Bill would offset future water grabs

A proposal to lessen the effects of water diversions around the state could create a big splash when the Colorado Legislature meets for the 2010 session, which starts next week.

A measure is to be introduced that would require water transfers from one river basin to another, such as the Western Slope to the Front Range, to include mitigation agreements, an issue that always creates turbulence between water users on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Like a similar measure that nearly cleared the Colorado House in 2004, this bill would require anyone trying to divert river water to provide some sort of mitigation, which could come in the form of cash for a specific purpose or the promise to build a storage project in the basin where the water is taken.

Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, said he plans to introduce the controversial idea because he’s concerned rural areas of Colorado ultimately will be dried up as growing metropolitan areas on the northern Front Range continue to take water from the state’s farms and ranches.

“It’s estimated that about 700,000 additional acre-feet of water will be diverted from farmland to feed population growth in Denver by 2050,” Pace said.

“If that’s anywhere close to being accurate, it will turn many rural communities into ghost towns because they won’t have any water left.”

An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, enough to serve a family of four for a year.

The last time such a measure was attempted in the Legislature was when U.S. Rep. John Salazar was a member of the Colorado House, and he sponsored the bill.

Pace, who was the San Luis Valley Democrat’s legislative aide at the time, said it failed by three votes.

Pace hopes the idea’s time has now come, and he has gotten tentative commitments for it from several House members and numerous water groups, though he won’t name names.

Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, wouldn’t say where he stands on the measure, primarily because he hasn’t seen the proposal.

Still, the freshman legislator said something needs to be done to protect the rest of the state from the thirsty Front Range.

“Right now, Denver Water is telling us that people are conserving,” Baumgardner said.

“Well, I’m down there in the summertime when their automatic sprinkler systems come on in the middle of the day when it’s hot. The water that they already own, there’s nothing we can do about that ... but once (a new diversion) goes through, I’m concerned about the health of the river.”

Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, said his group is working with Pace, even though it vehemently opposed similar proposals in the past.

While a handful of his group’s members, which consist of nearly 400 water buffaloes from around the state, have supported similar ideas, historically they’ve never come close to getting the required two-thirds majority of the Legislature to agree.

“I remember the last time it was a very tight vote (in the House), but will some of the same people vote the same way? I don’t know,” Kemper said. “I would expect if it got to a (House) floor discussion that it would be similar, somewhere plus or minus six or seven votes.

“The first thing we’re trying to do is better understand what the problem is that’s trying to be solved, and better define that problem. Representative Pace talks about the bill being on transmountain diversions, but I would read it to apply to all applications. That needs to be defined better.”

Pace and Kemper do agree on one thing: A new law approved by the Legislature during the 2007 session has opened the door for a full-fledged mitigation bill.

For the first time in the history of the state’s complex water laws, that bill allowed water court judges to consider environmental impacts of withdrawing large amounts of water from a river.

“That was groundbreaking, which helps me,” Pace said. “That was the first time that the judge could consider issues beyond just senior water users. That really opened the door.”

Kemper said a new law Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison got through last year’s session — to require developers of 50 or more housing units to identify where they would obtain water — opened the door even wider.

His greatest concern, however, is the message such new laws might be sending to downstream states such as California and Arizona, which many Colorado water experts expect one day soon will sue Colorado for the rights to water the state isn’t using.

Curry said the mitigation issue needs to be placed before the Legislature, if nothing else, to have a discussion about the expected Front Range water shortage and what the state should do about it, particularly with the spectre of a multistate lawsuit.

“This is a statewide problem whether we want it to be or not,” she said.

“It doesn’t hurt to point out the pitfalls associated with transfers. (Pace’s) bill is an incremental approach that I think is defensible, though it doesn’t go as far as some people would like.”

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