2014 Colorado legislation: Gov. Hickenlooper’s veto of SB14-023 rankles conservationists #COleg #ColoradoRiver

Colorado instream flow program map via the Colorado Water Conservation Board
Colorado instream flow program map via the Colorado Water Conservation Board

From the Colorado Independent (Tessa Cheek):

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.”

This 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 http://failuretolead.org/ […]

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.

From Steamboat Today (Michael Schrantz):

The decision about what to do with Senate Bill 23 wasn’t easy, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wrote. “It was a close call.”

But, ultimately, those sentiments were delivered in a veto letter, and the bill that provided incentives for Western Slope water efficiency measures will have to be reworked and revisited in another legislative session.

The veto sparked immediate blowback from conservation organizations that criticized Hickenlooper’s actions as incompatible with his rhetoric on water issues in the state…

While it’s true the bill enjoyed the backing of multiple water organizations and the governor’s own administration testified in its support, Hickenlooper’s veto letter pointed out that the message was not unanimous.

“Our membership was somewhat split on this,” said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, after the veto.

While the Colorado Water Congress worked with legislators for months and eventually supported the bill, the Colorado River Water District, which represents Western Slope counties, saw its opposition specifically cited in Hickenlooper’s veto letter.

Agricultural interests were similarly divided. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association supported the bill while the Colorado Farm Bureau opposed it.

Senate Bill 23 was intended to provide a process for water rights holders in certain divisions to implement agricultural efficiency measures without putting their rights at risk of abandonment. The efficiency savings would have been transferred to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for an instream use, while giving the original rights holders the option to get that water back in the future.

The Colorado River Water District praised the veto in a news release and stated that the approach taken by Senate Bill 23 was “too costly and likely ineffective.”

In his letter, Hickenlooper directed the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Water Conservation Board to work with legislators on a pilot concept ahead of the next session.

Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said it’s too early in the process to talk about what a pilot program might look like, but an approach will be developed in the coming months…

Colorado River Water District spokesman Chris Treese said the conversation about agricultural efficiency and instream flows will continue and that the organization plans to be involved in the pilot program discussion.

“Since we took a stand, we certainly want to be on forefront,” said Jim Pokrandt, of the Colorado River Water District.

Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder, the House sponsor of Senate Bill 23, said any pilot program would require its own legislation in the next session.

“Of course, many ranchers, water districts, county governments, and others supported the bill as is,” Becker wrote in an email. “But if it takes a pilot to get it done, then that’s fine with me.”

The Colorado Water Congress will discuss the legislation in the upcoming weeks, Kemper said, and another year allows more time to get stakeholders on the same page.

“I don’t think it was an urgency, especially with weather this year,” he said, referencing the above-average snowpack in many basins…

“The only way anything good happens is through near unanimous consensus,” Pokrandt said.

From The Denver Post (Lynn Bartels):

An environmental group has launched an aerial attack on Gov. John Hickenlooper for his veto of a water-efficiency bill by flying a “Failure to Lead” banner at public events, including a gathering of Western governors.

The director of Clean Water Fund — a group concerned with America’s water, global warming and a new-energy economy — says it’s coincidental that the “Failure to Lead” mantra echoes attacks leveled at the Democrat governor by the Republican candidates trying to unseat him in November.

Sara Lu, state director of the nonprofit group, said the issue has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat.

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

“Failure to sign is not the same as failure to lead,” governor’s spokesman Eric Brown countered. “R ead the veto message. The governor is taking this on as an administration priority so we can lead the collaborative process that fell apart.”

A “#FailureToLead SB23” banner was flown Saturday over the Rockies-Dodgers game at Coors Field and over the Capitol Hill People’s Fair at Civic Center, and Monday over The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, where the Western Governors’ Association is meeting. It’s unclear whether the public understood that the banner referred to Hickenlooper or Senate Bill 23.

The measure provided incentives to Western Slope owners of water rights to make water-conservation improvements — such as using more-efficient sprinklers — and to leave the water-efficiency savings in the stream.

It was crafted over several years with the input and support of a diverse group of Colorado water stakeholders, including rural Coloradans, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Denver Water, the Colorado Water Congress and conservation groups. The administration testified in favor of the bill.

“Despite these efforts, there was a breakdown in consensus toward the end of the legislative session that divided the water community and, in our view, would make implementation of the policy more difficult,” Hickenlooper wrote in his veto message.

More 2014 Colorado legislation coverage here.

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