Water pact may dilute Referendum A
SUMMIT COUNTY – Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, said the agreement forged late last week between California and other Colorado River states is a victory for Colorado – and the last nail in the coffin for state Referendum A.
Referendum A, on the Nov. 4 ballot, asks voters to let the state borrow $2 billion to build water facilities to buffer against future drought years. The beneficiaries of the water projects would have to repay bonds.
“Referendum A is nothing but a trick-or-treater dressed up to scare Coloradans into thinking it is needed to protect our water,” Udall said. “We shouldn’t drop anything into its sack when it comes knocking on our door.”
The amendment, which will cost $4 billion by the time the bonds are paid off, requires the governor to name five potential water projects and have two of them under way by 2005.
One of the arguments being used by proponents of the referendum is that Colorado needs the reservoirs to capture water Colorado doesn’t use but to which it is entitled. If it can capture that water, they say, then California will no longer be able to “steal” it as it flows downstream.
Referendum opponents say that was never the case, and that the agreement Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton signed Thursday makes it even more irrelevant.
“The notion that we’re losing our water to California is simply not realistic,” said Frank Quimby, public information officer with the U.S. Department of the Interior. “The compact, which this upholds, is clearly sacred. It provides us with the protection we’ve always relied on. We can develop our entitlement when we choose to; there is no need to rush to the courthouse to file on water because California is thirsty.”
Under the Colorado River Water Compact (CRWC) of 1922, which allocates Colorado River water to the lower states, California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River. An acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons of water, or the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot.
But over the years, California has been taking excess water from the river to meet its agricultural and urban water needs, Quimby said.
“Most of the water California has overused has been because of the underuse of Arizona and Nevada. But Nevada is nearing its full use, Arizona is at its full use – there is no more slop, no more surplus water for California to just continue to overuse.”
Of the 4.4 million acre-feet to which California is entitled, the vast majority – about 3.85 million acre-feet – is used for agriculture. Of that, the Imperial Irrigation District uses about 3.2 million acre-feet per year.
The new agreement that Norton signed Thursday outlines how California will wean itself off the extra water it takes from the river, how it will allocate water to the growing metropolis of San Diego and how it will begin water conservation measures. Additionally, environmental mitigation procedures were put into place to protect threatened and endangered species downstream, Quimby said.
It’s a victory for Colorado because the agreement affirms the CRWC rules.
“The question was the amount of control California had over its allocation of Colorado River water,” said Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom. “We were concerned they were going to change the rules. This says the rules work, and we get assurance from California that they’ll enact greater conservation efforts.”
Another concern water administrators in upstream states had was that California would rely on the excess water for so long, politicians there would eventually claim rights to it.
“This agreement shows that Referendum A is unnecessary,” Udall said. “Many people have said that the referendum is needed to prevent downstream states like California from taking our water. Not only was that argument fallacious before, but it is even emptier now. There are a number of interstate agreements that legally establish Colorado’s right to water before it flows out of our borders. Even though it may not be used in Colorado, we still have a legal right to it. This agreement shows these compacts have real bite and provide real protection.”
Chris Treese, spokesman for Colorado River Water Conservation District, agrees.
“Colorado can celebrate the fact that our negotiators were so far-sighted in 1922 as to write the compact,” he said. “Our water entitlement is reserved for us to develop when we want to, if we want to. We don’t have to rush to development because someone else is.”
Udall acknowledged that Colorado needs to address its water supply needs, but said Referendum A isn’t the way to go about it.
Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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