The Grottos on the Roaring Fork River. About 40 percent of the flow of the Fork has been diverted under the Continental Divide for the last 85 years.
The Grottos on the Roaring Fork River. About 40 percent of the flow of the Fork has been diverted under the Continental Divide for the last 85 years. Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

DENVER — State Sen. Gail Schwartz is co-sponsoring a bill that requires the Colorado legislature to approve a statewide water plan now under development by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and nine regional water groups.

Senate Bill 14-115 would trump an executive order issued by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in May 2013 that called for the Colorado Water Plan to be based on regional plans developed by river-basin “roundtables” around the state in coordination with the CWCB.

“The executive order did not identify a role for the general assembly, and yet we represent the people in the state,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz, a Democrat from Snowmass Village, is chair of the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, where SB 14-115 has been sent for review.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Republican from Durango who serves on the interim Water Resources Review Committee, also is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“When an executive order is issued, that bypasses the legislature,” Roberts said at the Colorado Water Congress meeting held last week. “Now, that is certainly the governor’s prerogative, but when something is called the Colorado state water plan, it means the legislature is at the table.”

A headgate on an irrigation ditch on Maroon Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River.
A headgate on an irrigation ditch on Maroon Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River. Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Conflicting demands

The Colorado Water Plan is supposed to describe how the state’s population, which is expected to grow from 5.2 million to nearly 9 million by 2050, will be provided with adequate water while not depriving the state’s ranches and rivers of the water they need to thrive.

A key question for communities on both the Western Slope and along the Front Range is whether more water will be piped under the Continental Divide from the west, where most of the state’s water is, to the east, where most of the state’s people are.

Pitkin County commissioner Rachel Richards is an active member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable and said she has “real concerns” about Schwartz’s bill.

“It brings so much politics into the issue,” Richards said about SB 14-115. “I think it will fall down to Front Range versus West Slope legislators. I have a hard time imagining any Front Range legislator running for re-election and saying he or she voted for a plan that did not include a new trans-mountain diversion of very significant magnitude. “

In addition to giving the legislature power over the final water plan, SB 14-115 also requires that regional public hearings be held after a draft is released and that public comment be taken into consideration in the final draft.

“I tell folks they don’t have to be a water buffalo to have an opinion about the role of water in our state today and in the future,” Schwartz said at the annual meeting of the Colorado Water Congress, which represents the interests of water developers and managers, or “water buffalos.”

Gov. Hickenlooper’s executive order calls for the CWCB to finish a draft of the water plan by December and to complete a final version by December 2015.

The CWCB is to write the draft plan and then submit it “for review by the governor’s office,” according to the executive order. Then it is supposed to “work with the governor’s office to complete the final plan.”

The only substantive mention of the state legislature in the governor’s executive order is that the plan should include “recommendations to the governor for legislation that will improve coordination, streamline processes and align state efforts” regarding water projects.

That’s not a big enough role for the legislature, according to Schwartz.

“Yes, the plan may direct policy, but it does not have the weight of law,” she said.

SB 14-115 requires the plan to be reviewed by the Water Resources Committee, which would then introduce a bill to approve it — or not.

The bill also says that a water plan can only be considered official state policy if the legislature approves it. And it says that while the plan could still be the policy of the CWCB, the legislature also could declare that it is not.

In short, it gives the legislature firm control over future water projects in Colorado.

The ditch that moves water from Lost Man Reservoir to Grizzly Reservoir and then under the Divide to the South Fork of Lake Creek and the Arkansas River.
The ditch that moves water from Lost Man Reservoir to Grizzly Reservoir and then under the Divide to the South Fork of Lake Creek and the Arkansas River.Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Role of Roundtables

Roberts acknowledged that the bill might cause some “hurt feelings” among those at the basin roundtable level.

“It is not intended as any slight to the folks that are working hard on that, but we do feel that it is critically important that that be an open public process and it also involve the legislature,” Roberts said about the bill.

The various basin roundtable meetings being held around the state are open to the public, but are mostly attended by those with a strong interest in water issues.

Louis Meyer, the principle and CEO of SGM, Inc., an engineering firm in Glenwood Springs, serves on the Colorado roundtable. SGM also has the contract with the roundtable to draft the plan for the Colorado River basin, which includes towns from Granby to Grand Junction and the Roaring Fork River watershed.

Meyer has been talking to water providers in the basin about their future needs and making presentations about the plan to community groups.

“By reaching out to a diverse sector of our communities and allowing them to have a voice in the plan I have found renewed vigor and engagement from folks that typically do not speak up,” Meyer said via email. “If these grassroots and voices and opinions are overruled by a top-down approach that will lead to cynicism and lack of engagement.”

He added, “the best process would be for the legislature to get out of Denver and away from the state house and engage in roundtable meetings.”

On Thursday, the board of the Colorado River District, which represents the Western Slope, voted to take a neutral position on the bill — for now.

Chris Treece, the external affairs manager for the river district, said SB 14-115 “was a very political bill” and suggested the organization monitor it “very closely from a very long distance.”

“I think it is an important discussion about who is in charge,” Treece said.

Mike King, the executive director of the Colorado Dept. of Natural Resources, which includes the CWCB, said having the legislature involved as proposed by the bill would mix politics and water.

“We need to depoliticize the development of Colorado’s water,” King said at the Water Congress meeting. “We need to remove it from the political pressures that are inherent in the legislative process and make it organic.”

And he believes the CWCB can handle the job.

“Seventy-six years ago the general assembly delegated to the CWCB the express policy setting authority for the state’s water vision,” King said. “I think it served the state well. And I think the CWCB has exercised that authority judiciously and appropriately throughout that period of time.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of water and river issues. The Daily News published this story on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.

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...