Conservation groups go after Hickenlooper for water bill veto

DENVER — Governor John Hickenlooper is drawing backlash for vetoing a bill that conservationists say would have prompted farmers to update their irrigation systems and kept more water in Colorado’s Western Slope streams without asking anyone to forfeit water rights. Hickenlooper said that the final version of the bill, SB 23, lacked sufficient support from agricultural and water groups. Conservationists say Hickenlooper’s veto amounts to a “failure to lead.”

“This legislation was the result of thousands of hours of coalition work over several years,” said Sara Lu of the Clean Water Fund. “The governor had expressed support for the bill, at least through his staff, and then seemingly out of nowhere he turned around and vetoed it.”

Michael Dabbs Flight PhotoThis week, the Clean Water Fund has launched a “failure to lead,” campaign against Hickenlooper. The campaign includes massive ad buys at the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Aurora Daily Sentinel and will see banners proclaiming the governor’s “failure to lead” flown over a Rockies game at Coors field and the Western Governors Association Conference at the Broadmoor hotel. The group is also launching an online, social media-driven campaign, from the site

They’ve also produced a video, which you can watch below.

“Remind Governor Hickenlooper that he used to believe ‘Every discussion about water should start with conservation,’” touts the site’s link to an online petition decrying the veto. Flash animation of a long pipe dripping water into the bottom of the screen anchors the simple, sharable page.

You don’t have to be a politico to know that water is scarce, desperately necessary and politically charged in Colorado. Some 80 percent of the all the state’s water resources flow into agriculture, a $40 billion industry that rivals tourism and energy production among the state’s largest revenue generators.

The Colorado Farm Bureau applauded Hickenlooper’s decision to veto the bill in favor of launching a pilot program and continuing negotiations next year. They said the bill was just too big a shift in a century of Colorado water law for farmers to feel secure in their rights.

Sponsors of the bill emphasized that a farmer’s participation in the program would have been entirely optional. The measure was simply intended to allow farmers water-right wiggle room to better line drainage ditches, or install more efficient sprinklers, without experiencing a legal ratchet effect on their water rights, where if you use less water one season, you must use less forever.

“This was a major initiative to promote wise water use and it was a win-win for Western Slope agricultural users and the environment,” sponsor KC Becker of Boulder said in a release expressing her disappointment and confusion after the veto.

Pretty much everyone agrees the “use-it-or-lose-it” aspect of Colorado water law is a rigid and outdated principle that needs adjusting, but they don’t all agree SB 23 was the solution.

“It’s a great idea, no doubt about it,” said Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District, which opposed the bill. “Our board’s concern was that not all the unintended consequences were figured out. Basically, water court would still be involved and that’s expensive.”

Pokrandt worried what would happen if someone downstream wanted to use the extra water, or what kind of issues a farmer wanting to return to higher usage after a few seasons might face.

Hickenlooper shared this concern, saying in his veto letter, “important questions remain about how best to expand the state’s in-stream flow program without creating injury or cost to downstream users, principally in agriculture.”

Hickenlooper asked the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to team up with lawmakers to make a pilot program in anticipation of tackling the issue next session.

For Sara Lu at Clean Water, that’s just not good enough.

“In his 2014 State of the State address, the governor said that any ‘conversation about water needed to start with conservation.’ Senate Bill 23 was Governor Hickenlooper’s opportunity to show real leadership on water,” she said.

“His willingness to support the undoing of years of work by a significant coalition of Coloradans in order to maintain the status quo is a huge failure to lead on water, and we’re going to hold him accountable.”

Hickenlooper’s office rejects that notion, saying that if Colorado voters re-elect Hickenlooper, he’s already promised to make this issue a priority.

“Failure to sign is not the same as failure to lead,” noted spokesman Eric Brown. “The Governor is taking this on as an administration priority so we lead the collaborative process that fell apart.”

One aspect of the water fight remains clear to everyone involved.

As Rep. Becker pointed out, “If we’re going to effectively manage our state’s most precious natural resource, we had better be open to policy changes.”

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[Rocky Mountain National Park: Tyndall Creek. Photo by Wally Gobetz. Banner photo by Michael Dabbs.]


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