VAIL — One of the biggest secrets in Colorado, up until now, might have been what Walker Stapleton thinks about water.
It’s not mentioned anywhere on the Republican gubernatorial candidate’s website, nor had he addressed the issue with the water community until Wednesday, when his campaign said he would announce his water policy at the annual summer conference of the Colorado Water Congress, a nonprofit that advocates on water-resource issues.
Stapleton spoke to about 300 attendees at the conference Wednesday on what his administration would do about water, and much of it sounded a lot like what Gov. John Hickenlooper’s been doing for the past three years.
COMING SOON: Check back with ColoradoPolitics.com for more of Marianne Goodland’s reports from the Colorado Water Congress summer conference.
Stapleton focused many of his remarks on the Colorado Water Plan (he’s in favor of continuing it) and how to pay for it (public/private partnerships, which is mentioned as a way to pay for the water plan’s projects no fewer than 22 times in the water plan.
Stapleton hit a lot of the buzzwords that float through the water community — supply/demand, conservation, storage — but there was little in the way of policy explanations behind them.
Economic opportunities rely on solving the state’s water challenges in the future, Stapleton told the audience. As governor, he would continue to build the momentum started by Hickenlooper on solving Colorado’s water supply/demand problems.
“I’m committed to keeping the spirit of cooperation” that led to the water plan’s development, he said, adding that the next eight years will be critical in solving the supply/demand problem (the water plan says the state will be short about one million acre-feet of water by 2050, based on climate change and population growth).
“I will be the governor who finally takes proactive action when it comes to Colorado’s water,” Stapleton, currently Colorado’s state treasurer, told the group. “I support building new infrastructure, enhancing conservation efforts and protecting individual property rights of municipal, agricultural and industrial water users.”
He also committed to keeping a water czar as a cabinet-level position, a practice started by Hickenlooper, and said he would add to that person’s responsibilities on water projects.
Stapleton added he will make sure the state defends its water rights on a national, regional and local level, although he did not go into detail on just what that would mean.
“As a steward for the environment, I will use an ‘all of the above approach’ when it comes to water,” again without offering details.
“We’ve made good progress in conservation, but (conservation) will not reduce and save our way out of the problem,” he said.
Stapleton’s solution is storage, which usually means building or expanding dams. “We need to build more storage. We will build more storage in my administration,” he said to lukewarm applause.
Those storage solutions, to Stapleton, including “larger projects in new reservoirs, medium projects that will help us store water balanced with environmental protection,” and improving existing reservoirs and aquifers. (He called them “aquifiers.”)
Stapleton did address one of the biggest hurdles in storage: permitting. He said he would pursue projects where the state can control the permitting process, pointing to the Northern Integrated Supply Project, a project to add reservoirs in northern Colorado. NISP has taken 14 years to get from its origins to today, most recently winning a favorable final Environmental Impact Statement issued by the federal Army Corps of Engineers.
“This is not workable nor sustainable,” Stapleton said. Most of NISP’s long road has been getting through the federal permitting process.
Stapleton pledged to make the state permitting process faster, and said that Colorado needs a governor who can work with the federal government and Congress on permitting efficiencies.
As to funding the water plan, Stapleton noted the plan calls for $100 million per year to fund infrastructure. While the water plan is estimated to cost at least $20 billion, all but $3 billion of that is supposed to come from public/private partnerships.
Stapleton supports more financial resources for water projects, but said that should come from local water boards who can fund projects through capital markets at low rates.
“Unless we find a way for more public/private partnerships,” he said, “we won’t be able to address water needs in the future.”
Stapleton ended his remarks with an attack on his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, stating Polis will dedicate so much money to renewable energy and single-payer health care that water will be forgotten.
He criticized Polis for what he called opposition to oil and gas, stating that energy provides severance tax revenue critical to funding water projects. “If he bans oil and gas, it will threaten water conservation efforts,” Stapleton claimed.
Stapleton said he supports using severance taxes for water projects, augmented by general fund revenues.
In response to an audience question, Stapleton also said he would support using sports gambling revenues, should the General Assembly authorize it, to fund Great Outdoors Colorado and water projects. He also suggested fixing the state’s “broken regulatory system” around marijuana, adding that there are tax loopholes on medical marijuana that if eliminated would bring in revenues for infrastructure, including water.
Stapleton left shortly after without answering questions from the media.
The Colorado Democratic Party pointed out this week that the word “water” doesn’t appear anywhere on the Stapleton website. And immediately after his policy address on water Wednesday, it still didn’t.