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Denver Water is planning a major expansion of the reservoir that will increase height of the Gross Reservoir Dam outside Boulder by 131 feet and water storage by 77,000 acre-feet. Local residents and environmental groups are fighting against the expansion. (Chris Schneider, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When then-Gov. John Hickenlooper set out to create Colorado’s first comprehensive water plan in 2013, he called the chasm between the state’s water supply and its demand “real and looming.”

Colorado’s water supply is already struggling to meet the demands of a growing state today. By 2050, Colorado is expected to add another 3 million people. Yet water projects account for a fraction of a percent in the current $30.5 billion state spending plan. So the goal of the water plan was to treat it like a priority and identify areas of need when limited state budget dollars are allocated each year. 

Six years and a new administration later, Colorado voters get to decide on whether a proposed statewide tax on legalized sports betting is necessary and whether it should go toward water projects under Proposition DD. It represents a significant moment for water, elevating the resource to a state spending priority in a political environment that has long left such matters to local water authorities.

MORE: Colorado Voter Guide 2019: What you need to know about propositions CC and DD before you vote

To be clear, even if it passes, the tax on sports gambling would not generate enough revenue to cover even conservative estimates of how much the water plan will cost the state. The plan cites a $3 billion funding gap out of $20 billion in needed projects through 2050, but one state water official has said the total cost could be closer to $40 billion.

Nonetheless, water advocates see it as a good first step to addressing an issue that could dictate the state’s future capacity to accommodate more residents and keep the agricultural economy intact.

“Transportation and education are top of mind for everybody,” said Brian Jackson, the senior manager of western water for the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization backing the ballot question. “Water has been left to the experts for far too long.”

So what do nonexperts need to know?

Here are more details about the plan: What’s in it, what it will cost and why you should care.

Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

What’s in the Colorado Water Plan? Why do we have one?

The water plan was created by the Colorado Water Conservation Board at the direction of Hickenlooper’s executive order. First released in 2015, plan clocks in at 567 pages, laying out broad goals and providing a rough sketch of how to get there. But it doesn’t prescribe a specific project list — meaning, it’s not easy to demonstrate how each dollar would get spent. That task is left largely to the nine water-basin roundtables, which assess their own areas’ needs and propose solutions. The roundtables, organized by region and focused on specific rivers, such as the Colorado and Arkansas, are made up of groups of water managers and other local stakeholders with a vested interest in maintaining their area’s water supply.

The first priority of the water plan is closing the 560,000-acre-foot gap that Colorado is expected to have between supply and demand by 2050. That’s a little over twice the size of the Dillon Reservoir. Some of that is just a result of a growing population, which is projected to balloon to over 8 million within the next 30 years from 5.7 million today. But climate change also plays a role.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

The plan calls for closing that gap primarily through conservation — using less water — but storage would be expanded, too, through the use of dams and reservoirs. The state also seeks to minimize “buy and dry,” the practice of buying up agricultural water rights and diverting it to residential or industrial water users. And it calls for financing a wide range of projects such as refurbishing ditches and irrigation systems to waste less water.

If Colorado does nothing to save water, state officials estimate 700,000 acres of irrigated farmland would dry up in the coming decades. That’s 20% of all the irrigated agricultural land in the state.

MORE: What sports gambling would mean in Colorado and how much (or little) it would generate

How much will the water plan cost Colorado?

The plan cites a $20 billion price tag. Most of that would be paid for by water utilities around Colorado — and their ratepayers — leaving about $3 billion in unmet needs for the state. Spread out annually through 2050, that would require the state to spend $100 million a year beginning in 2020.

But the current director of the Water Conservation Board, who took over after the plan was first created, has said the true cost may be closer to $40 billion, creating a funding gap of as much as $23 billion over the same period. That would be an annual price tag for the state of over $700 million.

No matter which estimate you use, the money generated by sports betting won’t go far in closing the gap. The official state voter guide, known as the blue book, expects the measure to generate about $14.9 million a year for the Water Implementation Cash Fund, out of which water projects can be financed. The measure itself ask voters to approve up to $29 million annually in new taxes, but fiscal analysts don’t expect it to generate that much. And even if it did, some of the funding would be set aside for administrative costs and other uses.

