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Water and politics

Ken Neubecker

Water and politics have always been an exciting mix in Colorado. This election year and the upcoming legislative session are no exception. The campaigns are full of fearsome rhetoric, how one side will “sell us out” and how they, like the white knights that they all are, will save us and “protect our water.” Water issues are brought up so much, with so many twists and half truths that it becomes background noise and is often tuned out by the voters.Still, water in Colorado is a serious issue and needs to be taken seriously. As Tip O’Neal said, “All politics is local,” and there is nothing more local than the water in our streams and homes. Colorado’s political foundation is laid on water.The political battles for water in Colorado have largely been an East Slope vs. West Slope thing, and still are. Some spectacular political fireworks preceded the great diversions built to transfer water from west to east. Planned diversions, diversion “upgrades” and upcoming legislation promise a full and colorful future for water politics, as well.We often hear that there is someone out there who is planning to “steal” our water. Never mind the fact that nearly all of the water in the state is already spoken for through legal rights and compacts. If someone wants to “steal” any water they are going to have a tough time finding any left to take, and a tougher time taking it. Mitigating and stopping potentially damaging, but otherwise legal projects and diversions, is the real political story. So is re-defining and legislating the changing ideas of waters beneficial use.The Feds are often used as a political whipping boy as well. That nasty Federal government is trying to “steal” our water! Never mind the fact that it was the Feds, through the Bureau of Reclamation, who built the major dams and diversions supplying water to the desert west. The Colorado-Big Thompson project in Grand County is by far the largest diverter of water from west to east. It’s a Federal project. Blue Mesa Reservoir, along with Lake Powell and the entire Colorado River Supply Project help Colorado meet its Compact obligations, allowing us to keep more water in Colorado. All these are Federal projects.The Feds come in for trouble politically when they try and keep a little water in the streams by requiring a “by-pass” flow around diversions on Federal land. Imagine, trying to maintain a little bit of life in a stream or the land along it. Those dirty Feds!As water gets tighter the political question will turn from building new projects to who has the “higher and better” use or need for existing supplies. Recreational In Channel Diversions (RICD’s) are at the heart of this new debate. RICD’s are the water right that allow adequate flows to be kept in a stream for recreational use. This is a new concept on the Colorado waterscape. While keeping water in a stream as a “diversion” sounds oxymoronic, that is the legal framework that has to be used in Colorado. It is also anathema to the Old Boy water networks. Traditionally water is only “beneficial” when its put in a pipe and pumped toward money. Many do not see recreational water as a valid beneficial use. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has opposed every single RICD and kayak park in the state. So have the great Water Buffalos on the Front Range.Peter Binney, the Director of Utilities for the City of Aurora, thinks that the Denver Metro area and the Front Range have a “Higher and Better” need for West Slope water. They have the population and the “real”, more valid economy of Colorado. Water may be important to the West Slope’s economy, but our economy is secondary to the “real” economy found along the Front Range. Tourism and recreation are nice, but expendable. After all, the only value trout have, according to Mr. Binney, is as bait for his preferred salt-water fishing.Growth along the Front Range seems to be something ordained by God, and anyone standing in the way or daring to disagree is a blasphemous infidel. If cities like Aurora think they have some divine mandate to grow to Kansas, maybe they should “grow” their own water as well. Then Mr. Binney can grow his own bait, too. The rivers, economy and population of the West Slope are not second-class to the Front Range.Water politics has always been hot in Colorado and it’s getting hotter. The Front Range has a lot more money and more votes than we do, so maybe we have already “lost.” The problem is that if the West Slope loses and becomes “expendable,” then the Front Range will lose, as well. East and West Slopes need each other despite what some folks might think. The real higher and better use for water is one that keeps all of Colorado healthy, economically and environmentally.Many folks think politics is boring, uninteresting or just not part of their “lifestyle.” Well, if you live and work on the West Slope, or come over to play from the Front Range, you better start paying attention to the politics of water. VTKen Neubecker writes about water and the environment for the Vail Trail. He can be reached for comment at eagleriver@eagleranch.com.


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