State officials alerted the Durango City Council on Tuesday of two ballot initiatives that could impact the city’s water rights.
Douglas Kemper, executive director of Colorado Water Congress, joined Bruce Whitehead of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, and elected leaders to educate the council on two initiatives that could change the state’s prior appropriation system for managing water claims. Prior appropriation is a way of water allocation that controls who uses how much water, the types of uses allowed and when those waters can be used.
The secretary of state’s website said any person can draft a statewide initiative to amend the state constitution. If proponents of the ballot measure gets enough signatures, about 86,105, all voters in the state would decide the issue. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed initiatives 89 and 75.
The Water Congress, a nonprofit group providing leadership on water issues, created a stewardship project that tracks, what it believes are, “public trust doctrine” initiatives that would change how Colorado allocates water. The group opposes public-trust initiatives. Switching to a public-trust system would mean the government would decide how to allocate water rights instead of who came first, according to Kemper.
Initiative 75 would give local governments the power to approve laws that would establish the fundamental rights of residents, communities and nature. It would give local governments expanded power over businesses, such as allowing local laws to establish or eliminate the rights of corporations and other businesses operating in the community to protect the rights of people, communities and nature.
“Those are some pretty far-reaching powers,” Kemper said. “Basically, it says those local laws would be superior to international, federal or state law.”
Initiative 89 declares that Colorado’s environment is the common property of all Coloradoans, including the clean air, pure water, and natural and scenic values. It makes state and local governments trustees of the environment and requires them to protect the environment.
Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr. wrote in a dissenting opinion on Initiative 89 that the initiative would create a new common property right that would override existing private and publicly held property rights.
“Initiative 89 would upend the existing regulatory balance and thrust private-property owners and governments into an uncertain future,” Hobbs wrote.
Kemper said because the Colorado Water Congress takes public funding, it can’t urge voters to vote one way or another. However, it can take positions on issues. The stewardship project is designed to raise awareness, he said.
“I think these things do sound so good on the surface,” said state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. “But when you really dig in, you find out it’s a lawyer’s dream. As a lawyer, I have nothing against lawyers, but I think there’s better ways to spend our time and money.”
State Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, urged city councilors to draft a resolution opposing these initiatives. The Southwestern Water Conservancy District has issued a resolution in opposition to public trust initiatives.
“We don’t know exactly how (Initiative 89) would work, but we do know conceptually, it would take away, impair, in fact, maybe destroy the existing water rights of everybody in the state of Colorado – including the municipalities,” he said. “As you know, the city of Durango has substantial water rights, and I think this would be endangered by this proposition.”