Grand Junction: CMU #ColoradoRiver Basin Conference November 6-7

51st State Initiative

51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record
51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record

From KUNC (Burt Hubbard) via The Greeley Tribune:

Colorado could stand to benefit financially and would see some improvement in the educational and economic standings of its remaining citizens if 10 northeastern counties should make good on their threat to secede and carve out a new state of North Colorado.

But what’s left of Colorado would also lose half of its lucrative oil wells, much of its prime farmland and some of the lowest crime areas in the state.

In addition to the 10 northeast Colorado counties that have a secession vote on November’s ballot, Moffat County in far northwest Colorado also will vote on whether to leave. But Moffat apparently wants to become Baja, Wyo.

I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS analyzed census, budget, crime and voter records to develop profiles of a new 51st state and a truncated Colorado. Suffice it to say, Colorado would no longer be considered a square state. And, of course, neither would Wyoming, with its new Moffat County panhandle.

Residents of the 11 counties will decide next month whether to start the fraught with difficulty political journey to leave Colorado and, in the case of the northeast counties, become a new state.

West Virginia was the last state to manage such a separation, in 1863, during the American Civil War, a move that was validated solely by a proclamation from President Lincoln, according to a state Web site.

It isn’t that easy today. One impediment: Both houses of the U.S. Congress would have to agree.

But proponents of secession said rural Coloradans are tired of having unpopular laws like stronger gun control and mandatory alternative energy standards forced on them by a Front Range dominated state Legislature.

“What has happened is the urbanization of America has disenfranchised the rural population,” said Jeffrey Hare, one of the organizers of the 51st State Initiative.

John Straayer, political science professor at Colorado State University, said bills from the last legislative session appear to have aroused animosity toward the legislature.

“In terms of the immediate trigger, guns and probably SB 252 (requiring use of alternative energy resources),” Straayer said. “They allege that it is more than that, not being treated properly by the legislature on a variety of issues for a long time.”

The eventual exodus, if the constitutional minefield could be navigated, would create a North Colorado of about 336,000 people, supplanting Wyoming as the least populous state in the U.S. It would leave Colorado with about 4.7 million residents, dropping it to the 23rd most populous state behind Alabama.

One of the key questions is the financial viability of a new state and its impact on the remainder of Colorado.

Financially, state government in Colorado would probably come out ahead if the 11 counties left, according to I-News estimates of how much revenue the state receives from the counties compared to expenditures there.

The counties generate between $360 million and $400 million yearly for the state in sales tax, state income tax and the state’s share of vehicle registration fees. That accounts for about three-fourths of the revenue Colorado receives from those counties each year from taxes and fees.

Extrapolating forward, that would be the equivalent of between $500 million and $560 million in revenue lost to the state from the 11 counties.

The state natural resources department estimates that oil and gas operations in those counties generate about $28 million in severance tax for state coffers each year.

Historically, oil and gas operators in Weld County have contributed little or, in some years, no state severance tax because they can take credits against the state severance tax for the property taxes they have paid in each county.

On the other side of the ledger, the state spends about $520 million in the 11 counties for K-12 school funding, incarcerating criminals from the counties, providing Medicaid, running the courts and the state’s share of running a university and three community colleges.

Those costs equal about 84 percent of the state’s overall general fund spending in the secession-voting counties. Extrapolating forward, that would come to total spending of about $620 million.

Bottom line: Colorado spends between about $60 million and $120 million or more a year in the 11 counties than the revenue it receives.

“There’s still a lot of (state) money coming back to these counties,” said Brian Lewandowski, economist with the Leeds Business School at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

By comparison, a similar analysis of Denver showed the county provides more tax and fee revenue to the state than it gets back in state funding for programs.

“You’ve got densely populated areas where there is a lot of wealth like Denver County and Douglas County,” said Lewandowski.

However, advocates of secession disagree with the I-News analysis and point to their own report that shows the counties break even with state government on spending and revenue.

The differences between the two analyses involved spending figures on K-12 education, revenue from the state income tax and severance taxes from oil and gas development.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office had no comment on what financial impact the secession would have on Colorado.

The I-News analysis did not examine how much money the counties currently receive directly from oil and gas operations. That’s money that would help run a new state.

