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Crestone Eagle, October 2003:
Referendum A tops off-year election
- Millions for unspecified water projects raises lots of questions
by David Nicholas
The Question as it reads in Senate Bill 236:
"Shall the state of Colorado debt be increased $2 billion,
with a repayment cost of $4 billion, maximum total state cost,
by an amendment to the Colorado Revised Statutes providing
for drought relief by the financing of improvements to water
infrastructure in Colorado, and, in connection therewith,
authorizing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to issue
Revenue bonds for the construction of private or public water
infrastructure projects costing $5 million or more that have
been approved by the governor; authorizing the water conservation
board to recommend projects, including at least two projects
from different river basins with a start date of 2005, and
requiring the governor to approve at least one such project;
setting aside $100 million of bond proceeds to finance projects,
or portions of projects, that augment or improve existing
facilities or conserve existing water supplies without creating
new storage facilities; exempting the bond proceeds, the proceeds
of sales by the board of water, power, or other assets from
facilities financed by the bonds, and any earnings from all
such proceeds, from the revenue and spending limits imposed
by article x, section 20 of the state Constitution and article
77 of title 24, Colorado revised statutes; and requiring the
general assembly and executive branch agencies to adopt by
July 1, 2004, any necessary statutes and rules, respectively,
to ensure the marketability of the bonds authorized by this
The wailing and gnashing of teeth
Usually, an off-year election is regarded as a boring consequence
of the democratic process. But this year, the state legislature,
after a session which has spent most of its time on water
matters, has come up with a question which we might well want
to have a say on in November. Referendum A comes about as
a result of last year’s drought, which made most of
us in the state nervous, and authorities in Front Range communities
Referendum A wants electors, to approve a $2 billion bond
authority, for unspecified water projects which must be identified
and be recommended with a start date of 2005. These projects
will be identified by either the Colorado Water Conservation
Board (CWCB) or the Governor. Further, each river basin, such
as the San Luis Valley, may submit a minimum of two water
projects for consideration.
Essentially, Referendum A bypasses the state legislature
and places a huge bunch of money at the discretion of a state
entity with close ties to the Governor. On the face of it,
it does not appear earth-shattering, except that the money
is the equivalent of about 15% of the entire state budget,
or its equivalent of the 2003 budget request for the state
Department of Human Services.
Referendum A appears as a result of Senate Bill 236, which
had the most unspectacular passages through both the House
and the Senate in the state legislature, and which has been
signed by Governor Bill Owens. Normally, it would become law
with the governor’s signature, but Referendum A was
written into the bill, and under the provisions it must be
voted on by the electorate before it goes into the statute
In short, SB-236 was loathed and hated by representatives
of agricultural communities, so much so that when it reached
the Agriculture (Ag) Committee stage in both the Senate and
the House, it languished for months without sufficient votes
to pass it.
However, proponents, supported in the main by the politicians
and bureaucracies of Front Range communities, withdrew it
from the Ag Committee and pushed it through the powerful State
Affairs Committee in the Senate and the Finance Committee
in the House. After that, the bill sat all through the session
without getting a second and third reading on the floor required
to put the Bill up for a vote, up until the very last days
of the session. Then it was rushed through. The swing vote
in the senate was Senator Lew Entz (R-Hooper) who had his
reasons, which will be explained later.
Proponents, including Governor Bill Owens, speak of it as
a water authority, which should benefit the farm-rural sector.
The Governor encourages us to think not about the huge trans-mountain
projects that cities are already able to finance, but about
smaller, folksy projects like "a ditch company joining
with a feedlot and maybe a town or irrigation district who
can band together and get bonding for a project that's $6
million or $8 million."
Not surprisingly, support for the question comes from the
Front Range communities who, during the drought last year,
were faced with dwindling water supplies in reservoirs and
heavy water restrictions for what water was available. During
that time Governor Owens was unable to do anything to resolve
the situation at short notice, and no governor worth his or
her salt likes being unable to do anything about nature.
What makes the farm-rural sector skittish is that it gives
the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and the Governor
the financial clout to create water projects at will without
legislative oversight. Essentially if there is popular pressure
by the people of Colorado to ease water shortages in the short
term, they can and will. When we talk about the people of
Colorado, we are talking about folks 70% of whom live on the
The place, the Governor and the CWCB will be looking to initiate
new water projects will be those areas where the water is
and the population is sparse, specifically the western slope,
the San Luis Valley and the Arkansas River basin. Representatives
in these areas are adamantly opposed to such projects.
