Denver resolution understandably offensive to West Slope

By Charlie Brown

Editor’s note: The following piece was written for The Daily Sentinel by Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown. It is based on comments he delivered during a Dec. 17 council discussion concerning a proclamation focused on fears that future oil shale development on the Western Slope could use up Denver’s water supply.

Eight years ago, this council was engaged in a heated debate concerning the continuation of our city’s policy to ban pit bulls in Denver.

In the middle of our discussion, a state representative from Aurora intervened, attacking Denver’s breed-specific ban. She generated a great deal of publicity, challenging our home-rule authority and our right to establish our own animal-control policies

Needless to say, every member of the Denver City Council was outraged by her intrusion into our city policies.

Sound familiar?

If this proclamation is approved tonight, it may be construed, according to Club 20 Executive Director Bonnie Petersen, “as an inflammatory statement regarding the disposition of Colorado River water.”

My concern is that this document, concerning a very complex issue, will create yet another rift between Denver and the Western Slope. As a former Colorado state representative, I saw and experienced that division in the early 1980s.

Frankly, if I represented West Slope residents, I would find this proclamation offensive. Here is big old Denver telling us once again what to do with our water.

The late Chips Barry, who was manager of Denver Water for nearly 20 years, worked out agreements and compacts to bring East and West Slope interests closer together. He insisted on communication and dialogue. Fortunately, through his personal efforts, Denver Water dramatically improved relationships with many entities on the West Slope.

An obituary in The Denver Post summed up Chips’ contribution: “In a business where disputes are often settled by lawsuits that take years to play out, Barry was known for his sense of humor, his willingness to negotiate and his ability to avoid — rather than provoke — conflict.”

This proclamation is contrary to Chips Barry’s well-recognized and greatly appreciated efforts: It is poorly worded, ill-conceived and ill-considered. It is clearly a “stick in the eye” to western Colorado.

The problem is the proclamation goes well beyond expressing the council’s general concern about oil shale development as a matter of importance to the entire state. Instead, its unspoken message is that if oil shale development — or for that matter, any industrial development requiring water supplies — goes forth on the Western Slope, it poses a danger to metro Denver’s present water supplies, as well as any future supplies the area may need.

The implication is that the Denver area has some type of inherent right or entitlement to unused water on the Western Slope, and any Western Slope high-water-use industrial development should be prevented. That puts the proclamation in the category of “gratuitous meddling,” which means it is not likely to be well received or seriously considered.

Colorado water law clearly protects the ability of water-rights holders to put their water rights to beneficial use, including oil shale, so long as such usage is accomplished within the bounds of Colorado’s prior appropriation process. Among other features, that process is designed to protect other water rights, such as those held by parties in metro Denver.

Oil shale companies have a mixture of junior and senior water rights, the latter often acquired from agricultural users. To the extent those senior rights are used properly within the prior appropriation system, oil shale companies or other industrial users are entitled to use them rather than leave them for some possible future use by metro Denver.

As for junior water rights, those too can be used for oil shale development, so long as their use does not adversely impact the use of senior water holders, including those in the Denver metro area.

The implication of the proclamation is that oil shale companies ought not to be utilizing their legally protected water rights, which are property rights, because such utilization might adversely affect metro Denver’s present and future water supplies.

This proclamation flies in the face of research and science conducted on water use and oil shale production.

Jerry Boak, director of the Center for Oil Shale Research and Technology at the Colorado School of Mines, said at our committee meeting that processing oil shale would use only 0.09 percent of the state’s water supply.

So now the Denver City Council is targeting a proclamation against an energy industry that employs 30,000 people across our state, uses less than 1 percent of state water and generates 10 percent of Colorado’s gross domestic product. Is this really what we want to do?

What’s next, a proclamation against Colorado agriculture, which uses 90 percent of Colorado’s water?

This proclamation is unwarranted, unnecessary and unjustified. I urge my colleagues to either vote “No ” or, if you feel you don’t completely understand all the complexities surrounding water and this industry, to please abstain.

The final vote on the proclamation was seven “Yea,” two “No” and two “abstain.”

 

Councilman Charlie Brown invited Bonnie Peterson of Club 20 and others to the Denver City Council’s Business, Workforce and Sustainability committee to tell their side of the story. It was probably the first time in history a Club 20 representative had testified at a Denver City Council committee meeting.


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