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Ref. A springs doubts

Don Rogers

The first rule of thumb with voter ballot initiatives is this: If in doubt just vote no.

Referendum A, giving unneeded power to the state to take out $4 billion in debt through revenue bonds for water projects, provides a veritable geyser of doubts. Especially for Western Slope leaders and water analysts who see more potential for mischief than relief from arid Colorado’s vulnerability to long-term drought.

For spice, one of the only Western Slope politicians who supports the measure is Eagle County’s own Commissioner Tom Stone. He argues forcefully, though ultimately unconvincingly, that Refer-endum A means only good things for Colorado and the Western Slope.



The biggest problem for the referendum is that it addresses Colorado’s challenge to improve water storage at the wrong point. As opponents point out, there are no feasible water storage projects that have failed for lack of access to the very revenue bonds the measure aims to provide.

The challenge to build storage falls more in the realm of revenue to pay for those bonds, which should also give voters pause because this unnecessary referendum could also saddle Colorado with its largest debt in history, though Stone and other proponents downplay the possibilities.

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For the Western Slope’s leaders, lawyers and other water officials, the legislation’s lack of real protection for the region’s watersheds of origin kills the deal. Stone downplays this, too, explaining that all the red tape that holds up projects in the first place would remain with Referendum A. Great. Where Colorado could use a solution to help get projects moving, well, this plan would do nothing.

Stone argues articulately that this region’s officials who work intimately with water issues are making too much of their fear that Referendum A would weaken protections in place against taking water from Western Slope waterways without appropriately spelled-out mitigation of damage done to the region as a result.

The arcane world of water law and policy can make this discussion dense, to say the least. What’s telling is that along with the western water lawyers almost universally agreeing that the referendum does not protect basins of origin, the non-partisan legal research arm of the Legislature explains that the referendum has no language requiring any money be spent protecting our region’s watersheds.



These are two very good reasons to just say no. The concern with Colorado’s future water storage is admirable, of course. Who doesn’t want improvements in water storage – most of all the very people in the know who oppose this measure?

But this referendum simply is too flawed to be of help. A real question is whether the referendum would lead to a major step back in Front Range-Western Slope relations in regard to water. It’s already dicey, with 80 percent of Colorado’s water originating on the Western Slope and over 80 percent of the state’s population living on the other side of the divide along the Front Range.

There are other concerns with the referendum, as well. No projects are identified for the funding tool. The governor would become the arbiter of what is built and what isn’t, instead of the Legislature getting its democratic chance to review proposals. This is where the criticism about giving the governor a “blank check” comes from.

There are steps Colorado can take to improve its water storage.

Unfortunately, Referendum A is not among them.


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