Guv fails to lead on water, activists say

Environmental groups hammering Gov. John Hickenlooper for his veto of a measure intended to encourage water-rights holders to leave more water in the stream said this spring’s high runoff is no guarantee of another one.

“There is a lot of water in Colorado,” said Sarah Lu of the Clean Water Action Fund, one of the organizations criticizing Hickenlooper for the veto of Senate Bill 23, a measure carried by state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village. “But the entire southwest is in a 14-year drought phase.”

That drought, which is driest in Arizona, California and Nevada, all of which depend heavily on the Colorado River, could force a test of the 1922 compact that governs the management of the river, Lu said.

“They have the ability to issue a compact call, meaning they can demand all of their water at one time,” Lu said.

The compact was drafted 14 years before construction of Hoover Dam, which holds back as many as 28 million acre-feet. It calls for Colorado and the upper Colorado River Basin states to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water yearly to the lower basin.

Upstream states are discussing contingency plans, which include keeping enough water upstream in Lake Powell to meet compact obligations as well as generate electricity at Glen Canyon Dam.

Lake Mead, however, is shrinking to the point that Las Vegas is tunneling beneath it and planning to draw water from the bottom of the pool.

The Colorado upstream is already over-allocated, Lu said, noting that Senate Bill 23 could have alleviated some stress on upstream states because water-rights holders would be encouraged to take out only the water they need, instead of their full rights.

Hickenlooper had appeared to be supportive of the measure until the last minute, Lu said.

“It seems as though all the hoops the governor asked to be maneuvered through were met with this bill,” Lu said, pointing to favorable testimony by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and other agencies. “It’s one of these things where it seems there is a failure of leadership on his part when a few naysayers decide to cry wolf and the governor balks to that.”

Environmental organizations purchased ads critical of Hickenlooper on The Daily Sentinel website, among other measures in what they call Hickenlooper’s “Failure to Lead” campaign.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District was one of those naysayers to which Lu referred. The River District backed away from the measure because of the possibility that other users might be harmed.

The Senate Bill 23 approach won’t be abandoned, said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“We can have this conversation without polarizing the water community, and part of that requires listening to the concerns of important Western Slope interests on a bill that was geographically limited to the Western Slope,” Eklund wrote. “The bill’s sponsors informed us that this concept would only have been used in a handful of instances. As such, most people understand that this concept cannot remedy the serious drought and challenges we face in the Colorado River.”


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