More than half of Colorado’s oil and gas wells would reside in the new state, mostly in Weld.

“It’s pretty amazing the amount of dollars that it generates,” Lewandowsk said.

Weld County alone gets 55 percent of its property tax revenue from exploration. That has resulted in a current $100 million county contingency fund and no debt, said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, a leading proponent of secession who previously was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.

During the recent flooding, the county was able to re-open its roads on its own.

“We’ve done this on our own,” Conway said. “We haven’t got help from the state.”

Not all politicians in Weld County want to secede.

Tom Norton, the mayor of Greeley and former Republican president of the state Senate, wrote in a column in The Tribune this summer that, while some state decisions have hurt rural Colorado, collaboration with the state, not secession, is the solution.

Demographically and politically, the two states — North Colorado and Colorado — would look quite different, the I-News analysis showed.

North Colorado would be predominately Republican with the fifth highest ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Colorado would outnumber Republicans for the first time in years.

“We would have a red state and a blue state,” Straayer said.

The would-be exiting counties are generally poorer and less educated than the rest of Colorado, according to Census data.

College education levels in North Colorado would be on par with those of Tennessee and Oklahoma, while college graduation rates would rise in Colorado to the second highest in the nation.

North Colorado would have among the lowest crime rates in the nation, ranking from fifth to 11th lowest among states for rape, robbery, burglary and car theft.

Colorado’s overall crime rates would go up, with motor vehicle theft rates almost three times higher than those of the 51st state.

North Colorado would have a higher percentage of families among its households, be younger on average and have a higher percent of Latinos. In fact, the new state would have the 6th highest percent of Hispanics in the U.S. But its black population would only be about 1 percent, the fifth lowest in the U.S.

And then, of course, there are the issues of marijuana and tornadoes. Legal pot would stop at old Colorado’s borders. About half of the state’s tornadoes touch down every year in the counties that would leave Colorado.

Even if approved by the counties involved, secession would appear to remain a long shot. It would require both Colorado and federal approval.

State ratification could come in a citizens’ initiative, such as the one that legalized recreational marijuana, in a ballot measure from the legislature, or in an act of the legislature, said Richard Collins, professor at the University of Colorado School of Law.

If that happened, it would then need approval by both houses of Congress.

In the meantime, the effort has drawn national publicity and its share of political quips.

Last month, when Hickenlooper was looking at flood damage in Julesburg which would be part of the new state, he assured officials there that all Colorado would be working together to overcome the disaster, before quipping, “then you all can get back to seceding.”

And Conway could not resist a dig at his two least favorite counties when talking about interest in secession being voiced elsewhere — including in some counties not involved in the current effort.

“When we’re done, we might be voting Denver and Boulder off the island.”

More 51st State Initiative coverage here.

NSAA vs. USFS: Reps Polis and Tipton are pushing legislation in opposition to the USFS’s ‘taking’ of water rights

Copper Mountain snowmaking via ColoradoSki.com
Copper Mountain snowmaking via ColoradoSki.com

From The Watch (Gus Jarvis):

Tipton’s bill, which was introduced in Congress on Sept. 26 and has the support of representatives Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) as co-sponsors, comes as the U.S. Forest Service works to update a clause on its ski area special permits that would tie water rights to the land ski areas are on.

According to Tipton’s office, the Water Rights Protection Act would protect communities, businesses, recreation opportunities, farmers and ranchers as well as other individuals that rely on privately held water rights for their livelihood from federal takings. It would do so by prohibiting federal agencies from confiscating water rights through the use of permits, leases, and other land management arrangements.

“Long-held state water law protects the many uses vital to Colorado and Western States – from recreation to irrigation, domestic use and environmental protection,” Tipton stated in a press release. “Unfortunately, all of this is being undermined by federal intrusion that creates uncertainty and jeopardizes the livelihoods of communities, individuals, and businesses responsible for thousands of jobs. To undermine this system is to create risk and uncertainty for all Western water users.

“Our bill will restore needed certainty by ensuring that privately held water rights will be upheld and protect users from federal takings,” he added.

