COVER STORY: Hickenlooper’s legacy of water
Author: Marianne Goodland - June 19, 2018 - Updated: June 21, 2018
Gov. John Hickenlooper leaves office on Jan. 8, 2019, after eight years of service as governor. He may be best remembered for guiding the state through its growing pains over the legalization of recreational marijuana, but he leaves another legacy as well: Water.
In a fast-growing state that places greater demands on its water supply each day, a state that regularly faces withering droughts, Hickenlooper has spent his eight years in office navigating water issues and leading the development of a state water plan that Denver’s chief water official calls a “real act of political courage.”
Not everyone believes the governor has made all the right choices on water. Colorado still faces daunting water-supply challenges. Some say Hickenlooper should have done more to promote dams and reservoirs. There’s no clear way to pay for the ambitious state water plan he fostered.
But many give Hickenlooper credit for reshaping how Colorado deals with water.
“He was the first governor to put water at the forefront,” said veteran northern Colorado water manager Eric Wilkinson.
Hickenlooper’s legacy may depend on what is done with the water plan that he is leaving for his successor. Colorado Politics talked to members of Colorado’s water community to see what they think his legacy in water looks like — and the governor weighed in on that, too, in a conversation with Colorado Politics.
When Hickenlooper became mayor of Denver in July 2003, the state was already entering the second year of a record-setting drought. Gov. Bill Owens, in his 2003 state of the state address six months earlier, claimed the 2002 drought was the worst in 350 years, with most of Colorado in what the U.S. Drought Monitor called “exceptional drought,” the worst stage in their rankings.
So water got into the future governor’s mind early on, although as mayor, his control was limited primarily to appointing commissioners to Denver Water, the state’s largest water utility.
But as he saw it, he wasn’t dealing with just Denver’s water. It was water that belonged to the entire state, he said.
At the time, state officials were also trying to figure out how to solve the water problem. In the wake of the devastating drought, the General Assembly and Republican Gov. Bill Owens began working on several ideas that still hold water today, including a new assessment of Colorado’s water supply, known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI).
The first SWSI, published in 2004, warned that by 2030, the state would be short by 632,000 acre-feet of water in meeting demand. (An acre-foot of water supplies two families of four with enough water for a year, estimated at around 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover the Denver Broncos stadium end zone to end zone with one foot of water.)
In the 2005 session, the General Assembly approved a law setting up groups known as basin roundtables, which divided Colorado into nine regions, each representing a major river plus one for Denver. But the groups weren’t required to work with each other.
There were differences among the regions, including claims from the Western Slope that the Denver area was seeking more “transmountain diversions” to channel water from the Colorado and other western rivers through the mountains to the Front Range. (That claim still sticks today.)
And there were long-standing hard feelings over what happened about 15 years earlier, when ski towns joined forces with environmentalists to help defeat a major Denver reservoir project.
There’s a saying in Colorado: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” And nowhere were the fights more vicious than over a project called Two Forks.
Two Forks was a proposed dam on the South Platte River that would have created a million acre-feet reservoir, flooding 30 miles of canyon from Deckers south to the river’s confluence with its north fork.
Advocates said the project was vital to supply growing metro Denver. But environmentalists sounded the trumpets, complaining of the potential drowning of much of Cheesman Canyon with its prime fishing, hiking and kayaking areas, and the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed a permit for the project in 1990.
Denver Water, which exhausted its appeals of the rejection in 1996, was forced to shift to conservation rather than looking for major new water supplies from storage.
That’s the environment that Hickenlooper walked into as mayor. And that’s when his water legacy started, says Eric Kuhn, who has spent 40 years working for the Colorado River, including as general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
It was then, he said, that the groundwork was laid with Denver Water board members to build cooperation with Western Slope water providers.
Knowing that Denver Water controlled a quarter of the state’s water supply, it meant new conversations with the West Slope water community. Those discussions started in 2006 between Denver Water and 42 West Slope partners, ranging from water providers to local governments to ski resorts.
That eventually became the groundbreaking Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, first reached in 2011 and signed by all parties by 2013. The agreement resolved at least some of the historic fights over the Colorado River, focused on efforts to improve the river’s health and looking for ways to provide additional water supplies to Denver Water.
“Water became a vehicle for demonstrating our ability to work together,” Hickenlooper now says.
Hickenlooper got one other big advantage during his time as mayor: The Denver Water board selected a new general manager, Jim Lochhead, who would continue the agenda set forth by the board and with Hickenlooper’s vision in hand. That took place in 2010.
Hickenlooper “made very thoughtful appointments” to the Denver Water board, including people like Tom Gougeon, John Lucero and George Beardsley, Lochhead told Colorado Politics. They were “really strong leaders with the ethics for moving Denver Water forward but with having us take a far-sighted approach with the Western Slope,” he said.
Part of a strategic plan
Hickenlooper says he started talking about water shortly after being elected governor in November 2010. The state found itself in another multi-year drought starting in 2011, and that’s when Hickenlooper asked if drought would be the new normal and how Colorado would deal with it.
