The future of water

Gov. Owens pushes storage measure as right move for state

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Colorado Gov. Bill Owens made the rounds Thursday in Craig in support of a controversial November ballot item aimed at creating a bonding authority for the state to increase its water storage.

Referendum A would increase the Colorado debt by $2 billion with a repayment cost of $4 billion. If passed, the governor will have to choose at least one water project with estimated costs of $100 million or more by the year 2005 from a list of at least two projects. The referendum would authorize the Water Conservation Board to issue revenue bonds for the construction of private or public water infrastructure projects costing $5 million or more.

"I believe we need to finance relatively small water projects across Colorado," Owens said. "We really can't bond right now or we wouldn't be making such an effort."

Owens denied the bill was an attempt to steal water from the Western Slope to benefit the more populated Front Range. He blamed the state's east-versus-west mentality on mistrust and decades of "bad blood."

"We're not going to be doing anything here to hurt anybody," he said. "Before, the east took water without any compensation but I think there's change here."

But the bill that comes on the heels of the state's worst recorded drought in history isn't readily accepted by all in Moffat County. County Commissioner Darryl Steele plans to ask the board at the Aug. 28 meeting to oppose the water storage measure on several grounds.

"One thing I want to get locked in is if the Eastern Slope takes water from the Western Slope, I want to make them buy it every year," Steele said. "I don't just want them to come over and take our water and give us one payment. Right now, there's nothing like that in place."

According to the opposition, Referendum A lacks protection for the basin of origin. That argument states that if water were collected in Craig for example, it could be transferred to another reservoir or water storage facility eliminating any financial gain for local residents.

Other arguments against the measure state that it will not protect agriculture or save open space and the bill creates a duplication of government by giving the governor a "blank check" because the $2 billion project doesn't require legislative approval if the bill passes the statewide vote.

"The referendum does not specify any projects or how they would be picked," said Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi in a widely distributed opposition letter. "All the experts I spoke with said that the only projects that could be fast tracked for a 2005 decision date would be highly speculative."

To that, Owens said the 2005 timeline could be pushed back through the legislative process and the state doesn't have any big projects in place but wants to identify those in the next 50 years.

And, he said, if the statute passed, payment on water transfers from local water storage projects would be determined by local governments at the time a project was started.

"It's whatever they agree to," Owens said. "If local governments don't like (the payments) they don't get to build it."

Currently, an internal state poll marks a 60 percent approval for Referendum A, Owens said.

According to a Web site in support of Referendum A, some of the plan's backers include the Colorado Livestock Association, the Colorado Water Partnership, U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Craig Mayor Dave DeRose.

Some in the No on Referendum A campaign include Sen. Jack Taylor, Club 20-Natural Resources Committee, Colorado River Conservation District, Rep. Mark Udall, and the League of Women Voters of Colorado.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@crigdailypress.com.

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