McInnis calls for special session to resolve water conflict |

McInnis calls for special session to resolve water conflict

The debate over water (Referendum A on the Nov. 4 ballot) is crying out for a Western Slope-

Eastern Slope compromise that benefits all the regions of Colorado.

And strange as it may sound to those who have followed this debate, I don’t believe that a balanced and equitable agreement is as distant as the headlines might suggest – if the opposing sides are willing to work toward a common ground that provides benefits to all regions. After all, we are one state.

Water lost to West

Consider this: An overwhelming majority of the individuals involved in this debate agree that substantial new water storage is critically important to our state’s future.

Colorado is legally entitled to quantities of water that it currently lacks the capacity to store, water that would provide an enormous cushion the next time – and there will be a next time – that drought rears its ugly head.

Unless and until we ramp up our water storage capacity, the state’s water entitlement will continue to run through our collective fingers, to the benefit of golf courses and lawns in places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Colorado remains susceptible to the pernicious effects of drought. 

For everyone, except the most extreme voices, the status quo is totally unacceptable. New water storage is imperative.

Where there is disagreement among water storage proponents, of course, is on the question of whether or not Referendum A is an equitable means of Colorado realizing its full water entitlement. In my opinion, it is not. 

Region vs. region

As currently structured, the referendum provides functionally no guarantee that the interests of rural Colorado will be fairly balanced with those of our urban population centers. 

In so doing, it pits region against region, and community against community. 

The ballot item is a blank check accompanied only by nonbinding verbal promises that rural Colorado won’t be left high and dry.

I believe very strongly that these areas of disagreement pale in the presence of our common interest in more fully utilizing the water resources that are legally ours.

When you strip away all of the rhetoric and boil this debate down to its base elements, I believe there are two fair-minded modifications to Colorado water law that, if enacted prior to November’s balloting, would unify support for Referendum A on a statewide basis, clearing the way for a evenhanded agreement that is equitable to all corners of the state.

New legislation needed

First, the Colorado General Assembly should enact legislation applicable to projects implemented under Referendum A requiring one-to-one compensatory storage for projects that divert water from one basin to another. 

In laymen’s terms, this simply means that when water is diverted from one Colorado basin to another (for example, from the Western Slope to the Front Range), the basin of origin (in this example, the Western Slope) must be compensated with one acre-foot of new storage for every acre-foot of water diverted from that basin of origin.

The idea of compensatory storage is far from new. The Colorado Big Thompson Project, for example, which facilitates the diversion of 260,000 acre-feet of western Colorado water to northern Colorado, required compensatory storage for the Western Slope in the form of the Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County, near the village of Heeney.

Similarly, the Fryingpan-Arkansas project, long delayed in the Congress by regional disputes not unlike those surrounding Referendum A, was ultimately enacted when Western Colorado was guaranteed compensatory storage in the form of Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt in Eagle County in exchange for the diversion of water from the Western Slope’s Fryingpan River to communities and farmers in southeastern Colorado.

Don’t dry up agriculture

Second, and equally important, the General Assembly must memorialize safeguards clarifying that none of the bonded monies under Referendum A will be used by public or private entities to gobble up agricultural water rights or to underwrite the legal expenses of thirsty cities and developers. 

As written, there is nothing in Referendum A that prevents public or private entities from receiving funds carrying a state imprimatur to buy up the very water rights that keep many agricultural communities alive.

I think most would agree that this water storage referendum should be about “bricks and mortar,” about expanding physical storage capacity and promoting conservation through greater storage efficiency, not about underwriting legal fees and acquisition of agricultural water rights.

Accordingly, the legislature should construct a firewall that prevents the expenditure of bonded monies for these non-storage purposes.

In my opinion, these are the answers to the divisive questions that lie in the shadows of Referendum A’s otherwise vague language. Instead of avoiding these difficult but imminently resolvable issues, I believe the Colorado General Assembly can tackle them head on.

If ever there was an issue worthy of a special session of the Colorado General Assembly, this emphatically is it. 

With these changes to the legal framework within which Referendum A would operate, the Colorado General Assembly could transform this hotly divisive question into a slam-dunk certainty in all corners of the state. Gov. Bill Owens has shown tremendous leadership on water matters, and I encourage him to convene a special session prior to the November balloting.

Colorado deserves a comprehensive water policy that bridges regional divides. Now is our chance to build that bridge.

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, represents the 3rd

District, which used to include Summit County. Summit is now in Rep. Mark Udall’s 2nd


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