Eight Western Slope lawmakers in the Colorado State House talked water with the Colorado River Basin Roundtable in Glenwood Springs on Monday. From left, KC Becker, Bob Rankin, Diane Mitsch Bush, Dan Thurlow, Kerry Donovan, Millie Hamner, Yeulin Willett and J. Paul Brown. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Members of the Western Slope delegation to the state legislature said Monday the forthcoming Colorado Water Plan is a good starting point, but it doesn’t provide clear solutions to the state’s water challenges.

Representative Bob Rankin, a Republican who represents House District 57, which includes Garfield County, said the water plan lacks a prioritized list of specific water projects, a financing plan, and a schedule.

“So I view this as the start of a negotiating process on all of those details that will be worked out,” Rankin said. “And I hope we’re positioning ourselves as a West Slope for a negotiating process that’s going to go on a for a couple of years.”

Rankin spoke Monday at a meeting of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable in Glenwood Springs along with seven other Western Slope state lawmakers: Reps. Millie Hamner, Diane Mitsch Bush, KC Becker, Yeulin Willett, Dan Thurlow, J. Paul Brown and Sen. Kerry Donovon.

Rankin pointed out that there are only 12 Western Slope legislators in the 100-member Colorado legislature and as such it can be hard to adequately represent Western Slope interests in Denver.

Almost all of the lawmakers at the meeting praised the hard work the roundtable has done over the last two years to develop a basin-specific water-supply plan and to help shape the statewide plan.

But many also said the forthcoming plan – now expected to be finalized by Nov. 19 – will not resolve issues such as the potential for a new transmountain diversion of water to the East Slope.

And not surprisingly, none of the lawmakers called for more Western Slope water to be moved east.

“Another transmountain diversion is not only bad for the Western Slope, it’s bad for Colorado, it’s bad for our state’s economy, it’s bad when, not if, there is going to be a compact call, and it’s very, very bad obviously for our recreational and environmental-based economy,” said Representative Mitsch Bush, a Democrat who represents Eagle and Routt counties in House District 26.

Mitsch Bush said that the employees in new businesses relocating along the I-25 corridor “don’t come here to Colorado and bring jobs and money with them because they want to hang out on I-25, they want to see free-flowing western rivers.”

Addressing the Colorado roundtable A group of eight Western Slope lawmakers talked Monday with the members and guests of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable about the forthcoming Colorado Water Plan at the Glenwood Springs Community Center. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

More lanes, diversions?

Rep. Willett, a Republican representing House District 54, which includes rural Mesa County and Delta County, said he’s begun to wonder if it is time for the state to stop accommodating Front Range growth, especially in light of calls to add more lanes to I-25.

“When do we say no more?” Willitt asked. “When do you say no more highway lanes … no more diversions. You want to start a business, you want to expand, come to the West Slope. I don’t say that is my position, but it is certainly one I’m starting to consider.”

Rep. Thurlow, a Republican who represents the portion of Mesa County around the city of Grand Junction in House District 55, said his background was in the printing business and that when he started his job as a legislator, he didn’t know anything about water.

He said his fellow legislator, Rep. Don Coram, told him, “Don’t worry, go the meetings and stand up and say ‘I’m not going to let the bastards steal any more of our water,’ and you’ll be fine.”

But Thurlow, who said he’s been reading the draft water plan, asked the roundtable whether it might be advantageous to perhaps take a different approach and ask if the Western Slope might get something out of a new transmountain diversion project, such as new storage projects of its own.

“What should the negotiation strategy be? Hard line or ‘Let’s talk about this?’” Thurlow said.

Representative Becker, a Democrat from Boulder who represents both Front Range and Western Slope counties, said she feels the water plan process has been generally a good thing, but she said there are some “troubling aspects” to the draft plan.

Most troubling to Becker is the emphasis on “streamlining” the approval and permitting processes for new water projects, especially as a bill along those lines is expected to be introduced when the legislature reconvenes.

“We have to be really thoughtful about how we permit water projects,” said Becker, an attorney with extensive experience managing federal review processes while at the Dept. of Interior.

She said any new water storage project has to “respect the values of all the interests, because there are a lot of interests” and that “when it comes to moving water around, you are going to have fights about it.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015.

Brent Gardner-Smith

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...