He also talked to other governors to research the best practices they employed, and found that what Colorado lacked was a comprehensive plan, which he called a “serious vacuum” in the state’s framework. It was a risky proposition, given that Coloradans were historically polarized around the issue of water, he said.
There were things — like boosting water conservation — that he knew would be difficult. He knew rural Colorado, including farmers and ranchers, did not want to be told what to do.
“We couldn’t deny people the right to sell their property,” meaning water rights, he said, but the plan would look at how to incentivize farmers to temporarily lease their water rather than sell it.
With the tradition east-west divide over water evolving with the completion of the Colorado River agreement, the time to strike came early on in Hickenlooper’s first term. He began asking his cabinet about a water plan.
According to James Eklund, who first served as Hickenlooper’s senior deputy legal counsel and then as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the governor was asked if he was willing to spend the political capital by wading into the water wars.
“Some governors only touch (the issue) on a superficial level,” Eklund told Colorado Politics. Previous governors would go to the Colorado Water Congress (the state’s leading water advocacy organization), pound the table, say that water is the lifeblood of the West and then get out.”
After the discussions with the other governors, that wasn’t going to be Hickenlooper’s way. “We have no choice but to treat this as a serious discussion” and to engage in strategic planning, according to Eklund.
Hickenlooper looks at everything through a business lens, Eklund said. That meant that if water is so important to Colorado’s bottom line, and there isn’t a strategic plan, that’s not acceptable.
In May 2013, Hickenlooper announced he would task Eklund and the CWCB to come up with a state water plan.
“The whole point was to look for ways to create incentives to keep water on the land,” Hickenlooper now says.
He said he chose Eklund to lead the CWCB because of his smarts — and for being a little impetuous. There also was his background as a fifth-generation Coloradan from the West Slope who had “all the right values. He grew up knowing about the water wars.”
“We had this enormous gap for looking forward,” Hickenlooper says. “But if I hadn’t had John Stulp” — the former commissioner of agriculture whom the governor appointed as the state’s first water czar — “I’m not sure I would have picked someone” as young as Eklund.
After coming up with the leadership, Hickenlooper said he was ready to move forward. He recalls thinking: “We’ve been talking long enough. Let’s come up with a plan,” knowing it would be a living document that would evolve over time.
In November 2015, the water plan was unveiled after more than 30,000 public comments from all over the state. “We wanted to make sure all the interests were represented, not just conservation,” Hickenlooper said. “We also put in water storage,” but that also ruffled the feathers of environmentalists, he said.
Hickenlooper said he was most pleased with the ability of the basin roundtables — set up in that 2005 legislation — to take the long view, especially for groups historically polarized over water.
According to many in the water community, it’s the statewide water plan that most defines Hickenlooper’s water legacy.
Lochhead called Hickenlooper’s decision to create a state water plan a “real act of political courage.”
Water in Colorado has always been a “zero sum game,” Lochhead said. If you take water from one part of the state for another, that creates winners and losers. For the governor to take a position on any water issue was a dicey proposition, especially with all the other major issues facing him, such as transportation, education, public pensions, the state budget.
“Why would (he) jump into the middle of a water fight” where governors have feared to tread in the past, Lochhead said.
“Plan” was a four-letter word, said Kuhn, the former. The Hickenlooper administration set a new tone with the idea of a state water plan, and people bought into it, which Kuhn called a fairly significant accomplishment.
The plan set up foundational work in bringing together all parts of the state and all kinds of water users and interests, said Bart Miller of Western Resource Advocates, an environmental group. That’s an accomplishment all by itself, he added.
‘Water at the forefront’
The water plan attempts to address what is now expected to be a 1 million acre-feet shortage of water in Colorado by 2050, based in part on projected population growth of another 3 to 5 million people on top of the state’s current population of 5.6 million.
It focuses on a number of strategic goals: 400,000 acre-feet of water to be gained through conservation, another 400,000 to be gained through new or enhanced storage (dams and reservoirs), and the rest from a hodge-podge of ideas, such as agricultural water sharing.
The plan has its detractors who have criticized it for lack of specific objectives in how to achieve those goals. And some lawmakers believe the General Assembly has been shut out of the process and that storage gets short shrift.
Senate President Pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling told Colorado Politics that he’s been frustrated with the plan’s lack of attention to storage and that there hasn’t been enough emphasis on how to avoid “buy and dry” — the practice of buying up agricultural land for its water rights and then draining the land dry.
“There are no solutions in the plan for buy and dry, except for additional storage,” Sonnenberg said. “If you don’t keep Colorado’s water in Colorado, the only option is to get water from agriculture and ag will continue to be the target.”
Sonnenberg disagrees that the water plan is a positive legacy for Hickenlooper. “He tried to put the plan together and it didn’t get a lot of attention other than from the environmental community that wants to make sure we leave more water in the rivers,” he said.
“If you want to be a water leader with a water legacy, you must support water storage that is paid for by the communities planning for growth,” citing the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), which plans two reservoirs: Glade, near Fort Collins; and Galeton, east of Greeley.
