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Colorado’s drought heats up water issues

Colorado State Rep. John Salazar, D-Dist. 62, introduced legislation this year to address an issue of serious concern to many rural Coloradoans. HB-1040 attempted to establish a process that would protect watersheds and the communities within them from undue negative impacts from the permanent transfer of water out of a watershed.

This “Basin-of-Origin-Protection” bill was unfortunately defeated recently in the House by a vote of 33-30. Another attempt at legislation will certainly occur next year.

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) supports the right of water owners to sell those water rights in the marketplace based on current water law. RMFU also believes that current law does not provide an adequate mechanism to protect the watersheds from which water is being removed from the indirect and long-term negative impacts of water transfers.

These impacts include:
•decreases in land values and tax bases when irrigated crop and pasture land becomes dry land;
•decreases in business activity when agricultural operations and support businesses shut down;
•decreases in future growth potential in the area because of less water available;
•increased costs of waste treatment due to reduced surface water flows;
•decreased wildlife habitat, fisheries and recreational potential due to decreased volume.

Mitigation measures in the basin of origin can take a variety of forms, such as PILT payments (payment-in-lieu-of taxes), reservoir construction, leaving a portion of the purchased water in the basin, or other infrastructure projects to enhance systems impacted by the water transfer.

A prime-motivating factor for Rep. Salazar was to establish a process that could avoid driving the water purchaser and opponents into the court system as the only mechanism to resolve differences. Many may remember the millions of dollars residents and groups in the San Luis Valley – the poorest area in the state – had to spend in recent years to fight huge attempted water acquisitions.

The bill also was flexible. The residents of each water basin would have been able to determine what mitigation measures were needed and their priority rankings. The forum for this process would have provided a seat at the negotiating table for the public and other entities that wished to present opinions or data on potential impacts of any given water transfer.

Opponents of the bill complained that it was too vague when discussing prospective future beneficial uses of water to be left in the basin. And they raised the tired argument that it was just another attempt to try to shut off any future water transfers from the West Slope to the Front Range. Unfortunately, we are still left with the status quo system ensuring that whichever party has the most power and money wins.