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An old-fashioned water grab


Obscure? You want obscure? Let's talk about the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Isn't it just some tiresome little quasi-governmental outfit that decides whose cantaloupes get irrigated this summer?

Not exactly. Maybe you've never heard of it, maybe you don't care, but the 15 members of the SECWCD have more power over the future of the city of Colorado Springs than all of our state and local elected officials put together.

The district was created in 1958 for the purpose of developing and administering the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. Fry-Ark was, and is, a good, old-fashioned water grab: Colorado Springs, Pueblo and the agricultural interests of the lower Arkansas Valley joined together to persuade the feds to finance the diversion of massive amounts of water from the Western Slope.

Understandably, folks on the Western Slope didn't like the project one bit, but the Eastern Slope prevailed, and in 1962 President Kennedy flew to Pueblo to officially kick off the project. It was, and is, a boldly conceived and brilliantly successful project, wherein water is diverted, conveyed to the Arkansas River, and allowed to flow downstream to terminal storage at the Pueblo Reservoir. This is the self-same reservoir from which we'd like to pump massive quantities of water north to Colorado Springs. And yup, the very reservoir that we need to expand in order to accommodate our community's needs for the next several decades. And guess what? The SECWCD is the boss of the reservoir.

Until recently, the District seemed to be in Colorado Springs' pocket. Two years ago, the board voted 13-1 to support the expansion. But last week, the board decisively rejected Colorado Springs' candidate for board chair, former CSU water boss Ed Bailey. And who won? Pueblo Democrat Wally Stealey, a close associate of Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings -- who is a cunning and implacable foe of the pipeline project. What happened?

It's simple. By statute, the board consists of one person from each of eight district counties, plus two from Pueblo, four from Colorado Springs and one at-large. And how are directors chosen? By the Pueblo District Court! We may have most of the population, but we've only got five votes. It worked for us as long as our interests coincided with those of Pueblo and the Arkansas Valley, as they did back in those halcyon days when we joined together to steal water from the Western Slope. That was then; this is now. Call it a falling out among thieves or the end of Imperial Colorado Springs -- it's a new world.

Let's face it: The fate of Colorado Springs is now in the hands of (Choke! Gasp!) a bunch of Pueblo Democrats and good ol' boy Arkansas Valley farmers. Does this mean the pipeline's history? Does this mean recycling, water conservation and xeriscaping? From Tree City USA to the Great American Desert? One high city official I spoke with last week -- who insisted on not being identified -- tried to put a positive spin on things. Among other things, our intrepid source suggested that some kind of deal -- benefiting Colorado Springs and involving high-level Colorado congressional players -- is imminent.

Sure, whatever. Maybe our long-snubbed junior partners in Pueblo and the Arkansas Valley have decided to flex their muscles. Congressman John Salazar, whose district includes Pueblo and the Valley, wants a multimillion-dollar study of the social, economic and environmental consequences of the Pueblo Reservoir expansion. Sounds innocuous, but Springs officials have strenuously opposed the study. That's because they fear that it would force this city to make real changes in the way that we use, reuse and abuse water.

We may have entered a new era, one in which the values of conservation, co-operation and the well-being of our neighbors to the south have a new importance. We've been the neighborhood bullies for 40 years -- and the neighbors have finally decided to get together and fight back.

Remember during the election cycle last fall, when Colorado Springs Councilwoman Margaret Radford would raise a glass of water to the audience and proclaim that she and her colleagues had solved our water problems for the next 40 years? Well, Margaret, I hope you didn't toss that glass of liquid gold down the drain. I have a feeling you might need it.


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