Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration vastly miscalculated the cost of Colorado’s first statewide water plan.
Earlier this month, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources provided The Colorado Independent with the total cost of the state water plan: nearly $6 million. But that number turned out to be more $2 million too high. State officials confirmed this week that the true cost of the water plan is actually $3,885,951, not including staff costs.
So what caused such an egregious error? The Department of Natural Resources says that almost $1 million of the discrepancy came from a simple miscalculation. A staff member accidentally double-counted the cost of the joint implementation plan submitted by metro Denver and South Platte River water stakeholders, one of eight regional implementation plans throughout the state.
These implementation plans are developed by nine regional stakeholder groups, known as basin roundtables, which are made up of representatives of water providers, plus environmental, recreational, industrial and agricultural water users. Each of the nine basin roundtables oversees a major river basin in the state, including the North Platte, the South Platte, the Arkansas, the Colorado, the Gunnison, the Yampa and the Rio Grande. Except for the Denver and South Platte roundtables, which worked jointly, each developed its own plan.
The implementation plans developed by these nine roundtables form the heart of the Colorado Water Plan. But they also include water projects, which aren’t listed in the state water plan itself, that are aimed at finding at least another 1 million acre-feet of water by 2050. One acre-foot is equal to the amount of water it would take to cover the field at Mile High Stadium, from endzone to endzone, with one foot of water – about 326,000 gallons. It’s about enough to quench the needs of four families per year. Multiply that by a million and you get the state’s projected water shortage for 2050, which many water experts say is a lowball estimate.
The rest of the error came from counting grant money that was ultimately not used. DNR spokesman Todd Hartman told The Independent that the original, nearly-$6 million figure included about $1.2 million in grant money, approved by the basin roundtables, that was not actually used to develop the plans. That means the roundtables spent about $3.6 million developing their plans, not the $5.6 million originally reported.
The department also shelled out $287,263 to write up and print the plan and to roll it out in a public presentation at History Colorado last November. That brings the total to $3,885,951.
So what did the basin roundtables spend that $3.6 million on? Most of the money went to pay consultants and project personnel to put together the basin implementation plans.
For example: the Colorado River basin roundtable spent $350,000 in two phases to compile its document. The funding came from a severance tax on revenues that oil and gas and mining companies pay to extract minerals in the state.
There’s one other cost tied to the water plan: more than $30,000 spent by lawmakers and nonpartisan staff who traveled around the state last year to hear from stakeholders about the water plan’s draft versions.
Lawmakers on the interim Water Resources Review Committee were tasked with holding forums in the nine basin areas, which took place between July and October of 2015.
These forums were authorized by legislation passed in 2014, with a two-year appropriation of $28,872. Of that, $25,572 was allocated for lawmaker and staff travel; the last $3,300 was for advertising the forums.
But the travel costs, at $32,481.52, exceeded the appropriation by nearly $7,000.
With those travel costs added in, the water plan’s tab is at $3,918.432.52. That doesn’t include the cost of hours for CWCB staff during the project’s two-year development, including the cost of travel and time for presentations made by Colorado Water Conservation Board chief James Eklund; nor does it include the cost of hours for Legislative Council staff who traveled with lawmakers a year ago.
What did taxpayers get for their nearly $4 million investment?
Not much, critics of the water plan say. Last year, Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Durango Republican who chairs the interim water committee, told the Colorado Water Conservation Board that the public input the committee gathered showed Coloradans wanted more more specifics in the plan to explain how the state will implement solutions. In a September 30 letter to the CWCB, Roberts said the plan should address how the state will come up with the estimated $20 billion required to pay for the water needed to make up for the projected shortfall.
Russ George is a former Speaker of the House from Rifle and former executive director of the Department of Natural Resources under then-Gov. Bill Owens. He sits on the water conservation board, and said of the plan’s roll-out last November that while the plan lacked actionable solutions, it was more of a “scientific document” than a political one. The plan is a “foundation to begin having the political conversation,” he told The Independent.
There has been some preliminary action on the plan since then. During the 2016 session, lawmakers adopted an annual projects bill for the water conservation board that includes $5 million for water plan implementation. That annual appropriation, according to the bill’s fiscal analysis, is to continue indefinitely, and is to be used for “studies, programs and projects” that will help implement the plan.
The projects bill also includes $1 million to continue work on an ongoing initiative to identify and track the state’s water shortage; $200,000 to fund the planning and construction of the Windy Gap Firming Project, one of the identified projects in the South Platte/Denver implementation plan; and $1 million for a reservoir dredging project, to be developed and jointly paid for with a water provider.
While a specific project isn’t identified in the bill, there are several reservoirs around the state that need dredging to clean out silt. Those are mentioned in basin implementation plans, according to Eklund, but not in the state plan.
Photo credit Jeffrey Beall, Creative Commons, Flickr