Wary of water referendum
“Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” It’s an old Western saying that hasn’t been heard much for at least the past 25 years.
But last summer’s drought changed all that. You need only to drive through a neighborhood on the Front Range, past the brown lawns, to know that the issue of water has gotten everyone’s attention.
You’ll be hearing a lot about Referendum A leading into the fall. It’s a measure, if passed, that will allow the issuing of up to $2 billion in bonds for local water districts, municipalities and private organizations to finance new water projects.
On the surface this initiative makes sense, but dive deeper past the good intentions and you find more unanswered questions than solutions.
It’s been said that water issues are 10 percent law and 90 percent politics, and politics is where this story begins.
Referendum A began life as Senate Bill 236. It’s important to note that no Western Slope senators (with one exception) or representatives – Republican or Democrat – would sign on to the bill.
The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jim Dyer, R-Littleton, needed one more sympathetic senator to sign on to it. Sen. Lew Entz, R-Hooper, was willing to do so only if he could include provisions from another water bill of his that was defeated.
Entz sponsored another bill, S126, which was passed into law and allows unlimited bonding in $500 million increments. So in addition to the bonding authority that already exists, S126 now adds additional levels of funding options.
Now, back to Senate Bill 236. There has been a 127-year historic tradition that water bills are assigned to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Not this time. That tradition ended when the bill was cleverly steered into pro-Front Range committee to assure that it wouldn’t be killed.
At this point it should come as no surprise to you that S236 passed the House with only one single Western Slope representative voting in favor of it (Sen. Entz was the exception, whose district includes a few partial Western Slope counties). The governor signed it into law and now the referendum is teed up for a statewide vote in November.
Worried about protecting Eagle County’s watersheds from such a vague and open-ended referendum that could affect Western Slope interests, I spent a week calling around the state to get the straight story from the people involved.
I talked with the key groups that represent our interests: the Colorado River District, Colorado Water and Conservation Board, the Water Quality and Quantity Board and Club 20. I also spoke at length with our state legislators Sen. Jack Taylor and Rep. Carl Miller.
Over a dozen critical flaws were exposed, of which I will share some of the biggest:
n These bonds may very well be rated with junk bond status. It’s important to know that financing for water projects is not a current problem. As stated earlier, water providers already have the ability to issue bonds themselves, and no project is being delayed because of lack of funding.
n There is no legislative or public oversight. The referendum calls for the governor to start a water project by 2005, but no project under this $2 billion plan ever comes back for legislative approval. These bonds are meant to be paid by user fee increases, which means that there will be no voter approval for increases that will inevitably come.
n It’s writing a blank check to the government. The referendum does not specify any projects or how they would be picked. It takes time to responsibly evaluate the value of a water project. All the experts I spoke with said that the only projects that could be fast-tracked for a 2005 decision date would be highly speculative.
n There is zero protection for trans-basin diversion (pumping the water back to the Front Range), mitigation or compensation.
All Western Slope elected officials are given a clear mandate on water when we sign up for our jobs – don’t allow water from the Western Slope be taken by the Front Range without mitigation or compensation.
Sadly, the only benefit I heard given by most of the appointed or elected representatives I spoke with is that it gives the governor a good sound bite: “Save Colorado Water.” That is also the name of a campaign fund that’s raising $2 million to get this referendum passed.
As a commissioner for Eagle County, my first duty is to protect the sufficiency of water and quality of our environment for all our residents. As a citizen of Colorado, I know that both Eastern and Western Slope interests need to work closely together to responsibly plan for the future.
I think the last thing you want to hear from an elected official are the words “trust me.” I agree.
Without any provision for oversight or accountability Referendum A is a drinking binge that could leave generations to come with a very bad hangover.
Arn M. Menconi is an Eagle County commissioner. He can be reached at Menconi@eagle-county.com or 328-8615.