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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Amendment 74 would make it tougher to protect Colorado’s rivers

Colorado is famous for its snowy mountains and trout-filled rivers; when picturing Colorado, people envision boating, surfing whitewater parks, fishing in gold medal streams, or hiking and biking along rivers and meadows. Colorado’s recreation economy relies on water resources.

Coloradans have shaped this image and protected waterways for many years, ensuring that Colorado remains a great place to live and recreate.

We, as a committee of local elected officials in the headwaters mountain region of the state, are extremely concerned that Amendment 74 would hamper the work of local governments to protect and improve our invaluable rivers and water-dependent landscapes.

The language of Amendment 74 is deceptively simple, saying that any state or local government regulation or law which “reduces” the “fair market value” of private property is subject to “just compensation.”

The problem is that the language is so broad, we do not know what these words really mean. Going to court, at significant expense to the taxpayers, will be the only way to figure out their meaning.

The impacts of Amendment 74 are impossible to predict and the threat of endless litigation will chill regulatory efforts to protect water resources.

Rachel Richards

For these reasons, water organizations around the state are opposing Amendment 74, including such powerful voices as the Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

What we do know is that local governments regularly enact laws and regulations that bolster outdoor recreation and protect rivers and streams. The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Water Quality/ Quantity Committee is a group of elected officials who have been doing this for 40 years in the headwaters region of the state.

The headwaters area is home to many of the mountains so many of us know and love, and approximately 80 percent of the ski resorts in the state from Winter Park to Crested Butte. Our citizens have demanded that we protect these water resources through local land use planning and zoning regulations.

In response, we have successfully protected and restored our water resources to be enjoyed by all Coloradans as well as visitors, who contributed $1.28 billion in 2017 tax revenue according to the Colorado Tourism Office.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Here are some of the ways we are concerned that Amendment 74 might affect our work in the headwaters:

  • The City of Aspen is studying a multitude of techniques to improve the Roaring Fork River’s water quality, ecological health, recreational opportunities and riparian habitat –would solutions that require regulations to impose development setbacks from streams be jeopardized by the threat of Amendment 74 lawsuits?
  • Many of our local governments have enacted open space regulations that direct the prioritization of open space acquisitions for public purposes. Eagle County, for example, focuses on acquiring land to improve public access to the Eagle and Colorado Rivers for rafting, fishing, kayaking or tubing. Would a neighboring landowner claim that increased public access reduces the neighbor’s property value and demand compensation under Amendment 74?
  • Pitkin County has two zoning districts that require a landowner to impose conservation easements before development approval to preserve farm and ranch lands. Leading proponent of Amendment 74, the Colorado Farm Bureau, wants us believe that this amendment is about protecting farms and ranches, but would Amendment 74 make it harder for local governments to help those same farms and ranches because of litigation threats or demands for compensation?
  • Many of our local governments require new development to landscape to conserve water and reduce the run off of sediment and pollutants. The Town of Breckenridge requires that new developments minimize impervious surfaces, use native plants that require little additional water (over and beyond natural precipitation) to survive, and utilize bioswales and permeable paving to allow stormwater to percolate instead of immediate flowing into rivers and streams. Would developers claim that these requirements reduce the developer’s property values and demand compensation?

Local governments enact a host of other regulations to protect public safety, and ensure healthy rivers and streams, such as regulations requiring development setbacks from waterbodies, restricting development on steep slopes or in floodplains, and stormwater management controls to reduce water quality problems and flooding.

All of these could give rise to claims under Amendment 74. The ramifications of Amendment 74 are far-reaching and certainly would impact more than our ability to protect water resources. Any kind of zoning, for example, could raise Amendment 74 concerns.

But we know that water is life in Colorado, and that government laws and regulations are necessary to protect water resources, especially in the headwaters region. Amendment 74 endangers our ability to protect and restore our rivers and streams. We urge a “no” vote on Amendment 74.

Rachel Richards is a 40-year resident of Colorado and has served for 25 years in elected office as an Aspen City Council member, mayor and Pitkin County commissioner. She is currently Secretary of Club 20 and the Chair of the Northwest Council of Governments Water Quality and Quantity Committee.