@COWaterCongress Summer Meeting recap

Sunset over the Yampa River Valley August 25, 2016.
Sunset over the Yampa River Valley August 25, 2016.

I was roughing this week in Steamboat Springs at the Colorado Water Congress’ 2016 Summer Meeting. It was a full agenda along with appearances from Senator Bennet, Senator Gardner, Representative Tipton, former State Senator Gail Schwartz, and Senate candidate Darryl Glenn.

I think the Colorado mountains inspire good will and friendliness. Doug’s agenda provided breaks long enough for attendees to network, catch up, and learn about each other. I ran into a guy whose firm has done some VIC modeling as I aspire to do.

The highlight for me was a walk around the Yampa River Botanic Park. Marsha Daughenbaugh from the Community Agriculture Alliance walked us through the history of the county focusing on agriculture. The Routt County economy is dependent on Steamboat Resort of course, but thousands of acres are still producing hay, barley, wheat and pasture for cattle and sheep. We talked about the administration of rivers by the State Engineer’s Office. She had read Brent Gardner-Smith’s recent account on the subject.

Here’s a recap of the session with Senator Bennet from Marianne Goodland) writing for The Colorado Independent:

Sen. Michael Bennet this morning made a pitch to the state’s water community for sending him back to Washington, despite the rank partisanship that characterizes Congress these days.

Colorado’s senior senator spoke this morning to 340 water leaders attending the summer conference of the Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs.

In prepared remarks, Bennet cited his bipartisan efforts on immigration, the farm bill and education, and touted his ability to work across the aisle with Republican senators such as Cory Gardner of Colo., Roy Blunt of Missouri and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

He also spoke about the continued efforts to clean up the Gold King mine disaster in Durango, stating that when it comes to water issues, the federal government should “do no harm,” although the Environmental Protection Agency caused the Gold King leak. The efforts of the local community trying to protect its tourism industry have been impressive, he said, and as a result the Durango area’s economy is doing well.

Bennet pledged to continue to push the EPA to reimburse the community and the tribes for the damage. He also will continue to work on legislation with Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez on so-called “Good Samaritan” legislation that would allow mine cleanups without fear of lawsuits. “The spill was a reminder that there are thousands of abandoned mines across the West,” yet the nation’s mining law dates back to 1872. That’s also legislation that he’s working on with New Mexico lawmakers.

Bennet also took aim at those in Washington who are more interested in playing politics than in making constructive change.

“What we’ve lost in Washington is the ability to have these differences in a way that’s constructive for the country,” he said.“It’s inexcusable. We have a moral responsibility to make sure we’re moving this country ahead.”
In a free-flow question and answer session after his speech, Bennet took off the gloves and talked at length about what frustrates him most: Congress’s broken culture and its inability to do anything.

He started off by noting a poll that showed only 9 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and comparing it to other things that have higher approval than 9 percent: the Internal Revenue Service (40 percent), reality TV star Paris Hilton (15 percent) and the percentage of people who want the United States to turn communist, at 11 percent.

While he believes Congress is hamstrung by partisanship, Bennet also said that some of those who say Congress is broken “are the arsonists lighting the house on fire.” Their fuel, he added, comes from both sides of the aisle.

At times Bennet appeared exasperated – not at the audience, but at the partisan problems he says infest the nation’s capitol, a city where he grew up. It was an unscripted Michael Bennet, one who momentarily stood with his hands on his hips, shaking his head.

Bennet cited a Democratic caucus lunch in which a senior Democrat (he didn’t name names) pointed to the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, stating that the crisis is “what separates us from them. We believe in government, they don’t.” Bennet said he realized some of the decisions were made by a Republican governor, but in the end it was government as a whole that’s culpable. Even before the water crisis, there isn’t a single school in Flint where any senator would send their kids. “This can’t be what divides us.”

Bennet said he has tried to work with his Republican colleagues – such as Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina on improving the approval process of the Food and Drug Administration. Before that legislation, the FDA would approve 1 or 2 drugs per year. But in the past four years the FDA has green-lighted 50.

Bennet also gave a strong defense of the science backing man-made climate change. He noted polls of independent voters who overwhelmingly say they would be less likely to support someone who denies that climate change is real and/or caused by people. It was a subtle dig at his Republican opponent, El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who has said he’s skeptical of man-made climate change.

The time has come to adopt policies at the national level to prepare for climate change before the trend becomes unfixable, Bennet said. Colorado’s economy is already threatened by climate change, such as increasingly extended fire seasons and the threats wildfires pose to forests and the state’s water supply.

“I’m optimistic,” Bennet said. There are real opportunities to get results for Colorado and the nation. “The public is sick and tired of rank partisanship,” and Bennet said he hopes that this year’s election creates political momentum for that to change.

And “if the election goes the way many think it will go, I hope it will incentivize the Republican party to put the capitalists back in charge,” he said.

“I wouldn’t go back if I didn’t think we could improve it.”

Bennet recalled a town hall held in the “worst tea party town in the state” (which he didn’t identify), with people calling him a socialist, and claiming President Obama wasn’t born in the United States.

