It may be time to amend the old adage, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”
On three different ballot questions in the 2019 and 2020 elections, Colorado voters set aside differences and chose to tax themselves to invest in the state’s water future. It’s clear that water wins in Colorado, and it wins because diverse coalitions unite against our significant and growing water challenges to face them together.
The collaboration of ranchers and rafters, cattlemen and city-dwellers, environmentalists and entrepreneurs has proven politically powerful at a critical time. This year, we’ve seen wildfires ravage Colorado’s forests and watersheds, making it the state’s worst fire season on record – and it’s not over yet.
Seventy-five percent of the state is currently in “extreme or exceptional” drought. Climate change is warming our summers, decreasing runoff from snowpack, and speeding up spring melts, leading to less water in our rivers. Our water supply is shrinking yet the demands for that water continue to grow.
Colorado voters passed Proposition DD in 2019 to legalize and tax sports betting and send proceeds to implement Colorado’s Water Plan. This year, two regional water measures passed overwhelmingly that will generate a combined $8 million a year to support healthy rivers, local agriculture, watershed and forest health, and water quality.
On the Front Range, voters approved a property tax increase for the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, which will provide an additional $3.3 million a year to the district’s efforts to protect local water supply. On the Western Slope, residents voted to pass a mill levy increase for the Colorado River Water Conservation District to bring in nearly $5 million annually to support water projects backed by Basin Roundtables and communities.
The Western Slope water measure won with 69% of the vote in conservative Mesa County, where President Trump prevailed by 62% and U.S. Rep.-elect Lauren Boebert won by 61%, proving beyond a doubt that water transcends partisanship.
These three measures combined could generate at least $15 million a year to implement water projects and programs around the state that will provide multiple benefits to Colorado watersheds, wildlife, and communities. Projects like increasing flows in rivers and streams, expanding municipal conservation efforts, improving outdated agricultural infrastructure, multi-user water storage, and mitigating forest fire risks. This is a great start and an enormous upfront investment.
Colorado’s Water Plan – a statewide water blueprint designed to ensure a productive economy, efficient and effective water infrastructure, and a strong environment – identifies a need for $100 million annually to protect scarce water resources to prevent future water shortages in the state.
COVID-19 has impacted state budgets and funding mechanisms that go to water, including the very volatile severance tax from oil and gas revenues. This year, Gov. Jared Polis’ budget includes $20 million for watershed health investments as a response to the worst wildfire season in Colorado’s history. Recent budgets for the first time allocated general fund dollars for water. This additional financial commitment over the recent past is great news, and we will need more down the road.
Colorado’s first Water Plan brought together a strong coalition, including our two organizations, and we remain active today, working on the big issues: Protecting river health, wildlife and ecosystems, supporting thriving agriculture, promoting smart water use in our cities, and finding the funding to get it all done.
Colorado’s water challenges aren’t going away, and we look forward to investing our new resources, updating the state’s Water Plan, and improving the resilience of Colorado’s rivers and water systems.
Water will always have its conflicts, but the last two years have taught us that when future water funding needs and opportunities arise, a diverse cross-section of Colorado stakeholders and voters will support them every time.
When it comes to investing in Colorado’s water future, perhaps whiskey is for celebrating and water is for the victory hangover.
Jon Goldin-Dubois is president of Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based group that seeks to protect the West’s land, air and water. Terry Fankhauser is executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, an Arvada-based organization that serves as an advocate for Colorado beef production.
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