Drought shows need for 4A tax request | PostIndependent.com

Drought shows need for 4A tax request

Post Independent Editorial Board

In a record-breaking drought year, it’s hard to argue against a tax increase that would reserve or create capacity for more water in Western Slope reservoirs to benefit Western Slope users.

It’s even more difficult to argue against a tax increase that would cost the owner of a $250,000 home $6 a year, and the owner of a $500,000 commercial property $36 a year.

Nevertheless, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, a 15-county district covering the Gunnison, Colorado, White and Yampa river basins, must convince thousands of voters in those counties of the need for the tax.

Ballot question No. 4A asks voters to approve a 20-year property tax increase of 0.25 mills to fund a series of water quality and supply projects throughout the River District’s region. It would raise an estimated $60 million over the 20 years.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District has millions of dollars sitting in the bank earned from the sale of water to Denver from its Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling. Why not spend that money instead?

Wolford earnings are being reinvested, by law, in Western Slope water projects that have a clear prospect for repayment. Under the TABOR amendment, an enterprise fund must be run like a business. It can’t give away its earnings. Profits from Wolford Mountain flowing into the River District’s enterprise fund are set up to be used in a revolving loan account to aid Western Slope water providers who have paying customers.

But the drought of 2002 has shown Western Slope water users that current water allocations are insufficient to meet the needs of Western Slope farmers, ranchers and orchardists. Plans developed after the last major drought, in 1977, that seemed realistic at the time didn’t, excuse the pun, hold enough water during this drought.

Fruit growers in Grand and Uncompahgre valleys, for example, sweated hard this summer worrying about whether they would get enough irrigation water to keep their fruit trees and grape vines alive.

It’s one thing to lose a year’s crop of alfalfa, corn or beans to drought, and another thing entirely to lose an orchard or vineyard.

In many areas, the water is there, locked up in reservoirs owned by the federal government or wasted along leaky canals. The River District’s tax proposal would raise the funds to capture that water.

Projects outlined in the proposal include purchasing water stored in Ruedi and Blue Mesa reservoirs, both owned by the federal government, installing pipelines along leaky canals in the Uncompahgre Valley, and enlarging Elkhead Reservoir in Moffat County, on a tributary to the Yampa River. They’ll use about half the new tax revenues, leaving the rest for ideas that may emerge in coming years.

Each of these projects and purchases have broad public benefits, including water quality improvements, but no specific end user to pay the bill. In nondrought years, roughly nine out of 10, the gained water would stay in rivers for fish, anglers, boaters and scenic beauty.

In drought years, which will come again, the water will supplement irrigation supplies.

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the River District, said, “This is an investment in continuing the rural character of the region.”

Ballot question 4A marks a modest investment in water supplies to benefit the Western Slope’s environment and culture. We urge voters throughout the district to support the measure with a “yes” vote.

– Post Independent Editorial Board

Members of the Post Independent Editorial Board are Publisher Valerie Smith, Managing Editor Heather McGregor and News Editor Dennis Webb.

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