“It does create opportunities for mischief”
A proposed policy that would give the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) the authority to finance and own water for a variety of uses has raised alarms for at least two Western Slope water groups. The local Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District is one of the western water conservation groups that is objecting to the policy and asking the state to make some changes before the policy is adopted.
The proposed policy would require legislative action to be effective, so the UGRWCD wants Gunnison County’s state representative Kathleen Curry to keep a close eye on any legislative measures that are anticipated along with the policy.
The CWCB’s “Policy 18” has been a topic of state discussion since last fall. The policy would give the state water agency new authority over various types of water project development, including new financing schemes, and the ability to own water for purposes other than environmental conservation.
The CWCB is a state agency founded in 1937 that pursues water supply planning, flood protection, and stream and lake protection.
UGRWCD attorney John McClow says the CWCB has traditionally only been involved in projects with non-consumptive uses, such as mandating minimum stream flows to protect natural waterways (in-stream flow water rights).
McClow says there are some good ideas behind the policy, which could lead to the creation of new water projects that are beneficial to both local users and the state of Colorado.
However, McClow says, “This is a significant change in policy for the CWCB. Their statutory authorization created in 1937… is only to hold water rights for the protection or improvement of the natural environment to a reasonable degree.” While that authorization has been amended in the past, McClow says, the authority implied in Policy 18 “is far beyond what the board has ever been authorized to do. It does create opportunities for mischief in our view.”
CWCB director Jennifer Gimble says Policy 18 is a proposed financial policy “that would allow the CWCB, in partnership with water users, to develop the water user’s supplies that may otherwise not be financially feasible to develop. In return the CWCB would acquire a portion of the developed water for the state of Colorado to use for interstate compact deliveries, in-stream flow purposes, and threatened and endangered species.”
Gimble says the CWCB believes Policy 18 is true to the agency’s statutory mission. Gimble says the CWCB has met with water providers and user groups all around the state, explaining Policy 18 and, “taking input and recommendations regarding policy language, legal issues, program administration and the general concept.”
The policy’s actual wording is leaving some big loopholes according to the UGRWCD, which discussed the policy during a meeting on July 28. The local water board took issue with certain phrases in the policy itself, such as the CWCB’s authority to review projects that meet the needs of the state, “or other purposes deemed appropriate by the CWCB.”
“Just that one phrase drives me nuts,” said UGRWCD board member Gary Hausler. “It could be anything. Whatever they want.”
Board member Dennis Steckel said it was hard to pin down what sort of projects the CWCB might be inclined to own or finance. “They stand on many sides of every issue,” he said of the CWCB.
Board member Steve Glazer said the policy had been changed significantly after being introduced last fall. “It’s been through significant revisions and changes since then. This is not the same thing we saw back in November,” Glazer said.
Colorado River Water Conservation District board member Bill Trampe said his group, which represents a large scope of Western Slope water users, including Gunnison County, was concerned as well. “We talk about it regularly in conference calls,” he said.
River District director Chris Treese sent a memo to his board in April that said nothing in the proposed Policy 18 would prohibit the state from becoming a partner in a trans-mountain water diversion, and holding its share of the water for an unspecified purpose. Treese wrote that he didn’t believe it was the intent of the CWCB to perform such an action but, “It is a concern that the policy allows for these outcomes.”
UGRWCD board president Brett Redden asked if the board would like to object to the policy, and said such an objection would be felt pretty quickly by the state.
Board member Ken Spann suggested working with the CWCB to improve the policy, and cited an earlier visit by the CWCB as an indication that they would like to work together on issues. “We want to be mindful the director of the CWCB came to this room. That’s something that hasn’t happened in a long while,” Spann said.
Steckel said they needed to be firm in their objection to the current draft of the policy. “I think we need to make a statement. It’s not going to hurt anybody… and it will not surprise them coming from us first,” he said.
The board decided to request a meeting with the CWCB to discuss their objection and concerns with Policy 18. The board also decided to write to representative Curry informing her that considerable revisions are needed before the board would support the policy.