Do you feel like gambling with our state’s water and rivers? The Colorado legislature does, and it’s a gamble we shouldn’t take.
In these last few days of the state legislative session, Colorado lawmakers are trying to shuttle through House Bill 19–1327 which proposes to refer a ballot question to the 2019 November election to allow for “sports betting” and have all bets taxed at rate of 10% to pay for the Colorado Water Plan. If you’re wondering what in the heck sports betting has to do with water, your skepticism will only be amplified as you hear more.
First, the Colorado Water Plan has been a white elephant from the get-go. It was instigated by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014 mostly to fuel and subsidize even more and faster population growth in Colorado, and has mostly supported and promoted even more dams and diversions on Colorado’s already depleted rivers. If you feel like Colorado needs even more people and even more dams and diversions on our rivers, then maybe this makes sense to you, but the vast majority of residents disagree.
In fact, in a highly respected 2019 scientific poll by Colorado College, 86% of Coloradans said “Low Levels of Water in Rivers Is Viewed as a Serious Problem”. Further, the explosive population growth fueling traffic jams and high housing costs across the Front Range are everyday complaints indicating that more population growth is also a “serious problem.” There’s little reason to believe giving the water plan more money would result in any other use for it but to promote population growth and build more dams and diversions.
Second, the Colorado Water Plan is an “all things to all people” policy scheme. It’s one of those “plans” where you give everybody something, and so nobody really gets what they want but nobody gets too mad either. The devil is in the details though, because it’s the legislature and the governor that would decide what parts of the plan would get funded. As an example, the Water Plan supports river protection, dam building, and even more water for “energy” — i.e. fracking.
In fact, a big portion of one proposed huge new dam on the White River in Rio Blanco County supported by the Colorado Water Plan would provide water for the “energy sector” — that’s right, fracking and oil shale. Further, under the auspices of the Colorado Water Plan, the state has already given this dam proposal nearly a million dollars for planning and studies. House Bill 19–1327 mostly does not specify what component of the Water Plan would be funded. Will it fund dams? Will it fund river protection? Will it fund more water for fracking? The answer is probably “yes”.
Third, the bill does specify that part of the money will be used to fund the so-called “Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan”, which in Colorado mostly involves buying water from farmers to try and run it downstream to save Lake Powell in Arizona. Climate change has caused the Colorado River to have significant lower flows, and is predicted to decrease water in the Colorado River even more in the future, which imperils Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam. Further, the best climate science indicates that flows in the Colorado River could decrease by 50% in the coming decades which would completely doom Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam.
The House bill proposes that farmers who agree to not farm and send their water to Arizona to try and save Lake Powell would be “voluntary, temporary, and compensated”. But let me ask you this: Has any climate change scientist ever said climate change will be “temporary”? And has any scientist ever suggested that the impacts of climate change will only happen to “volunteers”? And finally, why should Colorado taxpayers and farmers pay for the impacts of climate change — isn’t it the oil companies and coal companies that should pay because they are causing it? The “Drought Contingency Plan” runs a very high risk of being a Trojan Horse that taxes Coloradans to change state laws and get water away from farmers to try and save a deadbeat dam in Arizona that’s very likely already doomed to fail.
Finally, sports betting has absolutely nothing to do with water — this bill and ballot initiative is a silly gimmick to try and hang water plan funding onto a gambling scheme to make it seem more appealing to a broader swath of voters. But here’s the real truth — water plan funding is such a low priority that this very same legislature cut the funding for it by 66% in next year’s state budget.
If the legislature wants you to be able to bet on college sports games, then let them do it. But gambling with our state’s water and already depleted rivers should not be on the roulette table.
The original version of this piece appeared on Medium on April 28, 2019.
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