Water referendum raises concerns on the West Slope

As Colorado struggles to recover from the worst drought in a century, it wouldn't seem that a ballot measure to provide financing for water storage projects would come under fire. But Referendum A has and next week a bullet will be aimed by the Moffat County commissioners in the form of a letter of opposition.

Proponents believe Referendum A provides a necessary financing mechanism and a comprehensive process by which to improve Colorado's water infrastructure.

Opponents say additional financing options aren't needed and that the ballot language doesn't protect those impacted by new projects.

"The plan enables local water districts, municipalities and the private sector to access new funding alternatives to complete water supply projects," states a release from Save Colorado's Water. "For the first time the state Water Conservation Board will be able to prioritize and build new storage projects to store Colorado's compact water share, provide state support for projects which allow for increased conservation, protect and enhance agriculture, provide environmental benefits and provide fair mitigation to the affected basin of origin."

The arguments begin with that statement, particularly following a legislative legal services department opinion that the ballot language makes mitigating the impacts of development optional.

"That gave opponents a strong argument and reinforced their fears," said Reeves Brown, director of Club 20.

Current law requires developers to reimburse for any property values affected in the county where a water project is initiated. It does not take into account the effect on the environment or downstream users.

"The concern is that we need to recognize not only the economic impacts of trans-basin diversions, we have to recognize the environmental impacts not just to the county affected, but to those further downstream," Brown said. "This provides a dangerous precedent that, in the future, referendums can make mitigation optional."

Two debates have resulted in Club 20 committees recommending the board oppose the referendum. The board will make its decision Sept. 5.

According to Brown, there's widespread support for the referendum, including the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Colorado Livestock Association.

"I think the proponents try to couch the opposition as being opposed to water storage," he said. "Opposition to Referendum A does not mean opposition to any water storage projects. The question is, 'Referendum A actively providing additional water storage and does it do it in an effective manner?' The opposition is not against additional water storage at all."

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Water Task Force and Board of Directors recently decided to oppose Referendum A and took the unusual step of asking Gov. Bill Owens to call a special session of the Colorado Legislature to address the referendum's shortcomings before presenting it to Colorado voters.

"Upon close examination of the initiative, we are convinced that Referendum A does not present a viable solution to Colorado's water needs, and may even harm, rather than help, agricultural producers and rural communities throughout the state," said John Stencil, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmer's Union.

Supporters say there is a need to develop additional water storage, which will give all water users more flexibility during times of drought.

The referendum isn't a tax increase nor does it designate funds for water storage projects. It merely provides investors an additional financing mechanism for the projects.

It also gives developers until 2005 to begin those projects -- a short time frame, which supporters say pushes projects that have been identified to for several years to get started.

"They say it'll force something to happen by putting on a deadline," Brown said.

Another problem with the Referendum, Brown said, is the lack of any projects being identified or rejected.

"It is difficult to name specific projects as this legislation allows for both government and private entities to think out of the box for new infrastructure ideas," states Save Colorado's Water. "However, the list of projects developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Statewide Water Supply Initiative study) is available as one example."

Brown said opponents claim there's no need or value to the referendum "therefore, there's a concern that there's some unspoken purpose."

Municipalities can already bond for projects and do bond at a better rate than they would under the referendum.

"If municipalities aren't going to use it, then who is?" Brown said. "Most agricultural producers can afford to invest in water storage projects.

Referendum A also requires that any water projects funded have a minimum cost of $5 million. Unfortunately, for many agricultural water users, this minimum cost is a prohibitive amount and few farmers and ranchers would be able to fully pay back such projects, Stencil said.

Brown said the problem with building water storage isn't that there's no financing available, it's that there is no cash flow to repay the debt.

This referendum doesn't change that, he said.

"The stated purpose of Referendum A is to fund the development of small- to medium-sized water projects, an action we fully support," Stencil said. "Yet, in our discussions with members of various water conservation districts, obtaining financing to build such projects isn't the problem. Historically, proposed projects rarely make it to the construction phase because districts do not have the money to carry out feasibility studies in order to determine if the project will work."

The Colorado Water Board has more than 600 water storage projects listed that cannot be constructed because there are no funds available to repay bonds.

"It's not that they can't get a loan, it's that they can't pay for it," Brown said.

Opponents are concerned about why the referendum has such a high level of support on the Front Range if it's not anything to get water projects completed.

West Slope groups are concerned that the referendum could mean better water for the Front Range and while it won't divert water from the West Slope, it could mean a poorer quality of water.

Advocates say this isn't an East Slope versus West Slope issue.

"It's time that we come together as a state and realize that this is not an East Slope vs. West Slope issue, rather this is a Colorado issue -- an issue for Colorado's future," states the Save Colorado Water Web site.

Rep. Al White, R-Kremmling, and Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, oppose the question.

Overall, 54 senators and representatives approved the question. Forty-five didn't.

"Most people are opposed because they're concerned with what's not in the referendum," Brown said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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