That kind of partisan politics has made it impossible to fix the real problems, he said. “We don’t have the decency to maintain the assets and infrastructure that our parents and grandparents had the decency to build for us.”

Bennet encouraged the audience, who sat mostly silently during the remarks, to hold their congressional representatives accountable in the same way citizens hold local officials accountable. “If we hold Washington to the same standard” as mayor, city council or school superintendents, “there’s no way we’d be having the problems we’re having, and there’s no way you would shut down the government for politics.”

The only antidote to partisan politics is to vote out of self interest, state interest and in the interest of the country.

“If we do that we’ll be fine,” he said. “If we leave it to Washington to play the political game, there’s no reason for optimism.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Sen. Michael Bennet touted his own record of bipartisanship on Colorado water issues at the summer convention of Colorado Water Congress, while his challenger Darryl Glenn stressed government accountability.

“I’ve worked with the other side and seen results. I think the public is sick and tired of partisanship,” Bennet, a Democrat, said. “What people want is principled bipartisanship. What they get is unprincipled partisanship.”

Glenn said there is room for disagreement, but there needs to be more respect in national politics.

“There’s a growing disconnect with what’s happening at the federal level and what the people at home are thinking,” said Glenn, a Colorado Springs Republican. “I have to remind people that we (in government) work for you, and you have to hold your elected officials accountable.”

Bennet talked about the local efforts to rebound from last summer’s Gold King mine spill, which he toured with Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

“We are working together for Good Samaritan legislation so that cleanup can happen without fear of liability,” Bennet said.

Bennet talked about protecting agriculture, tourism, West Slope industry and East Slope diversions from the Colorado River. He also said the federal government needs to act on wildfire prevention and stop diverting watershed improvement funds to fight fires.

“There are eight wildfires in Colorado. . . . We’d be better off maximizing our ability to get timber off the land,” Bennet said. “It is fiscally irresponsible to not pay $1 for prevention to avoid paying $10 for fighting fires.”

He also spoke of the need to repair aging water delivery systems.

“Because of the politics in Washington, D.C., we don’t have the decency to repair the infrastructure that our parents had the decency to build for us,” Bennet said.

Glenn talked about his own experience dealing with water issues on a local level. He was a member of Colorado Springs City Council during the formative years of the Southern Delivery System and an El Paso County commissioner when the Black Forest Fire destroyed 14,000 acres and nearly 500 homes.

Those experiences gave him insight into regional water concerns and reinforced his view that constituents have to ask government for the services they need.

“More control needs to be into the elected officials’ hands and not the (federal) agencies,” Glenn said. “Sometimes we need to get out of your way and let you do your jobs.”

The opponents differed on the impact of federal overreach on laws like the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.

From Bennet’s point of view, issues would be better managed if the federal government would listen more to local concerns. Glenn said agencies ignore the intent of laws altogether because they lack clarity of purpose.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Rep. Scott Tipton renewed his pledge to knock back federal regulatory overreach at every opportunity at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference.

The Republican’s Democratic challenger, Gail Schwartz, said she would reach across the aisle to protect Colorado’s resources and interests in Congress.

Both candidates stopped by the conference to make their pitch and answer questions at a meeting of a statewide group.

The 3rd Congressional District encompasses most of the Colorado River basin, as well as some of the Arkansas River, and all of the Rio Grande and North Platte River watersheds in Colorado. Pointedly, it was the only congressional race on the menu for those at the conference.

Tipton, seeking his fourth term, was stringent on the need to keep the federal government from meddling in Colorado water affairs. He said last year’s Gold King mine spill caused by the Environmental Protection Agency was an example of the failure to seek local technical expertise. He railed against federal policies such as Waters of the United States and Forest Service ski area contracts that would have required assignment of water rights.

He is backing a Separation of Powers Restoration Act to keep the executive branch from continually interfering.

“These are federal policies that don’t get voted on,” Tipton said. “It takes a proverbial Act of Congress to undo a federal policy that no legislator, Democrat or Republican, has ever voted on.”

Schwartz, who left the Colorado Senate after eight years, vowed to protect the agriculture, watershed health and natural resources of Colorado, and said she would seek solutions.

“One of the challenges is: How do we develop a process that sorts out all of the competing issues?” she said.

The candidates had common ground on questions posed by Water Congress.

Both said the state’s viewpoint, sound science and technical expertise need to be a part of how federal programs like the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act are implemented. Schwartz, like Tipton, said the administration has to be held accountable for its policies. And both support including coal as part of a national energy strategy.

“Steel is a critical industry for Colorado, and (EVRAZ) is the largest energy user in the state,” Schwartz said, pointing out that a large coal-fired plant was constructed near the Pueblo plant for that reason. Coal mining and electric-generation are part of the state’s economic fabric.

“Let the free market answer these questions moving forward,” she said.

Tipton talked about looking into the eyes of a mother whose family lost its income and commiserating with Routt County commissioners over the loss of tax revenue when Peabody Coal declared bankruptcy this year.

