Referendum A rhetoric heating up |

Referendum A rhetoric heating up

Cliff Thompson/Daily Staff Writer

As the Nov. 4 election nears, the flow of rhetoric across Colorado is further dividing supporters and opponents of Referendum A, a measure that seeks voter approval for water-diversion projects.

The idea behind Referendum A is to ask voters for the ability to float up to $2 billion in bonds to build more dams and reservoirs to solve Colorado’s need for more stored water. The bonds would not increase taxes, theoretically, but would be paid off by the users of the water stored in the new and renovated reservoirs.

Currently, enormous quantities of water literally run out of Colorado in rivers because the state doesn’t have the storage facilities, as demonstrated last summer during what experts called the worst drought in 300 years.

That’s where the agreement on Referendum A ends and the politics of storing water and building reservoirs begin.

Geographical problem

Referendum A attempts to solve a statewide geographical and meteorological problem: The majority of Colorado’s precipitation – 85 percent – falls west of the Continental Divide, while more than 80 percent of the population lives on the drier, east side of the divide. Until recently, that fact has polarized water politics in Colorado along a geographical line – the Continental Divide.

Huge quantities of water leave Colorado every spring; the state, meanwhile, doesn’t have enough reservoirs to capture and store some of that water.

The two sides of the argument are largely defined by which side of the Continental Divide their water flows. Opponents, with a few exceptions, are mostly Western Slopers, who say Referendum A is “an unbridled water grab” by the their counterparts on the Eastern Slope.

Specific language

Referendum A, opponents say, does not have specific language protecting the river basins of origin from diversions to the Eastern Slope. Critics include U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, who is opposing the measure because it does not compensate the Western Slope river basins on a gallon-for-gallon basis for water diverted to the thirsty Eastern Slope.

Proponents say the measure provides adequate protection and is one means of resolving the issue of storing the water that now is flowing out of state.

Opponents, however, including Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi, say the measure is unnecessary, calling it “a solution looking for a


Then there’s Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone, one of the few Western Slopers supporting the measure, who calls the sentiment of anti-growth forces “a reverse “Field of Dreams.'”

“Don’t build it and they won’t come,” says Stone.

1041 powers

Stone says Western Slope water will be adequately protected by the 1041 land-use review powers of the individual counties. Even Gov. Owens, who has a significant say in what water developments will occur if Referendum A passes, has been waxing rhetorical, saying in a fund-raising letter opponents of Referendum A have teamed with “radical environmentalists.”

The issue even has split normally cohesive parties. McInnis, for example, opposes the referendum, while fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell supports it.

Difficult issue

Like any controversial ballot measure, the difficult issue for voters will be separating the water from all the noise being generated. One source of objective information on legislation comes from the nonpartisan Legislative Legal Service, which has determined Referendum A would leave Colorado’s river basins without protection against Front Range water developments.

The organization, which acts as a legal research staff for the state Legislature, found that as long as proposed water projects exceed $5 million in cost and are “water infrastructure projects,” no funds need to be spent to protect basins of origin, recreational or environmental interests.

Promising agreement

Polarization of the issue overshadows new, promising agreement in water development on the Western Slope. One agreement already is the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding between Colorado Springs and Aurora and water users in the upper Eagle River, which requires joint development and sharing of water. It grew out of the decade-long legal battle over developing Homestake II along the headwaters of the Eagle River.

That fight, which made it to the Colorado Supreme Court, proved so expensive that a new, cooperative approach to water development was employed.

Even the Denver Water Board, which has enormous undeveloped water rights in Eagle County, is considering becoming a participant.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 970-949-0555, ext. 450 or

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