The Colorado River Water Conservation District will ask voters this November to approve a property-tax increase that would double its budget, from about $4 million to $8 million.
After a lengthy discussion at Tuesday’s regular quarterly meeting, River District board members voted to move ahead with a ballot question asking voters to raise its property taxes from a quarter-mill to a half-mill. That works out to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. One mill is the equivalent of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.
According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy would increase per year to $40.28 from $18.93 for Pitkin County’s median home value, which at $1.13 million is the highest in the district.
The district in April had put off making a decision on moving forward with a ballot question until July due to concerns about asking voters for more money during the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. Officials were comfortable moving forward, however, after recent polling showed continued support for the measure.
According to the resolution approving the ballot language, the money will be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope; protecting adequate water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers; protecting sustainable drinking-water supplies; and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation by maintaining river levels and water quality.
“This is one of the most consequential decisions the district has made in some time,” said board president Dave Merritt, who represents Garfield County. “This is going to be really important to the future of the River District to take us into the next era.”
The district has seen its revenue stream decline in recent years due to shrinking tax revenue from the fossil-fuel industry and lower residential assessments as a result of the state’s Gallagher and Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendments. As a result, the district has reduced its staff by four positions, suspended a grant program and reduced its vehicle fleet.
The district got more specific in the spring about what it would do with the money in a fiscal implementation plan. About 86% would go toward water projects backed by local communities and basin roundtables. Examples could include environmentally focused projects such as forest restoration on the Yampa River, infrastructure projects such as rehabilitation for the Grand Valley Roller Dam, and dam and reservoir projects such as the White River Storage Project. The district would not use the money to create new staff positions.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which was created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans 15 counties: Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache.
Pitkin County’s representative, County Attorney John Ely, was the lone “no” vote for the ballot measure. He said the fiscal implementation plan should include a promise that the River District will work with local elected officials on water projects, especially since River District board members would be the ones allocating project funding — and they are not elected to their positions.
“Having that type of commitment in the plan, I think that would go a long way in allaying that type of a concern,” Ely said.
The River District added the language Ely requested to the fiscal implementation plan, however, Ely had wanted the resolution board members passed to tie the ballot language directly to the commitment to work with local officials outlined in the plan.
At the suggestion of some agriculture-dependent counties, including Mesa County, River District General Manager Andy Mueller added language to the ballot question that says the district will not utilize the additional funds for paying to fallow irrigated agriculture. Montrose County representative Marc Catlin pushed to go a step further, suggesting that the definition of fallowing include permanent programs, as well as voluntary, temporary and compensated programs. The state of Colorado is currently looking into a program that could pay irrigators on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis to fallow fields in order to leave more water in the river.
“I think we ought to tie it to this ballot because 10 years from now, somebody might have a completely different idea of what fallowing might mean,” Catlin said.
But other directors cautioned against getting too wordy in the question, which could confuse voters, especially since a recent survey found strong support for a more simply stated proposal.
“I would just be happier if we kept this closer to what was polled and simpler,” said Martha Whitmore, who represents Ouray County.
Survey finds support
The River District hired Lori Weigel from Arvada-based consultant New Bridge Strategy for another round of voter polling, which surveyed 600 district residents between June 25 and July 2. If the election were held tomorrow, 63% of those surveyed said they would definitely vote in favor of a tax increase.
“That 63% is really the critical number there,” Weigel said. “It’s pretty rare that we see support levels this high.”
The district had previously found similarly high levels of support — 65% — when Weigel surveyed voters in mid-March. Some board members worried that because the survey coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the results would no longer be valid. But survey results this time around showed continued support for a tax increase.
“I think we can have a great deal of confidence in this data,” Weigel said. “(Support) has not shifted significantly. Water is something that is important to people. Water is sort of a constant.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story was updated to note that the River District added language into its fiscal implementation plan promising to coordinate and consult with local jurisdictions prior to funding any projects. It ran in the July 22 edition of The Aspen Times and the July 23 edition of the Steamboat Pilot.