Mountain water must be protected, candidates say
Protecting Western Slope water tops the agenda for both state candidates vying to represent Eagle County in the state House of Representatives.
Eagle-Vail Republican Heather Lemon and Leadville Democrat Carl Miller differ, however, on how Western Slope water should best be protected.
Miller says one of the best ways to protect it is by not putting it at risk. She says her background in law and sales will help her build coalitions that would create “win-win situations” between headwater counties, like Eagle, and Front Range consumers.
“We cannot afford to be defensive, negative,” says Lemon. “This year’s drought has created an opportunity for real consensus building with the Front Range. Water cannot be “us’ against “them.’ This is a Colorado problem and we on the West Slope must lead with proposals. Colorado needs a unified water policy.”
Miller says too much is at stake to introduce a provincial bill dealing specifically with regional and local water issues. He says Colorado allows legislators to “amend” someone else’s bill by cutting everything but the title and the bill’s sponsor and writing their own legislation in that sponsor’s name.
“That’s why you won’t see many parochial bills dealing with water,” says Miller. “It’s just too uncertain.”
Lemon says she does not agree. Front Range legislators vastly outnumber rural lawmakers, she says, and that numerical inequity requires leadership to build coalitions.
“If we don’t work and lead so the West Slope’s water is protected, they’re going to run right over us,” says Lemon.
Lemon says part of the answer is a combination of conservation, storage capacity and new thinking in transfer mechanisms.
“We need to practice real conservation all over the state, making lifestyle changes recognizing we are a semi-arid land. Do we really need bluegrass lawns?” she says. “We need to create realistic transfer mechanisms, such as leases, banks, etc., from agricultural use, while implementing better irrigation methods to urban use.”
Keeping other western water consumers from getting more Colorado water than they’re entitled to would also help the water situation, she says.
“We need to create additional storage capacity, fix existing facilities then look for other alternatives that provide for mutual benefit and multiple use for the locations of origin, as well as the end users,” Lemon says.
Lemon and Miller agreed that a large part of the answer to Eastern Slope water woes is already there. A 1987 U.S. Geological Survey study identified more than 43 million acre-feet of recoverable water from the Denver aquifer, and underground reservoir that stretches well into the eastern plains.
That Geological Survey study found the Denver aquifer holds 20 times the water of Lake Powell and 400 times the water of Blue Mesa Reservoir.
The aquifer could be a large piece of the Front Range’s growing water puzzle.
“By the year 2025, we will have 2 million more people in this state, more than 1 million of them along the Front Range,” says Miller. “The water-producing counties do not have that kind of water. We need to get the Front Range to look at that instead of taking water from the Western Slope.”
Lemons says water has always been the key to the western economy, and House District 56 is no different.
“Water is critical to this district, not only for our consumption but for our economy,” Lemon says. “If we do not have adequate flows or storage for recreation, sufficient water to make snow, if the flow levels drop to where the streams freeze and even just a partial ban on all use is imposed, tourism will head elsewhere.”
Miller says extracting water from the Denver Aquifer is an expensive, long-term proposition. It’s still cheaper to come to the Western Slope, he says, where dams and systems are already in place.
“The Denver Aquifer water is there; no one questions that,” says Miller. “It’s expensive to get to and expensive to extract, but we need to put ourselves in the position of being able to turn on the tap.
“Denver and the Front Range have suffered this year,” he adds. “In past years they haven’t. They couldn’t have cared less.”
Miller says if he’s elected he plans to introduce a bill on the Denver aquifer.
Lemon said making a deal on the Denver deal will take tremendous coalition-building skills.
“The Denver Aquifer can be re-charged in surplus years and drawn against during drought,” says Lemon. “This problem requires hard work, sales persuasion and creating win-win situations.”