Referendum A would fund water projects
Officials on Western Slope leery of measure
Referendum A: Would enable water districts, municipalities and the private sector to access new funding alternatives to complete water projects. The State Water Conservation Board would prioritize the projects, which would be subject to final approval of the governor.
The projects, which would have to cost more than $5 million apiece, would be financed through public-private partnerships that would sell bonds. User fees would pay off the bonds. At least one project would have to be completed by 2005.
Supporters: Save Colorado's Water, which has raised $537,490 and spent $173,732 as of Sept. 29. Others include GOP Gov. Bill Owens, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., GOP Reps. Tom Tancredo, Bob Beauprez and Marilyn Musgrave, all of Colorado; dozens of state lawmakers; numerous Front Range county and city governments; several agriculture and ranching organizations and economic development groups.
Opponents: Vote No on A raised $62,795 and did not report any expenditures as of Sept. 29. Others include Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., and Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo.; Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar; dozens of state lawmakers; numerous western Colorado water districts, county and city government officials; Club 20; League of Women Voters of Colorado; Western Colorado Congress and environmental groups.
When state legislation was presented in January to provide relief during dry years, Sen. Jack Taylor studied it carefully.
The Steamboat Springs Republican first looked at Referendum A, a bill to create a $2 billion loan program to finance water projects, hoping to find measures that would each project’s basin of origin. He couldn’t find any, and the more he looked at the proposed bill, the more he felt it was a “blank check.”
“We don’t know where these big projects are going to go, how much they’re going to cost, or who they’re going to affect,” Taylor said.
Voters will decide Nov. 4 on Referendum A, which would let the Colorado Water Conservation Board issue $2 billion in bonds for projects with a total of $4 billion in state debt.
Proponents say the bill could make much-needed water projects possible and is timely in the wake of last year’s drought.
Opponents say the bill could result in unnecessary and even harmful water projects while increasing statewide debt.
Voters will have the final say, but in the meantime, government officials, nonprofit groups and individuals are voicing their opinions.
Taylor is not alone in opposing the bill.
“(The opposition is) bipartisan,” he said. “It’s even East Slope (residents) and West Slope.”
Club 20, a nonprofit organization that represents counties in western Colorado, is one of dozens of groups to issue formal resolutions opposing the bill.
The group’s president, Reeves Brown, said the only surprise came when the resolution to oppose Referendum A was unanimously approved.
The group has several reasons for its opposition, he said.
First, there’s the issue that the bill does not detail a single project that could be funded through the bonding program.
A bonding bill several years ago for transportation specifically described projects the program would fund, Brown said. But with this year’s Referendum A, the lack of specificity has opponents calling the bill a “blank check.”
As Taylor said, the second problem relates to the idea that transferring water from one basin to another can harm the original basin if mitigation steps are not taken. Within this bill, Brown said, the legal language does not require mitigation, something that could set an unwanted precedent.
Third is the question of who the bill would help. There are already programs in place, such as the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, that help finance water projects through bonds.
Another method of financing projects is not necessary, Brown said. Rather, money to pay for the projects is needed.
Finally, the group opposes the bill because it bypasses the legislature and gives spending authority to an executive-branch group.
“It’s a huge deviation from the way we’ve done business up to this point,” Brown said.
“Do you want to concentrate that much spending authority in the executive branch when we don’t know who in the future is going to be there to spend it?”
Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger agreed with Club 20’s opposition to the bill. In fact, he represented Routt County when the group made its unanimous vote.
Routt County commissioners recently signed a resolution expressing their formal opposition to the bill. The Steamboat Springs City Council did the same earlier this month.
Monger said that he opposed the bill for Club 20’s key reasons, as well as for several others.
He worries that agricultural water users wouldn’t be able to benefit from the project. The bill requires that the project have a minimum cost of $5 million. That effectively prices out any agricultural user, Monger said, because they don’t make enough of a profit to pay off debt on such large projects.
Another concern would be that once the money is in place, the state could end up building projects that don’t make the most sense but that could be built with this new financing mechanism, Monger said.
And, he said, the bill already has polarized the state, something that should be avoided in water issues, according to the Colorado 64 Water Principles, on which counties across the state recently agreed.
Those on the Western Slope are especially opposed to the bill, Monger said.
“I find it quite disconcerting that virtually all of the elected representatives on the Western Slope are coming out against this thing,” he said. “And a large, large number in the Eastern Slope and the southeast corner of the state feel that there’s nothing for them, either.”
One West Sloper who supports the bill is Tom Stone, an Eagle County commissioner.
“There doesn’t seem to be much debate about the need for Colorado to store more water,” Stone said. “Referendum A is a partial solution to that overriding problem.”
He said the reasons offered for opposing the bill are mostly unfounded.
All projects, he said, would still have to pass through the same oversight process used to evaluate projects now. That ensures that any new projects would be carefully considered before they are approved.
“Opponents of this have turned it into an East Slope versus West Slope Colorado issue because they’re saying that … this is nothing but a veiled attempt to have the Front Range come and take water from the West Slope,” Stone said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
As for the mitigation issue, Stone said he believes language in the bill already supports mitigation and that once the bill passes, another bill will be passed to make those requirements clear.
While some elected officials are voicing opposition to the project, Stone said he thinks the typical Colorado resident will end up supporting the bill.
“When I go out and talk with the average person, the answer’s very simply, ‘Of course we need more storage,'” he said.
Dan Birch, a Steamboat Springs resident who is project development manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, also opposes the bill. The conservation district voted to oppose Referendum A in June.
Birch echoed feelings that the bill should identify specific projects and that it would create a redundant program.
He also said that many on the Western Slope are concerned that projects funded through these bonds would most likely transport water from the West Slope to the Front Range and East Slope.
“We’re not saying, hell no, not one more drop of West Slope water,” he said. “What we’re saying is how much water does the East Slope really need?”
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