From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):
Colorado River Water Conservation District officials have laid out a framework for how they will spend their new tax revenue with an emphasis on equity across water sectors and gaining the support of local government.
At a Dec. 3 board meeting, River District General Manager Andy Mueller presented a framework for the organization’s new Partnership Project Funding Program, which creates a system for how entities can apply for funding and how River District staff and board members will evaluate those applications.
In November, an overwhelming 72% of voters approved ballot measure 7A, which raises property taxes across the district and will add about $5 million annually to the River District’s coffers. Eighty-six percent, or $4.2 million, of that will go toward funding water projects.
The new program is designed to be more nimble and responsive than other federal or state grant programs, with the River District board considering projects on a rolling basis throughout the year. It also gives Mueller the power to approve smaller amounts of project funds without the board’s involvement.
The River District plans to doll out funding for projects in five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.
Each of these categories will receive roughly equal funding on a five-year running average. The project money also will be distributed as evenly as possible across the district’s 15-county region. River District staff will evaluate project applications and decide which ones to bring to the board for approval.
Mueller said he wants “to memorialize within this program our commitments that we made to the voters with respect to how we are going to spend the money. … I think it’s really critical going forward that future board members, future staff members, members of the public can turn to a document and find what it is we have committed to and what are the guiding principles of our program.”
Local support requirement
The River District also is making good on a commitment laid out in the ballot measure’s fiscal implementation plan: that it funds projects that have the backing of local elected officials.
According to the framework, project proponents should get buy-in from local governments in the form of a letter of support from the board of county commissioners in the county in which the project is located. If proponents can’t get a letter of support, they must explain why not.
Mueller said the requirement does not amount to veto power for local governments, but whether a project has the backing of local officials could be a deciding factor in the River District’s choice to fund that project.
“We want to make sure our projects are aligning with the priorities of our local communities,” he said in a separate interview.
Mueller’s initial framework proposed that he, as general manager, be allowed to greenlight projects of as much as $25,000 with an annual cap of $250,000 without board approval. But directors at last week’s meeting said they wanted to up those numbers.
“I think it should be increased to $50,000,” said board president and Garfield County representative Dave Merritt. “We have the criteria laid out here, and if the board is going to get down into the weeds, we will never get through what we need to get through as a board. We’ve got a lot of money that needs to get expended with these partnership programs.”
The board is scheduled to adopt the framework at its January meeting, at which time Mueller said it also will consider the first projects for funding.
According to Jim Pokrandt, the River District’s director of community affairs, no entities have officially applied for grants yet and the grant application is still being developed. Examples of projects that could get funding as laid out in the fiscal implementation plan include forest restoration on the Yampa River, rehabilitation for the Grand Valley Roller Dam, and the Windy Gap Reservoir Connectivity Channel project, which would reconnect the Colorado River through the reservoir.
Mueller said he is excited that the infusion of tax money will allow the River District to remain fully staffed and thrive as an organization. But he acknowledged the new grant program still won’t solve the biggest problem on the Colorado River.
“All the money in the world is not going to solve the diminishing flows in the river caused by our warming temperatures and by climate change,” he said. “We can mitigate, we can adapt, we can make our communities more resilient, but it’s a daunting challenge we are all going to face in the next 20 years.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Dec. 10 edition of The Aspen Times.