VAIL — During election years in Colorado, it’s routine for candidates for statewide office to address the summer convention of the politically powerful Colorado Water Congress.

After all, “it’s rare that a bill opposed by our membership is ever signed by a Colorado governor,” the group’s website claims.

And so the ritual was repeated last week as about 350 self-proclaimed “water buffaloes” gathered at the Hotel Talisa in Vail and heard from the Republican and Democratic candidates for the 3rd Congressional District, governor and attorney general.

And what the crowd — water managers and providers, engineers and water attorneys — wants to hear about most from candidates is their position on “storage,” “infrastructure” and “projects,” which are industry euphemism for dams and reservoirs.

Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Storage box checked

“When it comes to water storage, we need to build more. And during my administration, we will build more,” Walker Stapleton, the Republican candidate for governor, told the Water Congress members on Wednesday, Aug. 22, in one of the more straightforward declarations heard last week on the subject.

“Some of this will be larger projects and larger reservoirs, but it will also be dynamic and medium-sized projects that help us store water in innovative ways and balance environmental protection with our needs to build out storage,” Stapleton said. (Read more on Stapleton’s water policies).

Scott Tipton, a Republican who has represented the 3rd Congressional District since 2010, is a familiar figure at Water Congress. Speaking at 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning, Aug. 23, Tipton began by paraphrasing Wayne Aspinall, the late Congressman from Palisade who is nationally recognized for his work on water issues.

Aspinall’s quote, “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything,” is carved into stone in a park near the Colorado River in Palisade, but Tipton expressed it as “When you touch water in the West, it is really the lifeblood of what we are and who we are in our state.”

Tipton went on to say that Colorado’s population is expected to double by 2050.

“We need to be looking out the windshield in terms of water storage,” Tipton said, adding, “We’re going to have to be able to store more water.” (Read more on Tipton’s water policies).

Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor, briefly mentioned storage in his prepared remarks, but in the context of expanding existing reservoirs and using technology to conserve more water.

Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism / Aspen Journalism

Transmountain diversions

Venturing out on a political limb, Polis shared his views of the prospect of additional transmountain diversions under the Continental Divide.

“To many Coloradans in the high country on the Western Slope — some communities that I represented for a decade in Congress — future transmountain diversions pose an existential threat to the health of our rivers and our agricultural economy,” Polis said.

“So I’ll be very clear: As a matter of principle, I will oppose transmountain diversions that are not developed through the collaborative principles that the interbasin compact committees have agreed on.”

He then doubled-down on his position, saying during a Q&A period that he “would oppose any transmountain diversions that have not been agreed upon by respective areas.”

On Friday, Aug. 24, Diane Mitsch Bush, a Democratic candidate for the 3rd Congressional District, spoke to the water buffaloes.

As a state legislator from Steamboat, she served for four years as a house member on the legislature’s “interim water committee” and chaired the house agricultural committee, where any bill having to do with water is scrutinized.

During a Q&A period, Mitsch Bush was asked flat out, “Will you be an advocate for new storage projects?”

“Small, efficient storage projects are certainly something that we will most likely need,” she replied. “Not on the scale that we’ve seen in the 20th century, (but) I think small and efficient off-channel projects may be very helpful in storing and delivering water.”

She also addressed the potential need for additional transmountain diversions.

“We really need to think of ways to not have new transmountain diversions, for many reasons,” she said. “The key one being that when, not if, when, there is a compact call on the Colorado, some of those transmountain diversions will be among the first called.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering water and rivers in the Colorado River basin in collaboration with the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times. The Vail Daily published this story on Aug. 26, 2018.

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...