“We have an opportunity to do all of the above (coal, gas, solar, wind, hydropower) and not pick winners and losers,” Tipton said.

Tipton circled back to regulation by the end of his presentation, saying federal regulations add $2 trillion a year in costs. While some regulation is necessary, much is not, in his view.

“We need opportunity and not to have the government choking off that opportunity with excess regulations,” he said.

Schwartz said she would be better able to work with others in Congress to protect the state.

“How do we go back to Washington and get something done?” she said. “I’m determined and won’t be daunted by partisanship.”

Reengineering the permitting process for water projects is a central concern for water providers, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and some environmentalists. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

The people who want to build dams or water projects say the regulatory process adds millions of dollars and years of time.

Those who object to water projects say they are either old and gray or young and green by the time anything gets done.

So nobody’s complaining too much about Colorado’s Water Plan looking at using an efficiency plan called the lean manufacturing model to streamline permits for water projects.

The lean model has its roots in private industry as a way to eliminate waste along the manufacturing line, explained James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Along those lines, several proponents, opponents and regulators were “locked in a room for three days” to determine what’s wrong and how to fix it.

“Permitting is far and away the most challenging part of any project,” said Eric Wilkinson, executive director of the Northern Water Conservancy District. “Engineers can solve everything, but not the political and social issues. We need to find a way to ‘yes.’ ”

Northern is working on two projects, the Windy Gap firming project and Northern Integrated Supply Project, which combined have consumed two decades and $30 million just to get through permitting.

“Permitting is not for the weak of heart. It’s for the stubborn,” Wilkinson said.

Mark Pifher shepherded Aurora’s Prairie Waters and Colorado Springs’ Southern Delivery System through the permitting maze, and he had a long list of things that could be fixed on local, state and federal levels.

“We can’t have fear of litigation drive the process,” he said.

Ken Neubecker, director of Colorado River basin programs for American Rivers, said the review processes already in place have yielded good results. But he, too, would like to see things move more quickly.

“At first there’s scoping, then it goes into a black hole for four or five years and you have a draft analysis. We have 30 days to comment, then it disappears into another black hole,” he said. “We’re frustrated with the costs and scrambling to find funding. You lose people (who worked on original documents).”

Still, federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act have worked and made the country a better place to live, Neubecker said.

Shaun McGrath, head of the EPA’s Denver office, said the laws aren’t really the problem, just the way they are implemented.

“One of the impediments has been the lack of stakeholder involvement at the beginning of the process,” McGrath said.

Environmental reviews also search for alternatives that might be less damaging as a way to inform the public, not inhibit development, he said. NISP and Windy Gap have taken so long because there is so much to look at.

Meanwhile, Colorado farmers are cozying up to farming their water via leasing. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Colorado farmers have little interest in selling their water, but if the terms and conditions were right wouldn’t mind leasing some to thirsty cities.

Those were the findings of a survey conducted this year by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, asked of farmers across the state with farms of varying sizes.

“Our goal is to keep ag water connected to ag lands and that means keeping the water in the hands of ag producers,” Terry Fankhauser, executive vice-president of the CCA, told the Legislature’s interim water resources review committee Wednesday. “These are longer term decisions that take more than a few years.”

The committee was meeting at the annual Colorado Water Congress summer convention.

The survey was explained by Phil Brink, director of the Agriculture Water Network, which conducted the study for CCA and other groups concerned about the future of farming.

Colorado is growing by a population of 100,000 annually, the equivalent of a city the size of Longmont, that would require 17,000 acre-feet of water, Longmont’s annual consumption, Brink said.

Colorado’s Water Plan estimates that by 2050, nearly 10 million people will live in the state. Without alternatives, 500,000-700,000 acres of farmland could be dried up.

Farmers don’t want that to happen.

According to the survey, about one-third of farmers are not interested in leasing or selling their water under any conditions.

Less than 1 percent said selling is the most appealing option.

About 20 percent said they would participate in a water leasing program if offered the chance immediately, while 40 percent would consider one, if the terms were right.

Most of those who favor leasing prefer a program, such as the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, that allows them to control how much ground is fallowed and when in order to lease water.

But they also want programs to be carefully structured because of concerns about leasing.

In comments, some farmers mentioned that crop prices are now low, making leases more attractive, but they would want the opportunity to use water for crops once prices rebound. Farmers were most likely to lease for prices between $400-$800 an acre, or about $500 per acre-foot. The amounts differ because most ditches apply more than an acre-foot per acre in most years.

Other concerns included the perception that if a farmer could do with less water, that might become accepted as the norm, and water rights would be diminished.

The results of the survey will be posted online, and workshops in each basin are planned to further explain the survey.

Click here to view the Tweets posted with the hash tag #cwcsc16. These meetings are turning into Twitter fests.

Chris Woodka was telling folks at the meeting that he is moving on from the Chieftain to the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Man, I am going to miss him writing about water. He has taught me so much. Good luck Chris.

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