Livestock controversies, water issues top ag stories of 2021: Logan County Fair back on track, but conservation easement issues derailed again — The #Sterling Journal-Advocate

South Platte River at Goodrich, Colorado, Sunday, November 15, 2020. Photo credit: Allen Best

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

Colorado’s agriculture industry saw COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror in 2021 and focused on securing a future for farmers and ranchers. As if low commodity prices and rising input costs weren’t enough, ag folks – especially in the livestock sector – saw themselves beset by even more challenges.

Colorado’s livestock industry staged a statewide celebration in March as thousands of Coloradans feasted on beef at an estimated 100 events across the state.

The events were held as a protest against Gov. Jared Polis’ proclamation recognizing the national MeatOut observance on March 21. MeatOut is a national movement to reduce or eliminate animal protein from Americans’ diet.

Sterling’s Meat-In event was conceived by Jason Santomaso, hosted by Sterling Livestock Commission Co. and the Santomaso family, and drew approximately 2,400 people to dine on all-beef hamburgers and bratwursts. They also bid on a wide range of items to raise funds for the Santas of Sterling Miracle Letter program. The event raised in the neighborhood of $130,000, some of which the Santas turned back to help a family in need.

At the time, Gov. Polis was already trying to mend fences after backlash from his MeatOut proclamation. On March 12 the Colorado Livestock Association was notified that Polis had signed a proclamation naming March 22 Colorado Livestock Proud Day.

The governor had another opportunity to support the livestock industry in Colorado, and didn’t hesitate to grab it. At the end of March, as if to nail down his credibility among stockmen, Polis issued a strongly-worded statement opposing the proposed Protect Animals from Unnecessary Suffering and Exploitation initiative, nicknamed PAUSE, saying it would destroy the state’s livestock industry and devastate Colorado’s economy.

Livestock producers claimed that, if passed, PAUSE would criminalize many widely accepted animal husbandry practices necessary for successful livestock production. The question, officially known as Initiative 16, passed muster with the state’s Title Board, but that decision was appealed by a coalition of agricultural organizations. In June, the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously struck down the initiative, saying it didn’t meet statutory requirements.

Landowners suffered another setback at the hands of the Colorado General Assembly when Colorado’s conservation easement fix bill failed get needed support.

Senate Bill 21-033, Sponsored by Sterling’s Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, would have created a new state income tax credit for certain taxpayers who were denied state income tax credits for conservation easements donated between 2000 and 2013 if the IRS allowed a federal income tax deduction for the same donation.

The bill would have helped landowners who donated development rights on their properties by setting aside $149 million from the state treasury to pay for the conservation easement tax credits rejected by the Colorado Department of Revenue more than a decade ago.

Sonnenberg and his allies had shepherded the bill, seen by many as the last chance to correct a gross injustice, through six committee hearings and a Senate floor vote before it arrived in the House Appropriations Committee to be referred to the House floor for final vote. On the last day of the legislative session, however, Democrats on the committee killed the bill with a 7-4 party line vote…

Water continued to be an issue of contention in 2021 with two steps forward and one step backward. The forward steps were in the formation of a partnership between the Parker Water and Sanitation District and the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District to develop a new water right in the lower South Platte. But a lawsuit filed against the LSPWCD, if successful, would probably end that partnership.

In September, LSPWCD and PW&SD issued a joint press release announcing the formation of the Platte Valley Water Partnership, a joint water supply project to use a new water right that the two entities own along the South Platte River near Sterling.

The project will make use of new and existing infrastructure to store and transport water for agricultural use in northeastern Colorado and municipal use along the Front Range. The partnership involves the phased development of the water right. The early phases would involve a pipeline from Prewitt Reservoir in Logan and Washington counties to Parker Reservoir, which supplies the City of Parker. Later developments would see a 4,000 acre-foot reservoir near Iliff on land owned by Parker, and a 72,000 acre-foot reservoir near Fremont Butte north of Akron. A pipeline, pump stations, and treatment facility will also be built as part of the project.

Two months later, however, a Colorado taxpayer group filed a class action lawsuit in the 13th Judicial District Court in Logan County to try to overturn a mill levy increase by the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. The increase was primarily to help pay the District’s share of the cost of developing a new water right and building infrastructure for the Platte Valley Water Partnership project.

The Public Trust Institute, a Colorado-based public interest law firm, and the National Taxpayers Union Foundation of Washington, D.C., filed the lawsuit on behalf of an ad hoc group of taxpayers in Logan, Morgan, Sedgwick and Washington counties. Jim Aranci of Crook, Charles Miller, Jack Darnell and William Lauck of Morgan County and Curtis Werner of Merino are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Besides the water district, the defendants include the county treasurers of the four counties, who collected the taxes and handed the funds over to the district.

The suit was filed, the plaintiffs said, because although LSPWCD voters relieved the district of the requirements of the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, the district still promised to go to the public for a vote to raise taxes. They maintain that raising the district mill levy from 0.5 mill to 1 mill violates that promise.

The district argues that it was authorized to levy up to 1 mill when it was created in the 1960s, but had never done so because it wasn’t needed. Now that it’s needed, the district says, the 1964 statute forming the district supersedes TABOR and levying the full mill without a vote is legal.

The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

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