ANALYSIS: At Colorado Water Congress, Polis hesitates on water czar, more storage


When U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder spoke to the Colorado Water Congress Thursday in his capacity as the Democratic nominee for governor, he didn’t need to pander to an audience.

So he didn’t.

Polis was given a polite reception Thursday from the 300 attendees at the annual summer conference in Vail. He stuck to issues he’s expected to support with regard to water: conservation, defense of Colorado’s public lands and the state water plan initiated by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Polis pledged to fully implement and fund the water plan. He called its current funding source — severance taxes — an “erratic” source of state revenue and indicated that more diverse funding sources would be needed. He raised the possibilities of gaming revenues or a container fee, but stopped short of fully supporting those ideas. Funding the water plan “will be up to the next governor to handle,” and the next governor will need to find “out of the box ways” to find the money, he said.

The water plan has set ambitious goals, Polis added, but “we need to think big, do even better by leveraging new technology and finding best practices to enhance conservation efforts.”

Polis also addressed recent concerns over drought.

“We can’t get away with treating drought as a distant threat. It’s a fact of life today,” he said.

There are many causes for the trend, he added, but one is the changing climate and the risks it poses to agriculture, as well as the billions of dollars it adds to the state’s economy every year. Diminished snowpack has meant poorer river health, lower reservoir levels and shorter ski seasons.

“Our economy can’t afford to put ideological resistance over scientific fact,” he said as he called for leaders at all levels to understand the risks stemming from climate change, and to modernize management of water to do more with less.

As to the low water levels at Lake Mead, Polis indicated he is mindful of the potential for a compact call on the Colorado River that could result in less water available for Coloradans. It’s not imminent, he said, but “we need to protect our rights to water that originates here,” a popular sentiment on the Western Slope.

The potential for a compact call means work on drought contingency plans, Polis added, as well as a need to push for stronger conservation measures in urban and suburban parts of the state, including new development.

Polis did make one commitment that should play well for Western Slope water officials and residents: He said he would not support any new transmountain diversions unless they fall under existing guidelines and agreements.

Transmountain diversions are a series of tunnels bored through the mountains from the Western Slope to Eastern Slope that carry water to Front Range communities and agriculture. Western Slope water warriors have complained for years that the Front Range wants too much Western water, noting that fully half of the water used by the Front Range comes from those tunnels and pipelines and mostly from the Colorado River.

Polis called new diversions “an existential threat” not only to the rivers, but to the state’s agricultural economy.

Polis was challenged by one audience question on whether his support for single-payer health care might mean there would be no money for water infrastructure. He rejected that suggestion, stating health care and water have no nexus and that he supports anything that “reduces cost and enhances quality.”

The cost of health care is an issue that impacts small businesses, including farms, he added.

Polis also expressed strong support for alternative transfer methods (ATMs), a process by which farmers share water with municipalities but retain their ownership of the water rights. The state water plan set a goal of 50,000 acre-feet of water that could be shared through ATMs.

“We need to limit and innovate to escape the practices of ‘buy and dry,'” he said. With as much as 700,000 acres of agricultural land at risk due to municipal demands, ATMs are a voluntary way for farmers and ranchers to do their part, he added.

Polis parried with the audience during a question-and-answer session. Some audience members attempted to draw him out on issues like fracking (ballot Initiative 97) and whether the government should compensate people whose property has been devalued by the government (Initiative 108). He said he does not support either.

Polis hedged on whether he would appoint a water czar, as Hickenlooper has, and as was pledged Wednesday by his Republican opponent, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton. The current water czar — former commissioner of agriculture John Stulp, whose official title is special advisor on water — has helped shepherd projects like the Colorado Water Plan and has been the governor’s point person on water for Hickenlooper’s entire time in office.

Polis didn’t give a straight “yes” or “no” answer on whether he’d have a water czar, stating instead that it was “important to listen to a variety of stakeholders,” and he said would be fine with relying on a “particular set of advisors.”

Another question, on whether he supported more storage to keep Colorado water in the state, drew little support for new projects. He first pointed to Stapleton’s response the previous day, in which the Republican said he would build new storage. “My approach is to look at alternatives,” Polis said. “I won’t close the door on new storage, but I don’t want to put aside new innovations in conservation.”

The oddest question asked of Polis was the last: What did he think of the Fort Lyon Canal deal? Polis responded that he would be happy to look into it, but added that he had no opinion on any specific project.

That’s not a question, or even a type of question, posed to Stapleton the day before.

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