A kayaker paddles through the Five Points rapids on the Arkansas River in Colorado’s Big Horn Sheep Canyon on June 12, 2019. Flows in the canyon that day were reported at 4,240 cubic feet per second. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

How are water projects funded now?

The state primarily funds water plan needs in two ways. One is through low-interest loans to agricultural, municipal and commercial borrowers, who can use the money for qualifying water projects, such as reservoirs, hydroelectric facilities and other infrastructure. The state has $50 million to lend, and borrowers can get interest rates as low as 1.25% to pay back the state. The state also awards grants to local governments, utilities and other entities, such as water conservancy districts.

Each basin roundtable develops its own plan to address water needs in their region, which often involve locally driven projects. But to receive state support, a project needs the backing of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which oversees the state’s water funding. Of the 15 board members, 10 receive a vote and are appointed by the governor. Most of these members are representatives of the various basins across the state.

Unlike transportation, there isn’t a centralized priority list. Projects are funded through a competitive grant process, as funding comes available. This year, the legislature appropriated $10 million in discretionary spending from general fund for water-related grants, on top of another $20 million from severance taxes and other funds in the past.

MORE: The faith-based and environmental opposition to Colorado’s Proposition DD makes for strange company

The water plan has bipartisan support. But it’s not without critics.

Prop. DD was sent to voters with bipartisan support from 85 of the state’s 100 lawmakers, a resounding endorsement that’s especially rare for anything involving taxes.

Outside the Capitol, the proposition has drawn support from a diverse array of interests that includes rural communities and urban cities; major business groups such as Colorado Concern and environmental advocates such as Conservation Colorado; and left-leaning advocacy groups as well as right-leaning chambers of commerce.

The political agreement is all the more remarkable given the urban-rural divide at the heart of water-rights disputes — more water demand from the Front Range means less of the resource for the Western Slope or small town farmers, and vice versa.

“Water is not without conflict, for sure,” said Jackson with the Environmental Defense Fund. “But it’s pretty remarkable, and I think an inflection point in water policy that we have a water plan.”

MORE: Controversy over Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir expansion offers a glimpse into water woes in the West

There isn’t a major political campaign to defeat the measure, but not everyone’s on board. Opponents object to aspects of the water plan itself, as well as how Prop. DD proposes funding it.

Climate advocate Gary Wockner is the leader of the only state-registered committee in opposition to the ballot question. For years, he has criticized the water plan for endorsing the use of dams and river diversions to create storage. That’s a view shared by a number of environmental advocates, who say dams do irreparable harm to natural ecosystems. And although he supports action to conserve water and repair damage done by climate change, Wockner doesn’t think gamblers — or most other Colorado taxpayers, for that matter — should be stuck with the bill.

“It’s an absolutely egregious violation of climate justice to have the public taxpayer paying for climate damage,” said Wockner, the leader of Coloradans for Climate Justice. “Fossil-fuel companies are causing the damage, and they should pay.”

Jackson and other supporters counter the argument by suggesting that the measures the critics oppose, such as dams, would be done by utilities whether Prop. DD passes or not.

“What we don’t have any funding for,” Jackson said, are things such as protecting rivers and streams.

To that end, the water plan seeks to identify rivers and critical watersheds that are in need of environmental protection, and sets a goal of developing protection plans that would cover 80% of them by 2030. But its success will hinge on putting together enough public and private funding to implement the protection measures once they’re in place.

Fly fishing on the Gunnison River. (Provided photo)

What are the stakes in Prop. DD?

If the ballot question succeeds, it’s a first step toward tackling an issue that’s almost certain to become a more visible part of the state politics in the decades to come, much as it is in California, where population growth and drought have led to strict restrictions on water use. 

But it’s only a step, representing only a fraction of the money that state officials say is needed to address the state’s water problem. “This is the name of the game in Colorado,” said Jackson, alluding to the state’s tight restrictions on public spending. “It’s a good start, but it’s certainly not fixing the entire problem.”

If Prop. DD fails, it leaves the state with yet another obligation and limited revenue to spread around. Lawmakers in recent years have set aside funding for water grants, but the issue hasn’t received as much attention in the grand scheme of the state budget as advocates say is needed.

Brian Eason

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @brianeason