While much of the discussion surrounding the local control initiatives in Colorado has been focused on oil and gas activity, water officials are concerned that those measures, if voters approve them in November, could have huge impacts on water functions as well.
Some of the ongoing initiatives in Colorado — like Initiative 75, which has been cleared by the Colorado Supreme Court for signature gathering to get it on a ballot, and Initiative 89, which is still being challenged — aim to give local governments more say in how natural resources within their boundaries are, or aren’t, used.
Much of the effort in pushing such initiatives has been put forth by groups that want municipalities to have more control when it comes to drilling and fracking for oil and gas.
But Eric Wilkinson — general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, which oversees the largest water-supply operations in northern Colorado — said during the 2014 Protein Producer Summit in Colorado Springs that the vague “nature” and “natural resources” language of the initiatives leaves him to believe that water, too, would be impacted.
He and others are concerned in how differing rules put in place by various local governments — with the new authority — could interact with private water rights, many of which in Colorado date back to the 1800s.
“It would create a great deal of uncertainty,” Wilkinson said, referring not only to the potential impacts on how water rights holders could use their water, but also how local governments implementing their own new rules could impact the creation of new water-supply projects for other users in the region.
Much of the water used in Colorado — primarily snowpack that melts in the mountains and fills rivers, reservoirs and irrigation ditches — crosses through various municipal boundaries before making it to the water right holders who can legally use it.
For example, much of the city of Greeley’s water comes from sources in Larimer County, and the approval of the initiatives could allow municipalities in Larimer County to create new rules that might impact how Greeley gets its water.
Agriculture, too, might be impacted, as new rules set in nearby municipalities could change how water is or isn’t used, or is or isn’t delivered, to the irrigation and ditch companies that provide water to farmers and ranchers, according to concerned water officials in Colorado.
In addition to Wilkinson, there’s Doug Kemper, executive director for the Colorado Water Congress.
If these initiatives were to be become part of the state’s constitution, Kemper said, “no water right would be safe.”
Kemper said during a phone interview last week that the Colorado Water Congress is challenging some of the ongoing initiatives in the Colorado Supreme Court, adding that a number of municipalities — including the city of Greeley — and other entities throughout the state have put forth a total of 73 resolutions against the initiatives.
If initiatives 75 and 89 are approved by voters, Kemper said, the potential conflicts between local governments and private water right owners would create a barrage of lawsuits throughout the state.
Initiative 75, backed by Colorado Community Rights Network, would give local governments “the power to define or eliminate the rights and powers of corporations or business entities to prevent them from interfering with (local) fundamental rights.”
Initiative 89 — managed by Coloradans for Safety and Clean Energy, a campaign committee supported by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder — would create the so-called “Environmental Bill of Rights.”
Outside of the water circles, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has attempted — without success — to find consensus among energy firms, business groups and local governments for legislation that would address some of the community concerns over drilling and head off the ballot initiatives.
Ballot initiatives require at least 86,105 valid signatures before Aug. 4 in order to be voted on in November.