West Slope interests line up against water plan | AspenTimes.com

West Slope interests line up against water plan

A statewide ballot proposal to provide financing for water diversion and storage projects is drawing widespread opposition from the West Slope, with the exception of two elected officials with ties to the Roaring Fork Valley.

Referendum A, as the proposal is known, would make $2 billion in financing available for new and improved dams and reservoirs. The state Water Conservation Board would prepare a list of possible projects, and the governor would select one per year to get funded, starting in 2005.

The Legislature referred the measure to the ballot last session in response to Colorado’s record drought. It has strong support from Gov. Bill Owens.

But Referendum A has drawn bipartisan opposition from West Slope elected officials on all levels of politics. The common thread is fear that Referendum A would be a way for powerful Front Range interests to divert more water from the mountains without compensating the valleys from where it is taken, according to Peter Roessmann, education specialist for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

The organization looks after the interests of several West Slope counties on water issues. It opposes Referendum A.

“We’re going to suffer the loss of that water, permanently, and not get anything in return,” Roessmann said.

Referendum A “seems to fly in the face” of the cooperation that’s evolved between all parts of the state in the last couple of decades, he said.

Strange bedfellows

Opposition to the ballot question has made strange political bedfellows. For example, the issue has teamed U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a liberal Democrat from Boulder whose district includes Eagle and Pitkin counties, and U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a conservative Republican whose district includes Garfield County.

McInnis came out early against Referendum A. He released a statement in July that made it clear he was more concerned about his rural constituents than ruffling feathers within his own party. Owens is also a Republican.

McInnis’ statement said rural counties weren’t given “ironclad” protections they need for compensation for water taken from their basins. He called the proposal “fundamentally flawed.”

Significant amounts of water are already diverted from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River and the upper Fryingpan River. The water goes to places like Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Aurora.

In the case of the Fryingpan diversions, Ruedi Reservoir was constructed in part to provide storage that “compensates” the West Slope for transmountain water diversions. In other words, the storage capacity of the reservoir allows the West Slope water when it is needed.

The Roaring Fork Valley’s state Rep. Gregg Rippy, a Glenwood Springs Republican, has said he will oppose Referendum A even though he cast a deciding vote in a committee which kept the measure alive last session.

Local, regional views

The Pitkin County commissioners passed a resolution opposing Referendum A last week. Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi belongs to the executive committee of a statewide organization opposing the measure.

Opposition has come from environmental groups, some farming and ranching organizations and even from conservative West Slope voices like the Grand Junction Sentinel.

But two elected officials who have supported it are Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone and state Sen. Lewis Entz, a Republican from the San Luis Valley whose vast district stretches over to Pitkin County.

Entz couldn’t be reached for comment on his support of the measure.

Stone was clearly unfazed by being one of the few West Slope elected officials to support Referendum A, nor did it concern him that the issue has put him at odds with other Republicans on the West Slope. Stone noted that U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican, supports Referendum A.

He labeled West Slope elected officials who oppose Referendum A “obstructionists.” When asked if that label would apply to McInnis, Stone replied, “I would consider him one of the people who don’t have a clear vision for the future.”

`Meaningless rhetoric’

He said he supports Referendum A “for many reasons.”

“Last year’s drought should have proved to us all that we should have been developing more water storage,” he said. “We haven’t been doing that.”

The proposal allows private industry to become a partner with the public sector in financing water storage and diversion projects – something that isn’t allowed now, Stone noted. The proposal doesn’t provide public funding of the water projects. The bonds would have to be repaid through revenues raised by the projects.

Stone is a member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board of directors. He was on the losing end of a 10-2 vote by the river district to oppose Referendum A.

He discredited the widespread criticism that Referendum A doesn’t provide any compensation for the basins where the water is taken. That threat already exists without Referendum A, he said.

“Most of the opposition to Referendum A is meaningless rhetoric,” Stone told The Aspen Times Friday while attending a meeting of Club 20, a powerful lobbying organization that represents western Colorado counties.

The Club 20 executive board later unanimously voted to oppose Referendum A.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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