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Water wars

Proposal revives prospect of battles across the Continental Divide

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Colorado Springs residents likely won't see a drop more water as a result of Referendum A.

Nonetheless, they could potentially be on the hook for debt incurred under the $4-billion measure, if it passes.

Colorado voters will decide on Nov. 4 whether to approve the controversial ballot issue, which would authorize the state to borrow up to $2 billion for water projects, with a repayment cost of up to $4 billion -- roughly $1,000 for every person in Colorado.

Placed on the ballot by the state Legislature and Gov. Bill Owens, the measure is touted by supporters as a partial solution to Colorado's drought crisis. The money could fund new reservoirs and upgrades of existing ones, increasing the state's water-storage capacity.

Currently, water that belongs to Colorado flows downstream to California because of inadequate storage, referendum backers point out.

In theory, the measure wouldn't require any tax money. If a utility company, for example, decided to borrow Referendum A money for a water project, the debt would be repaid by that utility's ratepayers.

"There's no state dollars at risk," said Dan Hopkins, a spokesman for Gov. Owens.

But the measure has run into strong opposition on the Western Slope and from conservationists, among others.

Opponents say the ballot language lacks "basin of origin protections" -- assurances that water projects won't harm the areas from which water is taken. And because it doesn't specify what projects would be built, opponents say the referendum gives a blank check to the governor and his appointed Colorado Water Conservation Board, who will choose the projects.

"We don't know what the projects are, so we don't know what the environmental damage is," said Melinda Kassen, a spokeswoman for the conservation group Trout Unlimited.

Turning back the clock

The referendum campaign -- bankrolled by real-estate developers, contractors and bond traders -- has split Coloradans along the Continental Divide rather than the traditional Democrat-Republican lines.

While Owens and most Front Range Republicans back the measure, opponents include numerous GOP politicians from the Western Slope, from county commissioners to Congressman Scott McInnis.

Opponents say the referendum threatens to turn back the clock to the era of the "water wars," when the thirsty Front Range tried to suck the Western Slope dry through large water-diversion projects.

Without basin of origin protections, there is no guarantee that such projects won't be on the drawing board again, McInnis has argued.

Besides, opponents say they can't figure out why the measure is needed in the first place. No one has yet voiced a desire to use Referendum A money for a specific project, said Scott Ingvoldstad, a spokesman for the "No on A" campaign.

"It's unclear who would use this," he said.

Moreover, project financing is already available from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, another state agency, Ingvoldstad points out.

State Rep. Matt Smith, a Republican from Grand Junction, says he can think of only one type of borrower that might actually use Referendum A money. Private corporations, he said, could use the tax-free, state-backed bonds to buy up water rights.

"The only conclusion I can come up with is, it's going to be a water speculator," Smith said.

Representatives for the pro-referendum campaign, called "Save Colorado's Water," did not respond to phone calls from the Independent. But Hopkins, Owens' spokesman, dismissed opponents' arguments as "rhetoric."

The Front Range vs. Western Slope argument "has always been a divisive tactic to obtain votes on the West Slope," Hopkins said. "The projects can benefit the West Slope and the East Slope alike."

And many groups, including agricultural interests, have strongly indicated they might use Referendum A money, he said.

"I don't think there'll be any shortage of projects," Hopkins said.

The referendum language does in fact include some basin of origin protections, Hopkins said, adding that the Legislature is also expected to add such protections in a future session.

A red herring

Even if voters approve Referendum A, Colorado Springs Utilities doesn't plan to take advantage of it, says Andy Colosimo, a spokesman for the city-owned utility. Like most large utility companies, CSU has sufficient financial clout to borrow money on its own, at lower interest rates.

But Springs residents could in theory end up paying for projects that benefit others. If a borrower were to default on a project, it could fall to the state -- in other words, taxpayers across Colorado -- to step in and repay the bonds, Ingvoldstad points out.

Hopkins however, called that argument a "red herring," saying the likelihood of the state having to pay is "so remote, so far remote, that it's extremely, extremely, extremely unlikely."

Either way, the Colorado Springs City Council has unanimously endorsed Referendum A, upon the city-owned utility's recommendation.

Asked whether the measure would benefit Colorado Springs in any way, Colosimo replied, "No, but we thought for the state as a whole, it's an important thing to support."

Councilman Tom Gallagher said he voted to endorse the referendum because, "You've got to think big picture. ... For us to get ours, we've got to make sure others get theirs."

Vice Mayor Richard Skorman, meanwhile, has changed his position and now opposes the measure.

"It just kind of came up quickly," he said of the Council's endorsement. "Afterward, I regretted my vote."

Skorman says he's concerned about the environmental impacts of damming rivers. And the money would probably be better spent on water conservation than on storage, he says.

"I wouldn't vote for it today," Skorman said.

-- Terje Langeland

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For more information on Referendum A, visit www.savecoloradoswater.com and www.votenoona.com.

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