SILT — The directors of the Silt Water Conservancy District, which manages water rights for agricultural uses in the area between Peach Valley and Rifle, wants voters to “de-Bruce” the district’s finances in order to permit the use of state and local grants, loans and other funding sources to fix an ailing and relatively ancient water-delivery system.
“This is not a tax increase,” emphasized the district’s board president, Kelly Lyon, during an interview on Tuesday about question 5B on the Nov. 5 election ballot.
Instead, according to Lyon and the district’s attorney, Jeff Houpt, the board is asking voters to free the district from the spending restrictions imposed by what is known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1992.
The amendment, authored by Colorado Springs conservative Douglas Bruce, was promoted as a way to restrict the spending and taxing authority of state and local governments in order to achieve the conservative political goal of shrinking the size of government.
But in succeeding years, the effects of TABOR have so constrained government budgets that in many jurisdictions the electorate has agreed to get rid of the TABOR restrictions, under the general rubric of “de-Brucing.”
For the Silt water district, the goal is strictly to eliminate the spending restrictions of TABOR, so that the district can apply for grants to fund repairs and upgrades of to the district’s water transmission facilities.
“We can get the grants,” Lyon said, “but under TABOR we’d have to give it back.” He said the district already has received a $15,000 state grant that is sitting in a bank account awaiting the outcome of the Nov. 5 election.
That is because TABOR spending restrictions slash the jurisdiction’s ability to spend money even if it is not directly from the district’s tax revenues. If the district spends more than TABOR allows, it must refund the overage amount to the taxpayers.
The situation is putting a squeeze on the water conservancy district, according to officials.
“We’ve got infrastructure, most of it is over a hundred years old,” Lyon said. He and ditchwalker Jason Spaulding explained that much of that infrastructure is badly in need of repair.
For example, he said, ditches leading from siphons at Rifle Creek that carry water over to Harvey Gap Reservoir are leaking so badly, “We’re probably losing 20-30 percent of our water, seeping out.”
Although no exact estimate exists of the cost of all the repairs that are needed, Lyon said, “It could run into the millions.”
For example, Spaulding said repairs done to a single siphon off Rifle Creek about six years ago cost approximately $1.2 million. And there are at least two more siphon structures that are in equally bad shape, he said.
The district, Lyon explained, encompasses “probably a hundred square miles” of the terrain to the east, west and north of the Town of Silt. The district serves 634 customers, according to office manager Pearl Knight.
With an annual budget of approximately $917,000 (in 2012), the district employs three full-time workers — office manager Knight, and ditchwalkers Robert Savage of Silt and Spaulding of Rifle — and has custody of 34 miles of ditches, siphons, and other infrastructure.
The district also owns two reservoirs — Rifle Gap and Harvey Gap, which together hold about 19,000 acre feet of water. According to Lyon and Spaulding, the district annually uses almost twice as much as the capacity of the two reservoirs, or roughly 38,000 acre feet, which mainly comes from Rifle Creek.
Houpt noted that the district also holds rights to roughly 5,000 acre feet in Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County, built in 1938 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide supplemental water for agricultural and other users. This water, Lyon said, is pumped out of the Colorado River by a half-century old series of large pumps that also are in need of repair, at best, or replacement.
The district is hoping to install micro-hydro plants at the outflow of both its reservoirs, to generate power that could be sold back to area utility companies and help defray some of the district’s operational costs, Lyon said.
But the TABOR spending restrictions would get in the way of any such project, he said.
The first project on the list to be done, said Lyon and Spaulding, will be repairs to the Grass Valley Canal leading from Rifle Creek eastward, a project that they estimated could cost as much as $3 million. Up next, Spaulding said, would be the pump station on the Colorado River.
“We’re trying to roll all this together at once,” Spaulding said, using grants, or even loans, from local, state and federal sources.
And to do so, both he and Lyon said, they need voter approval to exceed the TABOR imposed spending restrictions.
“We can get the grants, but under TABOR we’d have to give it back.”
President, Silt Water Conservancy District Board