The first Water in the West Symposium in Denver on Thursday brought together water planners, researchers, environmental and sustainability advocates, business leaders – and a guy who loves to talk about beavers.
The two-day symposium, sponsored by Colorado State University and held at the McNichols Civic Center Building, was opened by former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. It featured a forum of gubernatorial candidates who talked about water issues.
Among the discussion points throughout the day was the state’s water plan, developed through an executive order in 2013 from Gov. John Hickenlooper and completed in 2013. It lays out a blueprint for dealing with a potential shortage facing the state in the coming decades.
The water plan estimates the cost of handling the water needs for another three to five million people at roughly $30 billion. Much of that cost is expected to be borne by water providers and utilities, but the state has its obligations, too; the water plan calls for a state investment of $3 billion, at about $100 million per year for 30 years, beginning in 2020.
Hickenlooper has tasked the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) with implementation of the plan and the General Assembly has put starter funds into it – roughly $15 million in the past two years and another $7 million in the 2018-19 budget through the annual CWCB projects bill.
One of the big questions is what happens to the plan when Hickenlooper leaves office next January and a new governor takes the helm. Whether all of the candidates at Thursday’s forum had ever read it was another question.
Some of the top-tier gubernatorial candidates – Republicans Walker Stapleton and Doug Robinson and Democrat Cary Kennedy – were “no-shows” for the forum. So was Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who was in Washington but he sent a surrogate, water attorney Courtney Krause.
Those who did attend: businessmen Republicans Victor Mitchell and Greg Lopez; and Democrats and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and former state Sen. Mike Johnston.
And then there was a last-minute addition: Scott Helker, a libertarian candidate who told Colorado Politics in January that he hoped a run for governor might lead to other offices, like state Senate or some other political position.
Candidates discussed how the water plan should move forward, as well as finding the dollars to do it; the future of the outdoor recreation economy; innovation, awareness and citizen involvement; and shortages on the over-appropriated Colorado River.
Mitchell said he supports the state water plan. He said he would look for storage solutions to keep water on the Eastern Plains and seek incentives for farmers to grow more water-efficient crops. He also said the state should fully fund the water plan but didn’t offer ideas on how to do that.
Johnston said the state should figure out what its top priorities are for the water plan and how to fund it. His platform includes changes to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow for public investment in infrastructure, which for him includes roads, bridges and water.
He said he also would look for ways to avoid “buy and dry” – the practice of buying up farmland for its water rights – and come up with incentives for conservation in municipal and agricultural water use.
Lynne identified several issues, including an effort to galvanize people to understand that the state is in crisis, which she said is helped somewhat by the critically low snowpack predicted for the state this year. As for funding the plan, she indicated it would take a partnership among federal, local government, private entrepreneurs and water providers.
Krause, speaking on Polis’ behalf, called for a community effort to fund the plan, including a ballot measure, which she said would require the governor to work with the legislature and with other stakeholders.
Lopez said Hickenlooper deserved credit for coming up with the plan and called for the use of state lottery dollars, rather than a change to TABOR or asking taxpayers for more money.
Helker talked about beavers, and how when he was a child, someone had used dynamite to blow up a wall he’d built near beaver ponds near his home. The stream that fed the ponds never went dry until then, he said.
A rapid-fire series of questions followed. Mitchell, when asked about the role of research universities in Colorado’s water future, called for block-grant funding in life sciences research. Johnston, asked about the outdoor recreation industry, said he would seek reauthorization of Great Outdoors Colorado, which provides grants for outdoor recreation and conservation projects and would protect in-stream flows for the fishing and rafting industries.
Helker’s topic was on shortages on the Colorado River. “You already know my answer,” he said to a few laughs: beavers.
He said he had ideas on how to address the issue, although he didn’t share them, adding that he would tap the knowledge of experts like those in the room.
Lopez’ topic was how to protect rivers and how to ensure the state’s water supply in the face of the low snowpack. “We need to get more moisture,” he said, but added that he also would look for ways to speed up the permitting process for storage.
Lynne, asked about how to get people of color, low-income and tribal communities engaged in water conversations, pointed out that as lieutenant governor she is already having those conversations with the tribes in her role as state head of Indian affairs.
Krause, on the topic of entrepreneurship, pointed to Polis’ track record on entrepreneurial activities but focused largely on improving the market for industrial hemp.
Finally, the candidates took a moment to address a question on how to convince Coloradans that their lives depend on water. Embrace conservation, said Mitchell. Use the governor’s office as a bully pulpit, said Johnston. Raise awareness, added Lynne. Start with water education in grade schools, Krause said. Talk about water every day, or every week or every month, Lopez suggested.
Helker said when people’s wells go dry and they can’t water their crops, they’ll start talking about water.