DENVER - Rural lawmakers were outraged Wednesday when they heard of plans to increase water fees and end overtime for water commissioners just as irrigation season draws near.
Leaders of the state Department of Natural Resources presented their plans to the House and Senate agriculture committees Wednesday and ran into stiff opposition from several legislators.
One of them was Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, who is a farmer and Republican from Sterling.
"If there's one thing that's important that has more to do with the economy of this state than anything else, it's the water," Sonnenberg said.
In order to balance the budget, the Division of Water Resources plans to end overtime for the rest of the year for its 120 water commissioners, said State Engineer Dick Wolfe, who runs the division. The overtime prohibition would save about $250,000, a tiny fraction of the state's billion-dollar shortfall.
The division also has 25 jobs that are vacant because of the hiring freeze Gov. Bill Ritter imposed last fall.
That has Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, worried that some streams will go without water commissioners this spring - a situation he called unacceptable. Water commissioners do the ground work of administering water rights and making sure farmers and ranchers get their water delivered in the proper order.
Overtime amounts to 25 percent of the pay of some of the commissioners, Doug Kemper of Colorado Water Congress said in a letter to legislators Wednesday.
Kemper said water programs should be paid out of the state general fund because they benefit all citizens. But because of the recession, the Water Congress - an influential lobbying group - would accept some new fees on certain permits.
That's exactly what Wolfe's agency already has in mind. It is proposing a variety of increases on wells, water-supply plans and dams. Many well fees would jump to $665 from their current $100.
Wolfe wants the changes to happen March 1, but first the Legislature must approve the increases.
"If this is going into effect March 1, I hope the people of Colorado are prepared. We're talking about across-the-board fee increases," said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma.
The staffing troubles and fee increases had several lawmakers questioning the priorities of the Department of Natural Resources - the parent agency of Wolfe's water division.
Department head Harris Sherman said he shared lawmakers' belief in the importance of water.
"I totally agree - this is one of our top priorities," Sherman said. "We have to make sure we're finding a way to properly administer the state's water resources."
Isgar said he could support fee increases only if they cover the cost of inspections - not to help balance the state budget.
Lawmakers such as Sonnenberg are already angry that some agricultural fees, especially a fee for brand inspections, are being used to help bail out the budget.
"Quite honestly, what's going to happen is we're going to balance the budget on the back of agriculture," Sonnenberg said.
The Legislature will debate several budget-cutting bills next week.