Senate leaders talk water, ballot initiatives
Colorado’s water resources will likely continue to be a key focus for the Legislature over the next year and beyond, a group of Democratic Senate Majority leaders concurred during a visit to Glenwood Springs this week.
That could include a renewed effort to offer incentives for agricultural water users who implement efficiency measures and reduce the amount of water diverted for irrigation purposes, said state Sen. Gail Schwartz, who recently relocated from Snowmass Village to Crested Butte.
Schwartz’s SB 23, which would have provided such incentives, earned bipartisan support in the Senate and overcame opposition in the House before being vetoed this spring by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“There needs to be some ability for the different regions of the state to respond to droughts by providing incentives for irrigators to invest in better efficiency,” Schwartz told the Post Independent on Wednesday.
A prime example of the problem is the Crystal River near Carbondale, she said. The lower Crystal has a desired minimum stream flow of 100 cubic feet per second, but has run as low as just 1 cfs in the late summer months during recent drought years.
“Low flows impact the environment and our economy,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz, who is finishing up her final year in the state Senate, was joined in Glenwood Springs Tuesday and Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, as part of a Senate Majority leadership listening tour along the state’s Interstate 70 corridor.
The group hosted a public town hall meeting in Glenwood Springs Tuesday evening and also met with the Colorado River District Board, which was holding its quarterly meeting Tuesday and Wednesday.
The River District opposed SB 23, mainly over concerns that it could disrupt long-standing irrigation agreements and possibly have the effect of being a disincentive to traditional ranching practices.
Steadman noted that the River District meeting even included a visit from Denver Water Board representatives. It’s another indication, he said, that the governor’s directive to develop a state water plan is working to bring different interests to the same table.
“A lot of that harshness has kind of gone away with this process,” Heath added.
The state’s nine river basin roundtables are currently working on their specific basin plans as part of the larger statewide effort, and a draft state water plan is due out by year’s end. The Legislature has requested its own review of the plan before it is completed next year.
The Colorado River Basin is “particularly vulnerable” amid continued calls by East Slope water interests for future trans-mountain diversion projects to be included in the plan, Schwartz said.
If that’s the case, Denver and other East Slope water users should be subject to the interstate Colorado River Compact, and have to shut off diversions if there is a call by downstream states on Colorado River water.
The Senate delegation also addressed the various ballot initiatives aimed at increasing the state’s setback requirements for oil and gas operations, and allowing for more local control of the industry.
They agreed a legislative remedy to address local control concerns would be preferable to amending the state’s constitution, as would be the case with the proposed ballot measures. Gov. Hickenlooper announced Wednesday, however, that he would not call a special session to address the issue.
One problem, the senators said, is that Colorado has “the most easily amended constitution in the nation.”
Steadman said he opposed a bill this past session that would have increased the number of signatures required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Schwartz supported it, but both agreed the better approach would be to require more than a simple majority vote of the electorate to pass an amendment, as well as geographic requirements in the signature gathering process.
“We need a higher hurdle before these things go into our constitution,” Schwartz said.
Another topic addressed by the senators during their visit is the effort to better control edible varieties of the legalized marijuana. New rules being drafted by the Colorado Department of Revenue related to serving size, dosage allowed in edibles and better packaging is the best approach, they said.
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