The U.S. Forest Service currently has a policy to keep water rights with the land when it issues permits for ski areas and codified that clause on ski area special permits in 2011 and 2012. However, the U.S. District Court, in National Ski Areas Association, Inc. v. United States Forest Service, ruled that the federal agency must vacate its 2012 Forest Service Directive on ski area water rights. The judge overseeing the case declined to rule on the substance of the Forest Service directive, but determined the clauses were a legislative rather than an interpretive rule, which means that the agency is required to provide public notice and comment before issuing a final clause.

A proposed clause tying water rights to special use permits has not yet been issued by the U.S. Forest Service for comment.

For Polis, who represents Colorado’s Second Congressional District, the inability for ski areas to own water rights for their snowmaking capabilities adds uncertainty to the future of their business and that’s why he co-sponsored the bill.

“Ski areas are in the best position to decide what water rights they need for their future operations and make a significant investment in water rights,” Polis said on Monday. Vail Breckenridge, Keystone, Winter park, Loveland, Eldora, Arapahoe Basin, and Copper Mountain are all located in Polis’ Second Congressional District. “If these businesses cannot own the water they purchase, they are forced to operate in an uncertain climate that impedes their ability to raise capital, hinders long-term planning, and reduces investments in future projects. Concern about ski area water rights being sold or moved is misguided. Ski areas have already offered to provide successor owners with an option to purchase sufficient water if that area were to be sold.”

More water law coverage here.

Water used for hydraulic fracturing poses treatment and disposal problems

The hydraulic fracturing water cycle via Western Resource Advocates
The hydraulic fracturing water cycle via Western Resource Advocates

From The National Geographic (Bill Chameides):

…a paper published this week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology by Nathaniel Warner formerly of Duke University and colleagues focuses on another of those environmental costs: disposal of wastewater.

Hydraulic fracturing, as the term implies, involves water — both at the front end with fracking fluid, the water-based chemical cocktail that is injected into the shale, and at the back end where there is flowback water and produced water.

Flowback water (which literally “flows back” during the fracking process) is a mixture of fracking fluid and formation water (i.e., water rich in brine from the targeted shale gas-rich rock). Once the chemistry of the water coming out of the well resembles the rock formation rather than the fracking fluid, it is known as produced water and can continue to flow as long as a well is in operation…

As a general rule, you would not want to take a shower much less drink flowback or formation water, nor would you want to just pour the stuff into a river or stream (although that has been known to happen, as described here and here). Fracking wastewater can contain massive amounts of brine (salts), toxic metals, and radioactivity. And so the gas companies have a problem: what to do with the stuff.

Ideally, the water would be reused or recycled, eliminating the need for immediate disposal. And indeed there is a lot of that. In the Marcellus Shale gas country of Pennsylvania, for example, a large percentage of the water, in the vicinity of 70 percent, is currently reused. And methods to reuse more are being developed. Even so, that leaves a massive amount of toxic wastewater to be disposed of.

One disposal route is injection into deep wells, and a good deal of flowback and produced water from the Marcellus Shale is transported to Ohio for just such a deep burial. But this method has its own problems — the injection process has the inconvenient habit of causing an earthquake every now and again.

Another alternative is waste treatment: removing the contaminants and then dumping the“clean” water into a nearby sewer or river. But you can’t use a standard municipal water treatment plant to treat flowback and produced water as those facilities are just not designed to handle the level of contamination, especially radioactivity, found in these waters.

But there are so-called brine treatment plants that are at least in principle equipped to handle that level of contamination. Although they’ve been in use for quite some time to treat water from conventional oil and gas operations, many facilities of this type have been found lacking and some have even incurred fines for failure to meet Clean Water Act or other regulatory standards.

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

Colorado River Basin: Water shortages on the horizon? #ColoradoRiver

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands -- Graphic/USBR
Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR

From MSN.com (Bob Berwyn):

“The bottom line is, the [2007 shortage sharing agreements] were major progress — people could agree on reservoir levels where things are out of the normal, and we’ve hit that,” [Eric] Kuhn told MSN News. With the overall climate picture shading toward drier conditions, water managers need to be very cautious in planning for the next few years and beyond, he added.

In a July 1 memo that outlines what the looming shortages could mean for the region, Kuhn wrote that several more dry years would lead to even greater cuts in water deliveries to the arid Southwest. He said there also would be huge impacts to hydropower generation at the Hoover Dam, on the border of Arizona and Nevada.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.