GOLDEN – Gov. John Hickenlooper is expanding his goals for an already-ambitious state water plan, and he is now aiming to craft a regional plan for the arid Western states.
Hickenlooper has called on Colorado water experts to create a first-ever water plan for Colorado by December. He has been talking about a larger Western states plan since last summer, but he said Thursday that he and other governors pitched the plan to President Barack Obama late last month, and Obama liked what he heard.
Hickenlooper and former Gov. Bill Owens gave a pep talk to water experts at a statewide summit Thursday to advance work on the state water plan, which is supposed to lay out a strategy for preserving the environment, promoting agriculture and allowing the population to double.
During Owens’ tenure, the state created roundtables in each major river basin to begin thinking about a statewide consensus on water. Since then, the groups have had some 780 meetings around the state, Hickenlooper said.
“This really is the right way to go about things, to go down in the grass roots and make sure everyone’s voice is heard,” he said.
He has set December as a target to finish a draft of the plan, although he seemed open to slight delays Thursday.
“It’s a very ambitious goal. We’re moving rapidly,” Hickenlooper said. “I think it’s good to start off and push ourselves as hard as we can.”
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, has been skeptical that enough residents were involved in the Colorado Water Plan. She and other legislators are sponsoring a bill to require hearings around the state and give the Legislature an option to be more involved.
She listened to Thursday’s speech and was happy to hear Hickenlooper sounded flexible about the timetable.
“I think there are a lot of complicated conversations to have, and agreement may be elusive,” Roberts said. “I believe this is a serious effort. The question will be: Can there be sufficient consensus about direction to head in to call it a state water plan.”
At the same time, Hickenlooper said Colorado’s water plan, and similar plans in other Western states, could form the basis of a regional plan for the country’s dry Western states. He and other governors promoted the idea to Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a meeting at the White House two weeks ago, he said.
Obama and Vilsack said they liked the idea, and they would pay for the logistics around developing the plan, but they would let states take the lead.
“There were several senior Washington officials in that room, and they said it was the first time they’d seen the governors come in organized enough that we could hold our own against the federal agencies,” Hickenlooper said.
Since 1922, the Southwestern states have divided their water rights through the Colorado River Compact. Colorado leaders are very wary about tinkering with the compact because of the state’s relative weakness in Congress compared to downstream states like California and Arizona.
Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway reminded Hickenlooper that Republican presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona caused a ruckus during the 2008 campaign when he suggested the Colorado River Compact needed to be renegotiated.
“We obviously would fight that tooth and nail,” Hickenlooper said. “But the best way to avoid that ... is to have a relationship with the other states, and we can put ourselves in their shoes and have them put themselves in our shoes.”
Roberts said she is worried about Colorado’s negotiating strength if the Western states start working on a regional water agreement.
“I’m not sure I’m on board with that. I think it’s a very ambitious task just to get a state water plan,” Roberts said.