Water storage measure hotly contested statewide

An issue that is touted as one solution to tame a record drought has at minimum pitted farmers against city residents and Colorado's Front Range against the more rural Western Slope.

On Nov. 4, voters will decide the outcome of Colorado's Referendum A, an issue that has ignited divisive water wars over how to best use and conserve the state's limited resource.

The ballot item would increase Colorado debt by $2 billion with a repayment cost of $4 billion. If passed, Gov. Bill Owens 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.

During a late August visit to Craig, Owens, the measure's primary champion, said the measure was needed to allow bonding flexibility to increase the state's water storage.

"We can't really bond right now or we wouldn't be making such an effort," he said.

Owens denied the bill was an attempt to steal water from the Western Slope to benefit the water-thirsty Front Range.

"Before, the east took water without any compensation but I think there's a change here," he added.

But the bill that comes on the heels of the state's worst drought in recorded history has garnered strong support both for and against the water storage measure.

Club 20, a group that represents 20 Colorado counties mostly within the Western Slope region, opposed the measure at a heated debate with state proponents at an early September meeting.

According to the opposition, the referendum 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 the 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 its approved by voters.

But Owens said a 2005 timeline could be pushed back through the legislative process and the state hasn't yet tagged any large water storage projects.

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 is started.

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

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

Some backers include the Colorado Livestock Association, the Colorado Water Partnership, U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Craig Mayor Dave DeRose.

Overall, 54 senators and representatives approve of the question. Forty-five are against it.

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

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