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West Slope lawmakers write governor to express water diversion concerns

March 13, 2017 Updated: March 13, 2017 at 1:06 pm
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Seven Western Colorado legislators have a message for Gov. John Hickenlooper, but really it's for the Front Range: the West Slope is tapped out.

"An abundance of additional West Slope water available to the Front Range is an illusion," says the letter to Hickenlooper signed by Sens. Randy Baumgardner, Don Coram and Ray Scott, as well as by Reps. Marc Catlin, Bob Rankin, Dan Thurlow and Yeulin Willett.

The letter was obtained by ColoradoPolitics.com.

The seven Republican lawmakers call on the state to get moving on water conservation efforts, including water-wise land-use planning, to slow the Front Range's steady drain on West Slope water.

That sounds awfully green coming from such well-known conservatives. What's next? Baumgardner in Birkenstock sandals?

"These actions need to happen as soon as possible to protect our economy and to avoid any new transmountain diversion projects," their letter states. "We believe the Colorado River is at a tipping point where an additional transmountain diversion could have both immediate and long-term negative impacts on our economy."

Here is the full text of the letter.

"Dear Governor Hickenlooper,

"On the eve of the release of Colorado's Water Plan in late 2015, we wrote to you urging that the Plan and its implementation represent the interests of the State in its entirety, honor Colorado's agricultural heritage and protect economic interests that rely on healthy, flowing rivers. One year later, we write again concerned about the negative consequences of over-allocation of West Slope water to our local economy and, by extension, the State.

Water is the foundation of the Colorado economy, but no more so than in Western Colorado. In our communities, water is far more than just a commodity piped in from afar. The three dominant economic drivers on the West Slope - tourism, mineral resources and agriculture - are entirely dependent on healthy rivers with adequate and sustainable flows.

"The West Slope's water resources are important to the State's economy as a whole. Front Range agriculture is inextricably linked to West Slope ranching and agriculture; and while agricultural land on the Front Range increased substantially over the last century, agricultural land in much of the West Slope actually decreased. The economic health of our communities is dependent on the viability of agriculture, which in turn is dependent on water.

"Likewise, while recreation and tourism in some parts of the West Slope account for upwards of one-half of all jobs, the economic benefits of tourism and recreation activities can actually be greater in the Front Range counties than on the West Slope. Just for example, the Front Range captures the majority of the economic impact from anglers heading to our Gold Medal waters.

"The future of Colorado's economic development relies heavily on the iconic outdoor recreation activities and agricultural landscapes of mountain communities as a primary marketing tool to attract new businesses and educated workers. Keeping these resources strong is as critical to the statewide economic development strategy as it is to the West Slope communities whose economic health is tied to water.

"As Colorado's Water Plan rightly points out, the State needs to take steps toward achieving heightened water conservation, implementing creative solutions to buy-and-dry, and encouraging water sensitive land use planning in order to protect our water resources. These actions need to happen as soon as possible to protect our economy and to avoid any new transmountain diversion projects. We believe the Colorado River is at a tipping point where an additional transmountain diversion could have both immediate and long-term negative impacts on our economy.

"An abundance of additional West Slope water available to the Front Range is an illusion. West Slope water has long been spoken for by users in Colorado and six other states, as well as Mexico. If water leaves the West Slope through new transmountain diversions, the West Slope cannot divert water from another source. Sixteen transmountain diversion projects in the headwaters of the Colorado River basin divert on average a half-million acre feet of water annually; in some counties, 80 percent of native flows will be diverted out-of-basin with the expansion of existing transmountain diversion projects.

"To protect the West Slope and the State's economy, it is imperative that each basin exhaust its available water supply before planning diversions from another area of the State. Available water supplies should include exploring the reuse to extinction of legally re-usable water, evaluating options for the re-allocation of existing water supplies, infrastructure upgrades and sharing, expanding, dredging, and creating new storage (including aquifer storage and recovery) - particularly on the Front Range. We cannot continue to send legally available water over our borders.

"The Water Plan lays out criteria that should be applied to new water projects to ensure those projects receiving State funds are aligned with the State's values outlined in the Plan. Those criteria focus on economic stability and growth by emphasizing diverse stakeholder involvement from the beginning of a project and avoiding or mitigating its associated economic and social impacts. We would ask for the consistent - and transparent - use of those criteria when looking at any new or expanded transmountain diversion project, and that they be formalized into the State's processes for approving loans and grants for water projects.

"We look forward to continuing to work toward implementing Colorado's Water Plan and our further discussions with you on this important topic."

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