Groundwater appeals bill clears Senate panel

DENVER — A year ago, two Western Slope lawmakers went up against a former governor and lost.

At that time, Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and now Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, were trying to get a bill through the Colorado Legislature that would have prevented parties in contested groundwater transfers from presenting new evidence in an appeal of a decision made by the Colorado Ground Water Commission.

Former Gov. Bill Owens now works as managing director of a water and land resources development company, one that often deals in water rights purchases. He personally lobbied against the Scott-Coram measure, having it killed in a Senate committee after it had passed the Colorado House on an overwhelming 60-5 vote.

This year, Owens’ lobbying effort has mostly fallen away, allowing the bill not only to clear the same legislative panel — the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources & Energy Committee — that killed it last year, but to do so unanimously.

In fact, the bill even made the Senate’s “consent calendar,” which means it is expected to have no opposition when it gets to the full chamber.

Scott said the bill is needed to prevent water speculators from dragging farmers and ranchers into district court and re-trying water transfer cases, something he said is only allowed in cases that go before the commission.

Kathy Oatis, a contract lobbyist hired by Owens to oppose last year’s measure, told the committee on Thursday that the bill still isn’t needed.

“This is the third time this bill’s been before the Legislature,” Oatis told the committee. “It’s been defeated a number of times because there’s been issues with it. We are willing buyers and sellers who go to the groundwater commission (referee) to change a water right from agriculture. There’s never been a case where the groundwater commission had ruled against the referee.”

Oatis said she had an amendment to the bill she wanted to see drafted to make it more palatable, but couldn’t because the bill came up too quickly, something the chairman of the committee, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, disputed.

Without naming her, Sonnenberg admonished Oatis for some of her testimony immediately after the committee cast its vote.

“You do not come into my committee and mislead or tell half-truths,” Sonnenberg said. “I gave a person who testified today a card weeks ago to draft amendments, and then to make the assertion you didn’t have time to have an amendment drafted to be here is, if not an outright lie, it’s a mistruth, and that’s unacceptable to me as the chair.”

The bill heads to the full Senate for more votes.


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