Water woes douse fires of secession

MEEKER — Rio Blanco County commissioners on Monday said they share the concerns of rural counties wanting to secede from Colorado, but they fear if they pursued the idea it could jeopardize water rights in the county.

County Commissioner Shawn Bolton said it’s his understanding that if a county such as Rio Blanco left the state, it might no longer be a part of the 1922 Colorado River Compact and the door could be opened to local water rights being taken away.

“That’s a breaking point for me. The water is too critical,” Bolton said.

Western Slope counties considering secession would be hit the hardest, he said. Most of the state’s surface water comes from the Western Slope.

Despite the water concern, the commissioners said during their meeting and in an interview that they agree in principle with the movement among northeast Colorado counties and now Moffat County to secede. Like them, the Rio Blanco commissioners take issue with the actions of the state legislature earlier this year.

“It was a pretty blatant attack on rural communities,” Commissioner Jeff Eskelson said.

Particularly upsetting to Rio Blanco commissioners was the passage of a requirement that rural electric cooperatives get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources. That has implications for coal mining and coal-fired power generation in northwest Colorado and for electric customers’ bills. Commissioner Jon Hill said what made it worse is that legislators rejected the idea of considering sources such as hydropower as renewable.

Eskelson said while secession might not be the answer, he likes an idea that’s circulating that would require one of the chambers of the state legislature to have one representative from each Colorado county.

“To me that would give rural Colorado more of a voice,” he said.

Bolton said Rio Blanco commissioners have been approached about the secession idea and have looked into it a bit but not gone further with it because the water issue raises such a red flag.

He said the issue is far from clear, but he’s hearing water rights would remain in the state of Colorado and those in a 51st state couldn’t file for a historical use and keep them.

“It’s a huge bunch of questions,” he said.

The Colorado River Compact addresses allocation of river basin water between seven states within the basin. If a county seceded, it’s possible that it “wouldn’t even be at the table at that point,” Bolton said.

Hill said that might be avoided if a county joined another state such as Utah or Wyoming that also has signed the compact.


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