Referendum A, if passed, provides for water projects to be
initiated, which can move water from one river basin to another
without the legislature’s oversight. In addition, rural
legislators will have little, if any, influence on the outcome.
State representative John Salazar (D-Alamosa), who chairs
the Vote No on A Committee, says that it far too broad. While
Salazar goes to great lengths to emphasize that he is not
opposed to water projects, he opposes Referendum A. Salazar
maintains that through the various state agencies, such as
the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority
(CWRPDA), there is already enough bonding authority, so why
the need for more?
The Referendum, says Salazar, gives the Colorado Water Conservation
Board competing authority with the CWRPDA. Water projects
initiated by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development
Authority have Legislative oversight and usually take several
years to approve.
Also, says Salazar, “This means the CWCB will have
to start something new which they have not been involved with
in the past.” It means extra staff and learning on the
Next, Salazar says, the 2005 deadline to identify projects
is not enough time for real water projects to be assessed
and the relevant studies, such as environmental impact statements,
to be carried out. So the only projects which have a budget
of up to $5million have to be, mainly, the procurement of
private water rights and/or short term borrowing to local
water entities for a period of three to seven tears, such
as water conservancy districts and rural water and sanitation
Salazar then points out that it is a bond issue, which means
the money needs to be paid back to the state. He says that
even with a $5 million water project, as the governor mentions
above, the revenue stream could not be guaranteed to pay it
back and would most likely provide hardship to agricultural
communities. In the electors “blue book” version,
circulated to voters soon, it says that in the event that
an entity is unable to pay back or defaults on the bond, the
state would pick up the tab. With the state currently in deficit
spending; critics say that is not a whole lot of consolation.
What is the Colorado Water Conservation Board?
The CWCB was created in 1937 for the purpose of aiding in
the protection and development of the waters of the state.
The Mission Statement of the CWCB is: Conserve, Develop, Protect
and Manage Colorado's Water for Present and Future Generations.
With 36.5 full time employees, it has a budget of $3.3 million.
The governor appoints the 8 voting members of the board, one
from each of the state water basins. Ray Wright, President
of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District is our representative
on the Board. Other non-voting members include the State Water
Engineer and the Attorney General, the Director of the Division
of Wildlife, the Commissioner for the Department of Agriculture,
and the Director CWCB. In terms of water and temporal power
in the state, it is the right hand of God.
What is Lew Entz doing sitting on the fence?
Our state Senator Lew Entz, R-Hopper, has declared himself
neutral on Referendum A. First, his name appears as one of
the sponsors of SB-236—Ref A is its creature. The reason
has to do with political wheeling and dealing over the various
water bills which surfaced during the legislative session.
Entz, who had to resign from the CWCB when he was nominated
for state senator in 2001, had been looking at the Colorado
River Basin, earlier in the session, and had a bill, SB-126,
to consider some specific water projects around the state.
Under the Federal Compact, which governs the waters of the
Colorado, the state does not use its full allocation by one
million acre-feet (326,000 = 1 acre ft) per year. Currently,
that one million acre-feet of water goes to Las Vegas and
California. Entz, in supporting SB-236, has in it provision
to do feasibility studies.
Although no longer specifically mentioned in the bill, Entz
wants a study on the Colorado, exploring the feasibility of
placing a dam at the state line to keep that one million acre
feet a year from going any further and piping it back into
the state, presumably back to the front range. The idea surfaced
in his Senate Bill-126, which died due to lack of support,
but the deal he struck had a good chunk of SB-126 tacked on
to SB-236, thus securing his vote and allowing the latter
bill to pass in the state Senate.
Most rural republicans, especially Entz’ friends and
neighbors in the San Luis Valley, are opposed to Referendum
A, and he has had to explain his neutrality, which he did
at the San Luis Valley Land Use Conference earlier in September.
Referendum A is controversial, and rural counties are voting
no, because it gives power and money to the Governor and a
state agency which does not have to be specifically accountable
to us on this issue. In the Valley, the Rio Grande Water Conservation
District and the San Luis Valley Board of County Commissioners
Association have come out opposing it. Ref A is a reasonable
proposal, without a doubt, but how good it is and who benefits
depends on where you are sitting. And where we sit should
give us pause for thought. Lots of pause.
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