Sonnenberg complained that the governor has not yet endorsed those projects, although Hickenlooper did endorse two other reservoir projects two years ago: Chimney Hollow, near Loveland, and expansion of Gross, near Boulder.
But Eric Wilkinson, who recently retired as general manager of Northern Water, which runs NISP, does believe in Hickenlooper’s water legacy.
“He was the first governor to put water at the forefront,” Wilkinson told Colorado Politics. He was pleased with Hickenlooper’s endorsement of Chimney Hollow (a Northern Water project), which he said tells federal agencies that the project has cleared Colorado’s permitting and is ready to go forward. That was part of the state water plan, too, Wilkinson pointed out.
Wilkinson also pointed to the people Hickenlooper put in charge of water issues as part of the legacy: Stulp, Eklund and Becky Mitchell, the current head of the CWCB; and both of his heads of the Department of Natural Resources, first Mike King and now Bob Randall.
In the water plan, the balance between conservation and recognition for new storage is a pragmatic solution for the state’s future, Wilkinson said. “We need to have a greater ability to manage the water resources, and to do that, conservation is first, but infrastructure is very much needed. The water plan calls that out.”
The timing was right and the leadership was right, Stulp told Colorado Politics. Hickenlooper saw what had been taking place for the past seven to eight years, after the formation of the basin roundtables, which came up with projects for their own regions. The time was right to pull all that together, Stulp said.
Eklund, now with the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, is still involved in water issues, partly as Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. He said Hickenlooper’s legacy isn’t only about the water plan: it’s also where it positioned Colorado internationally on water issues.
Colorado’s position as a headwater state that provides water to 18 downstream states and Mexico means “we punch above our weight on water policy,” Eklund said. The eyes of the water-stressed world are on the southwestern United States.
Colorado finally has a platform in that discussion by coming up with the water plan, which he called a “gold standard” for water planning. Other states and nations can look at what Colorado is doing and judge for itself, he said.
Colorado now speaks with one voice on water, said Mitchell, who was in charge of water planning prior to becoming the CWCB’s latest director.
“The default starting point now on water talk is cooperation, not confrontation,” she told Colorado Politics.
The water plan shows what’s possible, she added, when people with polarized perspectives and faulty assumptions sit down together, listen and speak with civility and respect.
Mitchell acknowledged that the water plan was initially viewed with skepticism, but said it is now part of the conversations on water at both the state Capitol and with the river basin roundtables.
“For decades, the complexity and political challenges tied to water created an aversion to tackling the topic with the kind of sweep and depth needed to generate a statewide vision,” Mitchell said.
The plan makes the work of future governors easier because the state has overcome “long-standing barriers of distrust. We have a living plan with goals and benchmarks in place, and with bipartisan and region-by-region support. We see it as a contribution of historical importance for our state.”
Hickenlooper’s legacy may also be defined by whether or not the next governor takes the water plan and its direction seriously.
Hickenlooper told Colorado Politics he hopes the next governor recognizes the funding gap for implementing the plan. The General Assembly has so far devoted about $17 million over the past two budget cycles to funding projects in the water plan, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need, which is estimated at around $20 billion.
Water providers are expected to shoulder most of that, but the state’s obligation is expected to be around $3 billion, at $100 million per year for 30 years, starting in 2020.
No one, including Hickenlooper, has come up with a solid plan for where that money is coming from. Lots of ideas have been floated, such as changes to the state’s severance tax structure on oil and gas operations (a no-go with Senate Republicans), bottle taxes, water tap fees, and the like.
Hickenlooper said he believes funding for the water plan is sufficient for the next few years, but there is a gap, and at some point, the state will need to spend more money on water infrastructure.
Money isn’t the only issue. “There’s a ton left to be done,” said Miller of Western Resource Advocates.
“You can certainly give Hickenlooper credit for the largest stakeholder process ever” with thousands of people who commented who had never before weighed in on water, Miller said. Comments came from people who don’t own water rights but care about it, he said.
“The state did a great job of assessing each person’s interests,” Miller said, and they raised concerns about urban conservation, river health, and helping farmers upgrade their infrastructure.
But those are things for which the plan has yet to identify a funding source,” he said. “That’s the biggest challenge: funding the plan and the elements that go to urban conservation and agriculture. The groundwork is there but the big work is still ahead.”
“I hope Colorado can build on that legacy,” Denver Water’s Lochhead said. “I hope the next governor picks up that political courage and moves the state forward with implementation” of the plan.
That political courage, and part of the legacy, as Lochhead sees it, is that Hickenlooper opened the door for the next governor to come in and pick up where Hickenlooper ended and made it a little safer for a governor to jump into water issues.
The last word
So how does Hickenlooper view his legacy in water?
“If I was to look at the one thing that changed the most in my public life, it’s the collaborative approach,” the governor said. “This is everyone’s issue.”
Correction: Chimney Hollow was originally identified as a Denver Water project.