Cory Gardner, John Hickenlooper

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, left, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to the Colorado Water Congress at the organization's annual meeting that began online on Aug. 25, 2020.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said Colorado can't conserve its way out of a deep drought and a decades-long struggle over the state's water, as he spoke to the state's water managers Tuesday.

He reminded the Colorado Water Congress of what the late former U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall from Grand Junction said, "In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything."

Speaking from his campaign trail in Fort Collins, Gardner called water the most important issue facing the state over the long haul.

He said he had passed more water legislation than the rest of the state's congressional delegation combined during his six years in the Senate and four years in the U.S. House before that. Gardner also is a former state legislator.

"We have such diverse water needs in our state," Gardner said, noting his Yuma County community depends on groundwater and that a canoe would dam up the nearest river 30 miles away.  He also cited his work on the Arkansas Valley Conduit to deliver fresh water to the parched farm region east of Pueblo, a project on the books since 1983 that only this year got federal funding, as well as other funding for endangered species recovery on the Colorado River.

He spoke of the complexity of solutions given the diversity of users and suppliers, plus the Front Range's dramatic and steady growth.

"No. 1, we have to have more water storage, that's an absolute," Gardner told the Water Congress. "We have to have conservation, No. 2. We cannot conserve our way out of our water shortfall, though."

He also mentioned last month's passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, the most significant public lands legislation in a generation or two, and his years-long effort to relocate the headquarters for the Bureau Land Management to Grand Junction.

"Better land management decisions will be made as a result," Gardner promised, pledging more jobs and programs for Mesa County that should follow the federal agency.

He said he's also pushed for increased funding for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden and has worked on traditional energy sources.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper began his recorded statement by noting he's spoken in-person to the Water Congress before. He then spoke of the challenges created by COVID-19 "made worse by the reckless action of the United States Senate," before he pivoted to climate change and wildfires.

Hickenlooper spoke of his time building bridges with Denver and the rest of the state, recalling how he visited the Western Slope soon after he became mayor of Denver in 2003 and received a standing ovation for his remarks.

"Unfortunately today's politics almost begs us to be partisan, assuming the worst in each other, raising suspicions between neighbors on either side of the Continental Divide," Hickenlooper said. "At the federal level Washington is as dysfunctional as a broken septic system."

He said water provided grounds to put partisanship aside.

Hickenlooper spoke of water often during his eight years as governor and adopted the Colorado's first statewide water management plan. Hickenlooper did not acquire legislative or public support for funding the plan – an estimated $100 million a year – during one of the state's strongest period of economic growth. 

Last November, Colorado voters adopted a 10% tax on new online sports betting in Colorado to raise some money for the plan. The question was referred to the ballot by a bipartisan coalition led by House Democratic leader Alec Garnett of Denver and House Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock. 

"We did it together, Republicans and Democrats and everyone in between," Hickenlooper said in the 15-minute recording, before adding, "Colorado's water belongs to all of us, and without long-term solutions that benefit the entire state we are setting ourselves up for failure."

Hickenlooper also spoke Tuesday about his work to jump start rural economies and expand access to broadband internet. He said he would oppose trade wars that hurt Colorado's agriculture industry.

"President Trump's tariff war has rural Coloradans on the ropes, and Sen. Gardner, so far, has been unwilling to fight on their behalf," Hickenlooper said. 

Pollster Floyd Ciruli interviewed Republican strategist Cinamon Watson and Democratic strategist Rick Ridder after the two candidates spoke.

Watson said Gardner had run a flawless campaign, and you can't count out his strong "likability" factor when he interacts with voters.

Ridder noted the numbers advantage Democrats have this year, much different than when Gardner won his seat in 2014, as Colorado's electorate leaned slightly Republican.

While Democrats are outpacing Republicans in new registrants, unaffiliated voters are breaking 60-40 to the left, he said.

"You may have retail politics, but you're running up against a significant portion of the voter base, which is leaning heavily Democratic," Ridder said.

Ciruli said Gardner was more focused on the issue, and his accomplishments, while Hickenlooper was more focused on Washington's problems and climate change.

Watson said water could prove to be a deciding factor in November.

"It's always important in Western Colorado to focus on that issue, and it's one people care about," she said. "I think the things we're seeing this summer -- the wildfires, the drought conditions -- will contribute to that. I think water is one of those key infrastructure issues that we have to address. With the growth and what's going on in our state, so, absolutely, I think it will be an issue."

Hickenlooper spoke from his Zoom room at home, where he's conducted his primary debates and, recently, spoke with education advocates lined up by his campaign.

The former governor turned down an invitation to debate Gardner next month during Club 20's long-held kickoff to the post-Labor Day campaign season. 

Club 20 is the Western Slope's leading business and civic coalition of counties. Because of COVID-19, the event, scheduled for Sept. 18-19, streamed for free online across the state by Colorado Mesa University.

Separately, last Thursday Club 20 and its regional counterparts, PRO 15 in southern Colorado and Action 22 on the Eastern Plains, asked both candidates to speak at an event on rural issues on Sept. 26 at Adams State University in Alamosa. Gardner accepted immediately. Hickenlooper's campaign told organizers Monday evening he would not attend.

The Senate candidates are expected, at this point, to participate in four Front Range events, starting Oct. 2 in Pueblo.

"What is clear and should enrage all Coloradans is that John Hickenlooper is unwilling to engage rural Colorado," Club 20 executive director Christian Reece told Colorado Politics Tuesday morning. "His actions not to hear from the three rural organizations that represent 59 of Colorado’s 64 counties is a clear indication that he doesn’t feel he needs the rural vote to gain election. How does he expect to represent us if he refuses to answer issue based questions from our members? His actions are furthering the urban/rural divide, something our state and our organizations have worked so hard to diminish."

Hickenlooper's campaign did not immediately respond to Reece's take on his twin rural Colorado decisions.

Polis set the precedent for Democratic nominees two years ago when he skipped the Club 20 debate on his way to an easy win over Republican Walker Stapleton.

Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs, the Democratic nominee in Congressional District 3, also announced last week she's skipping the Club 20 this year, as well.

Her opponent, Republican Lauren Boebert of Rifle, is attending Club 20, but Boebert is skipping Thursday's virtual Colorado Water Congress appearance with Bush. She announced Tuesday she has been invited to the White House on Thursday, but her campaign previously had asked the Water Congress to submit a video instead of answering questions live. 

Bush has challenged her to a debate in Pueblo, a critical swing county in the district that sprawls across western and southern Colorado.

Gov. Jared Polis opened the Water Congress, which this year will be carried out in online sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays over the next month, with a video Tuesday morning.

"Now is the time for unity across the state," he said after speaking of demand management. "I'll do my best as governor to stand with you and stand up for our water providers who are always standing up for Colorado."

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