Water grab or drought cure-all?
True, no man is an island, but Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone must be feeling a little like at least a sandbar these days.”I think I’m in limited but good company,” Stone said Wednesday, July 16, during a break in a meeting of the Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD) in Glenwood Springs, where the board voted 10-2 to oppose Referendum A.Placed on the November ballot by the State Legislature, the controversial proposal which would allow the separate Colorado Water Conservation Board to issue $2 billion in state revenue bonds for undetermined water storage projects is being lauded as a drought cure-all by some and a blatant Front Range water grab by others.Count Stone in the former camp a lonely place for an elected official on the Western Slope. Stone, who sits on the CRWCD board but is also co-chair of the Referendum A election committee, cast one of the two dissenting votes in Glenwood; former Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson cast the other.Late last month, Stone and Dickinson were two of five naysayers when the Natural Resources Committee of Club 20, an influential group of Western Slope businessmen and politicians, voted 25-5 to not back the referendum, which draws the lion’s share of its support from Front Range legislators and Gov. Bill Owens.Two of the other no votes came from Greg Walcher, head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and a past president of Club 20, and Tom Harned, owner of Black Bear Real Estate in Eagle. Walcher did not return a call seeking comment by press time, and Harned was unavailable.The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments has also taken a negative stance on the referendum, presenting a nearly united Western Slope front in what promises to be a heated battle over the state’s most bitterly contested resource. Only one Western Slope legislator voted for the proposal when it originated as Senate Bill 236, was signed into law by Owens, and is now subject to a statewide vote as Referendum A.Asked how so many Western Slope and rural state legislators can be so wrong, Commissioner Stone says: “I don’t think they have legitimate concerns, and I think it’s time that the Western Slope legislators quit just being obstructionist and they begin being constructive in finding ways to solve our obvious water needs.”Stone portrays Referendum A as a Colorado versus Nevada and California issue as opposed to a Front Range versus Western Slope battle. He claims the Western Slope needs to “use it or lose it” to water-hungry downstream states along the Colorado River and scoffs at those who claim Front Range interests pushed the measure through to fund the so-called “Big Straw” diversion project, which would pump Western Slope water over the Continental Divide to the parched Front Range.Stone argues Referendum A provides for more mitigation for the basin of origin than currently exists and leaves all environmental protections in place while simultaneously creating a much-needed new funding mechanism. Critics, he says, are stuck in an outmoded school of thought.”All I ever hear them say is “no, no, no,” Stone says, “and I think they could show true leadership in proposing new methodologies in solving our Western Slope water crisis.”One of Eagle County’s representatives in the State Legislature, Carl Miller (D-Leadville), calls it “a hollow law” with non-binding verbiage about mitigation in the legislative declaration but nothing concrete in the ballot question that would protect Western Slope interests.”What’s in it for the Western Slope?” asks Miller. “In my opinion, nothing except the loss of a very precious resource.”Miller, who tried unsuccessfully to introduce more binding amendments addressing Western Slope mitigation, wonders why, if Referendum A isn’t an Eastern Slope versus Western Slope issue, its sponsors broke with a longstanding tradition of hearing a proposed piece of water legislation in the House Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee. Instead they super-motioned it to the House Finance Committee made up of 11 Front Range legislators, Miller says.”If it wasn’t West Slope (versus) East Slope, then why did they circumvent the ag committee?” asks Miller. “Why Tom Stone’s pushing this I have no idea.”The Grand Junction Sentinel, in a July 2 editorial, suggested Stone’s motivations are purely political. Citing his reported “congressional aspirations in a district now represented by Boulder Democrat Mark Udall,” the Sentinel took him to task for ignoring the interests of his constituents.Stone strongly denies the Sentinel’s accusations, though he has in the past been highly critical of Udall, particularly on his water policy, which Stone says favors the Front Range.”I think people are trying to figure out that I must have an ulterior motive, and I don’t,” Stone says of his support for Referendum A. “It’s just the right thing to do. I don’t have any office that I’m running for and I’m not looking for any appointments. I’m satisfied with the job I have as Eagle County Commissioner.”In fact, I probably have initially a whole lot more to lose than gain among other local officials.”As far as ignoring the will of Eagle County residents, Stone says the local political climate is much more conducive to building reservoirs after several years of severe drought. And, he points out, Referendum A does nothing to impact Eagle County’s 1041 powers regulations that were used to successfully stop Aurora and Colorado Springs’ Homestake II reservoir here in the early 1990s.But Glenn Porzak, a Boulder water attorney who represents local interests in the Eagle River Assembly a group formed specifically to avoid future legal tangles like Homestake II says Referendum A simply isn’t needed as a funding mechanism.”These are basically going to have junk bond status, and certainly the entities that I represent, and the entities such as Aurora, Denver and Colorado Springs, all have double-A rating,” Porzak says. “And that leads to the question of who is going to use these funds; it’s going to be entities that can’t raise their own funds.”Stone argues that the beauty of Referendum A is that it brings the private sector into the mix.”People who say that (the funds aren’t necessary) are ignoring the ability in Referendum A for the private sector to access these state revenue bonds in the true spirit of the free enterprise system, this gives the ability for private enterprise to propose these projects,” Stone says. One local example, he adds, might be Vail Resorts.”People (locally) understand that water truly is our lifeblood,” he says, “and that not only is it important for good, clean, safe drinking water, but that it’s imperative for the protection of the environment and for a thriving economy.”Porzak is currently deep into Eagle River Assembly negotiations that would create ways to achieve 20,000 acre feet of diversion out of the Eagle River to Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs (which all own extensive rights in the basin) as outlined in the assembly’s memorandum of understanding (MOU). One of the projects being weighed is a reservoir near Wolcott. Referendum A would make that process more difficult, Porzak says, because it doesn’t specify what projects would be funded.”Reason tells you that more money is going to be allocated to the East Slope, and if that’s the case, it makes our jobs on the West Slope all the harder to try to engage in the structure of an agreement wherein if water is taken from the Eagle River Basin that it’s within the caps of the MOU and it’s projects that are acceptable to the Western Slope,” Porzak says.