empty reservoirs will not make it rain. Referendum A cannot save water that isn’t there.

Second, we are losing “our” water to the downstream states, California in particular. No we aren’t. Water that to Colorado has a right to, but is not using does flow downstream, out of the state and on to California, Nevada and Arizona. And these states use it.



That doesn’t mean that we lose it. We cannot “lose” our water from the Colorado River to the lower basin states. The Colorado River Compact guarantees that. Our water, as much as there is, will always be there when we need it. Meanwhile folks from Colorado get to enjoy the “lost” water as they raft through the canyons of Utah, boat on Lake Powell or vacation in Las Vegas.

Third, we need to store more water for the benefit of the environment, wildlife habitat and recreation. A nice idea, but hardly the aim of Referendum A. Referendum A’s primary goal is to store water that can and will be removed from the stream and most likely removed from the basin of origin to the Front Range. That’s where the votes and lawns are.

The law behind Referendum A is Senate Bill 236, passed last year by only one vote (not quite the large bipartisan majority that the proponents claim). SB 236 does state that environmental, recreational and wildlife considerations are a reason for this bill, but only at the end of the legislative preamble, and seemingly as an afterthought. These considerations are quickly dropped when the actual working part of the law that Referendum A represents is read.



In the beginning SB 236 and Referendum A throw in the right words to make folks feel warm and fuzzy, but then throw out the words and concepts completely. Mitigation and environmental concerns are wholly dismissed from the law that Referendum A would bring into effect. Referendum A is no friend to wildlife, recreation or the streams that the water comes from.

Proponents claim the water projects that Referendum A funds will pay for themselves and the Colorado taxpayer will not be out a dime. Bonds and partnerships with “other interests” and “revenue streams” will foot the bill.

The bond houses will have recourse only to these sources of revenue. “Other interests” is a fancy phrase meaning private water speculators. Referendum A will allow these private water speculators to use public money for building their projects.

Private developers have a long history of bailing out through bankruptcy when things aren’t going well. This leaves the bond houses to look somewhere else for their money. The taxpayer.

The state is not likely to stiff the bondholders and risk its credit rating for future projects when it has the taxpayer to rely on. Putting a private group of profiteering water speculators in charge of $2 billion of public money with a $4 billion payback is not too reassuring. It’s like trusting Enron with our state’s energy future.

Referendum A requires that two projects be presented by the Colorado Water Conservation Board to the governor in 2005, and that one of these will be chosen for construction.

That’s a pretty fast time line for a major water project. Most take at least 10 years just to get planned, much less proposed and applied for.

It sounds like someone already has something in mind and doesn’t want to let us know about it. Indeed, the public is distinctly uninvited from the process of selecting a project.

Any proposed project will have to go through the usual permitting and approval process with local and federal agencies, but that is only after a fully crafted proposal is made. We the public, who are expected to pay for the project, have no say whatsoever about the project itself.

Given the proposal time line spelled out in SB 236 there is likely a project or two in the wings, but the proponents of Referendum A don’t want us to see them until we write out the check and have surrendered all our interest.

Water has always been a matter of concern and a bone of contention in Colorado. This is a dry land trying to support a culture that is not used to drought or limits to its activities. We have used ingenious systems of law and engineering to help us live as we will in this dry land, and we will continue to do so. Some of these systems have worked well; others have not. Referendum A is another of these and is fatally flawed. Building more dams will not make it rain. Writing blank checks for undisclosed projects being built by whoever will hardly ensure water for Colorado’s future. Referendum A is simply the wrong tool at the wrong time with the drought being used as a scare tactic.

Gov. Owens claims that some people seem to have forgotten last year’s drought but that he hasn’t. He does seem to have forgotten what a depressing bowl of mud and dust Dillon reservoir became and that most of the major reservoirs became.

We do not need to waste public money building more mud holes. We already have ample means for financing and building storage when we need it and for when nature makes the water available.

Referendum A is a shell game, asking us to pay up before seeing if anything is under the shell. We don’t even get to pick the shell we look under. We don’t need the shell, we don’t need what’s under it and we certainly don’t need the game that is being played on us.

Ken Neubecker of Trout Unlimited is a close observer of water issues.


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