A group seeking to jumpstart Gov. John Hickenlooper’s state water plan is asking Gov.-elect Jared Polis to support ways to fund it.
Convened by the Gates and Walton family foundations, the bipartisan group is urging Polis to make it a priority to “advance a solution that can generate broad support,” whatever the specifics of that funding solution may be.
“We hope together we can create the conditions that will allow you to lead on this issue,” reads a letter dated Nov. 15 from Tom Gougeon, president of the Gates (as in the Denver-based rubber company) Family Foundation and Ted Kowalski of the Walton (as in Walmart) Family Foundation.
The foundations are the biggest philanthropic players in Colorado water policy. Both have been urging collaborative solutions to an impending water crisis with an emphasis on “banking” water through market-driven agreements in which water can be transferred, when necessary, between agricultural, urban and environmental uses without the holder of those water rights losing them.
They became involved in the funding conversation last January when, two years after Hickenlooper released Colorado’s first statewide water plan, the governor had shown no action in securing enough funding to implement it. Without funding, critics have said the document is less an actionable plan than a “compendium of ideas.”
The working group had aimed this month to hand the incoming governor a proposed set of specific funding solutions such as revenues from a bottle tax or sports betting. But the results of the Nov. 6 election – and what those results say about the likelihood of winning new funding through a statewide ballot measure, local ballot measures, and the legislature – have delayed the conversation as policy makers and politicos hone a more strategic funding plan.
The water plan seeks to avert a crisis by 2050 when a projected doubling of Colorado’s population and the effects of climate change on water supplies could leave the state with a shortfall massive enough that the water needs of about a million people could not be met.
Hickenlooper’s administration has estimated that it’ll cost $20 billion to meet the goals outlined in his plan. Of that, about $17 billion is expected to come through water rates in local water districts, federal grants and loans, and revenues from state severance tax levied on oil and gas companies for drilling in the state. That leaves a $3 billion – or about $100 million a year – funding gap for parts of the plan that utilities won’t cover. Among those: improving the health of rivers and increasing agricultural conservation and efficiency.
Severance tax revenues long have been Colorado’s main source of water funding, but have proven too volatile with fluctuating oil and gas prices to count on to fill the funding gap.
In January, Gates’s Gougeon and Walton’s Kowalski brought together a group of 21 state officials, municipal and other water bosses, farmers and ranchers, conservation and recreation groups, and business leaders to discuss funding options. They figured that keeping the conversation out of the political sphere, especially in an election year, would be most productive.
After regular conversations over 10 months, members of the working group agreed that a combination of legislature-approved fees and a new tax sought through a statewide ballot measure in 2020 would be the best bet to secure sustainable funding.
One hurdle the group wasn’t able to cross was the issue of equity for Coloradans who will be paying the lion’s share of the water plan’s costs through their water rates. Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water – which provides water to about 25 percent of all Coloradans – has said it would be unfair to expect his ratepayers to pony even more funding though extra fees and taxes.
Another hurdle presented itself on Election Day, when Coloradans voted down two statewide tax measures to fund education and transportation projects. Advocates for both of those failed measures are likely to try again in the 2020, creating significant competition for a would-be statewide water tax proposal.
As Walton’s Kowalski tells it, some members of the working group will, in smaller, more pared-down conversations, explore the political feasibility of a statewide ballot measure and the possibility of a several more local ballot initiatives to fund specific water projects. This year’s election results show voters were willing to give their nod to local tax hikes more they were willing to approve statewide ones.
In the meantime, the “blue wave” – in which Coloradans elected Democrats to control not only the governor’s mansion, but also the offices of the state attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer as well as both chambers of the legislature – is expected to make it easier to pass new fees for water projects legislatively. The pared-down working group will be discussing a list of water priorities that could benefit from lawmaker-approved funding.
“We don’t have all the answers today,” Kowalski said.
His and Gougeon’s call for leadership on the water funding issue seems to have been heard loud and clear.
“Identifying a sustainable and agreeable source of financing for Colorado’s Water Plan is imperative,” Polis told The Independent through his spokeswoman. “Additionally, we need to make sure we are using our existing revenue streams wisely.”