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Anxiety builds over state water plan

Governor fuels familiar discussion

DENVER – After eight years of talking about water, Coloradans are back to fighting about it.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s call to develop a state water plan is the talk of the Colorado Water Congress’ annual convention this week, as people try to figure out what it is and whether it will be an aid or a threat.

The plan has not been written, and no one is quite sure what it will be.

“I’m looking at the Colorado Water Plan as a road map for an uncertain future,” said April Montgomery of Telluride, who represents Southwest Colorado on a statewide water committee.

Montgomery spoke at a panel discussion Thursday at the Water Congress convention.

Last May, Hickenlooper issued an executive order to develop a draft water plan by December.

A bipartisan group of legislators, led by Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is irked that Hickenlooper seemed to bypass the Legislature. Roberts is sponsoring a bill to require public hearings and legislative approval before the water plan can be implemented.

Water is the state’s most critical resource, she said.

“It built our state, and it will be critical to building our state,” Roberts said. “For something that’s the No. 1 resource in our state, the Legislature has a place at the table.”

Roberts had a “very spirited discussion” Wednesday with Mike King, who serves in the governor’s Cabinet as director of the Department of Natural Resources, King told the crowd of around 300 at the Water Congress convention.

“Senator Roberts, for those of you who don’t know, is one of the good ones,” King said. “So when Senator Roberts expresses concerns about where we’re headed, I take that very seriously.”

The final plan will, “of course,” need approval by the Legislature, King said.

But it’s high time that Colorado got to work on a plan for how it will accommodate an expected doubling of its population by 2050, he said.

“I have yet to meet anybody who’s come forward and say, you know, we really shouldn’t be planning for Colorado’s water future,” King said.

Colorado does not have a statewide water plan. In its absence, the default plan is for cities to buy agricultural water rights and “dry up” rural economies.

Slowing the practice is one of Hickenlooper’s main concerns as the water plan is written, King said.

“We cannot allow ag to continue to dry up and still maintain our quality of life, whether you live in a city or on a farm,” King said.

Coloradans have fought an East-West water war throughout state history, as the drier Front Range looked to Western Slope rivers to supply its cities and farms.

The fighting subsided the last eight years as the state tried out a new idea to create “roundtables” in every major river basin, along with a statewide group known as the Interbasin Compact Committee. Those groups have focused on building trust among the basins and assessing the water needs of every place in the state, from Arkansas Valley farms to Four Corners river rafters.

But after Hickenlooper put out his order for a water plan, several of the roundtables took tough stances on what should be in the plan. The Colorado River Roundtable put out a white paper that essentially said all the water in the river is spoken for, and there’s no way to pipe more water east to the Front Range.

Patricia Wells, general counsel for Denver Water, said she thinks the dueling white papers risk bringing Washington-style gridlock to Colorado’s water community.

She urged water experts from around the state to refrain from “demonizing or trivializing” each other’s water needs.

In the end, it’s people who need water, she said.

“We need to think of them as humans, not as monolithic water-grabbers,” Wells said.

Montgomery, who represents Southwest Colorado on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said people need to think of their local communities, but also the state as a whole.

“A strong Denver helps the Southwest, as well as a strong recreational economy on the Western Slope, that’s going to help the Front Range,” Montgomery said.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that April Montgomery is a current member of the Interbasin Compact Committee.

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