Western Slope water tax in the works | VailDaily.com

Western Slope water tax in the works

Cliff Thompson

The Colorado Water Conservation District – which covers the Colorado River watershed, including Eagle and all or parts of 15 other Western Slope counties – is proposing a property tax increase to deal with dwindling water supplies.

The Conservation District is proposing an increase of $2.30 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. It will raise and estimated $2.5 million annually for 20 years.

The reason for the increase? – scarcity of water this year, and for the foreseeable future. The worst drought in Colorado in 125 years has lowered streams and reservoirs to critical levels.

If approved by voters in November, the tax increase would be used to purchase additional water for storage in reservoirs, as sell as for funding additional improvements in water delivery systems to reduce evaporation and loss through seepage.

“We think we can leverage federal funding through water quality improvements,” says Conservation District spokesman Chris Treese.

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Additional water is the chief political issue driving the tax increase, highlighting a battle over who controls water. It also puts the issue of trans-basin diversions in the spotlight.

For instance, water from Green Mountain in Summit County is pumped over the Continental Divide to the Front Range.

Western Slope water users storing water under contract in Summit County’s Green Mountain Reservoir lost some of their stored water when the federal Bureau of Reclamation had to keep the reservoir partially filled to avoid landslides near Heeney.

That leaves the Western Slope without water, while water users on the Front Range and in Northern Colorado are unaffected.

“We need to secure local control over federally available water,

Treese says.

The Conservation District has also rattled a litigatory saber in a sternly worded press release: “The River District will aggressively advocate that the West Slope not suffer any economic damage or hardship,” the release said. “The Bureau of Reclamation is obligated to provide 100,000 acre-feet of compensatory water to the West Slope in order to continue to divert the headwaters of the Colorado River out of basin.”

Last month, Exxon-Mobil, which owns water in the Reudi Reservoir in southern Eagle County, announced it would take the unprecedented step of voluntarily releasing 5,500 acre-feet of water to help the parched Western Slope and maintain river flow.

The Conservation District intends to purchase 6,000 acre-feet in Reudi Reservoir, as well as an additional 4,000 acre-feet in Gunnison County’s Blue Mesa Reservoir. That water will be released to benefit both upstream and downstream users, Treese says.

“We’ll be making water available in substitution for water not available in Green Mountain,” he says.

In Eagle County, Treese adds, two silty streams that muck up the Eagle River – the Alkali and Milk creeks near Wolcott – will be examined as candidates for water quality improvement projects. Salt from the prehistoric Eagle Valley evaporite – an evaporated sea – creates water quality problems for downstream water users.

Regardless of how much snow falls next winter, many reservoirs may not fill next spring, Treese says. Snowmelt provides 70 percent of the water used in the state.

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