Water foes still divided in Colorado despite agreement
GRAND JUNCTION – Rep. Josh Penry believes Colorado’s first-ever charter on how to negotiate for precious water will encourage planners to dust off old projects and put more water in the pipeline for Colorado’s thirsty residents. Environmental attorney Melinda Kassen said the document will do little if anything to end Colorado’s water wars.The only thing that’s certain after water providers and users signed their historic document over the past week is that it will take years for Colorado to increase the amount of water it sets aside for its growing population.”The charter itself doesn’t require anybody to do anything. If it’s going to end Colorado water wars, it will end Colorado water wars because the people who own water and those who need water finally decided it’s in their best interest to do so,” Kassen said.Russ George is a Harvard-trained lawyer who heads the Interbasin Compact Committee that drew up and will administer the charter. He said the document provides a road map for water planners and considers the needs of users across the state – from fishing and recreation in the mountains to booming cities along the Front Range to farmers on the plains.Using the charter, the committee will review and approve projects negotiated by water roundtables in each of the state’s seven river basins and two sub-basins.George, who heads the state’s natural resources department, said Colorado now has a document that for the first time will require water solutions benefit the area of origin and the area of use, two groups that have been at each others’ throats for decades.The charter also requires that every basin affected by a proposal agree before the compact can be approved.The compacts are modeled on the 1922 interstate compact that regulates Colorado River usage across the West, including how much water each participant is allowed to use each year. The new charter must be ratified by the Legislature before projects can proceed.The process was designed to help manage the state’s chronic water shortages after voters rejected a plan in 2003 that would have authorized $2 billion in bonds for water storage.Penry, a Grand Junction Republican, said he is trying to get the Legislature to approve funding for feasibility studies for water projects that cost upward of $100,000. He considers that an incentive for water owners to reconsider projects once considered too expensive. He also said that will persuade water users and providers to use the roundtables instead of negotiating projects on their own.Penry said money is available from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and other sources, but those are loans that must be repaid.Kassen, meanwhile, said the drafters of the charter dodged major issues that have divided water foes for decades, including a process that would make the compacts binding and enforceable. She said the charter instead contains “guiding principles” that can be ignored.John Carver, a natural resources law professor at the University of Denver, said the Colorado River Compact is binding, while the interbasin compacts are not binding. He said that was a deliberate decision by the state Legislature to get talks moving again on major water storage projects after voters rejected the bonding plan.He said any decision by the Interbasin Compact Committee will probably be challenged in court to determine whether the charter complies with the legislation that set it up.”That is a question only the Supreme Court of Colorado can answer,” he said.Grand Junction city councilman Jim Spehar said the Western Slope has no choice when it comes to participation on the roundtables. He said the current system allows the heavily populated Front Range to take water from the Western Slope without compensating for impact that has on the economy of western Colorado.To Spehar, the roundtables will at least force all participants in the water wars to sit down and negotiate.”We don’t have the votes and we have the resources. The writing is on the wall,” he said.
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