As a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources, I am part of a group that is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting our environment and natural resources. This includes overseeing our state-owned water, private water rights, public water facilities and the state’s water law system.
Much of Colorado is federal land and our rivers spring to life in our national forests; yet they are also subject to our state water laws, so we must be diligent in ensuring that federal agencies respect our laws and our private property rights. This requires that we work with and sometimes oppose the federal government. As a Western Slope legislator, I consider protecting our private water rights and improving our water quality to be some of my most serious responsibilities.
For this reason, although I was not appointed to the interim water committee this year, I participated in Water Congress meetings during the session and recently attended the 2013 summer conference in Steamboat Springs, to continue my education on water issues. The mission of the Colorado Water Congress is to provide leadership on key water-resource issues and to be a principal voice for Colorado’s water community; its members provide an open forum to share information, form positions and advocate for a strong, effective and fair state water program. They believe, as I do, that Colorado’s water shapes the future of the state. Although I was not a water lawyer before my election, I am doing my best to learn as much as I can on this important issue.
The topics of this three-day conference provoked much discussion and thought. “The U.S. Forest Service and Water Rights” addressed the conditions imposed on ski areas and grazing permit holders on national forest land, which I believe are unconstitutional because of the potential to weaken or strip their private water rights. We must take action to protect these individuals from losing their water rights.
The “State Water Planning” seminar discussed the Colorado Water Plan, which was ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper and should be completed by 2014 under the helm of James Eklund of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. We were also briefed on the water plans of California, Texas, Idaho and New Mexico.
We then heard from Hickenlooper, who shared the various reasons for putting together a statewide water plan. The current outlook for our water is dire: Much of our economy depends on a continued water supply – particularly in the agricultural sector, which currently makes up about 90 percent of our water usage across the state – and there is a direct relationship between drought, the recent wildfires and damage to our creeks, rivers and lakes. Further, our state’s population will double to 10 million by 2050 and municipal use will demand an ever-increasing share of our water, because more than 80 percent of our residents already live on the Front Range. We are not going to be able to sustain our farms, our families and our environment unless we plan our future and do it right.
The second day brought two critical topics to the floor; both talks were most informative. “Water, Wildfire and Forest Health” showed how wildfire mitigation is necessary to protect our water and wildlife, and how much damage can be avoided by good wildfire practices. The second discussion, “What Exactly Does Saving Ag Mean?” discussed our agricultural sector in Colorado and how water affects farms. With my colleagues from both sides of the aisle, I cast important votes this year in favor of keeping as much water in agriculture as possible, and, as a Western Slope legislator, I am absolutely committed to continuing to protect our agricultural families and their water rights.
I also must confess I have become a convert to the idea of storing water in preparation for times of drought. When I first moved to Durango in 1974, local water legend Sam Maynes was already working hard on the Animas-La Plata Project, which has given us and our tribal neighbors Lake Nighthorse. I was against it. However, after experiencing all these years of drought, I now see Sam, Fred Kroeger and all those who toiled for more than 37 years as visionaries who were protecting our water for the future. I remember well that my own neighborhood was saved from total destruction in 2002 by water taken from our own lake. This is not to say that we should dam every river; rather, we should look to reservoirs, underground water storage and other environmentally friendly projects – such as Long Hollow – to provide storage water for these droughts that might continue for many years. Storage, as our Anasazi neighbors proved, can be a life-saving practice in times of extreme drought.
Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first two days of the Steamboat conference, as I had plans for a Friday luncheon with Agricultural Commissioner John Salazar at the State Fair in Pueblo, which I attended with my college professor, Wally Stealey. I was able to stay for the presentation of the Centennial Farms awards and proudly watched as Semler Farms of Bayfield and the Middleton Ranch of Ouray County received the recognition they deserve for having their farms in production for 100 years. What an accomplishment.
Mike McLachlan represents House District 59 in Colorado’s General Assembly. The district encompasses La Plata, Archuleta, San Juan, Ouray and Hinsdale counties and part of Gunnison County. Call McLachlan at (303) 866-2914 or email mike.mclachlan.house@state.