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Hickenlooper’s final State of the State reminds lawmakers about water plan

Author: Marianne Goodland - January 12, 2018 - Updated: January 12, 2018

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Lawmakers stand and applaud as term-limited Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper heads to the podium to deliver his final State of the State address to a joint assembly Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, in the State Capitol in Denver. Hickenlooper encouraged lawmakers to take steps to improve the state’s crumbling roadways and to commit to education efforts to prepare the populous for jobs in the ever-changing economy. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Three times during Wednesday’s final State of the State address, Gov. John Hickenlooper brought up one of his signature efforts of the past several years: development of a state water plan to guide Colorado during the next 30-plus years.

With Hickenlooper one year away from turning over the reins of state government to his successor – whomever that might be – the water community is increasingly curious about what will become of the 567-page (with appendixes) plan. The state has already begun investing in the plan, at $10 million per year during the past two budget cycles, for everything from storage and conservation to drought planning and agricultural-water sharing.

During his address Wednesday, Hickenlooper said the state needs to “enact a K-12 and Infrastructure Funding Plan that will help make the Water Plan a reality.”

That reality, he said later, including protecting water for agriculture. “If we don’t implement our water plan, rural agricultural communities will be hit first and hardest,” Hickenlooper said. The agricultural community can’t afford to pay for water what Front Range communities pay for water, but the food produced by the industry “is an essential foundation for the future of our state. We’re one of the great food exporting states and that’s a resource we should continue to invest in, rather than put at risk. The Colorado Water Plan provides a framework, but doesn’t include all the funding for the last billion dollars over the next thirty years. We need the support of the General Assembly.”

The reference to the billion dollars is the water plan’s estimate for what the state needs to contribute to Colorado’s water future. The plan estimates the cost of providing water for an expected population growth of three to five million people at about $30 billion. Most of that will be paid for by water providers and utilities (and their customers) but the state’s obligation, according to the plan, is $3 billion, at about $100 million per year for 30 years, beginning in 2020.

But the plan’s funding is nowhere near a top priority with most at the General Assembly. Legislative leaders have named transportation, rural broadband, education funding, health care costs, reducing business regulations and workforce development as the agenda for the next 119 days. It will be up to future legislative leaders to make the call after that.

None of the four legislative leaders who led off Opening Day mentioned Colorado’s pending water shortfall or the water plan in their remarks.

Senate President Kevin Grantham of Canon City told Colorado Politics that the water plan’s financial ask falls behind other priorities, like transportation and education. “We have to put things in perspective and in order,” Grantham said. “With a $9 billion backlog when it comes to road infrastructure funding” and another $200 million for operations and maintenance, “we need to take things in priority and [transportation] comes first.

Grantham said there were other issues raised in the water plan, outside of the dollars, that could be addressed in the meantime.  “If we’re willing to look at the hard issues when it comes to federal and state regulations on water storage, and get those things out of our way, let’s have that discussion.” He said that could include why it takes 50 years to get a dam built, like the Animas-La Plata in southwestern Colorado. The dam was originally authorized by President John Kennedy and Congress in the early 1960s and reached full capacity in 2011.

That much time from conception to finish “might as well be an eternity,” Grantham said. “We need to talk about real mountain water storage so we do have a future water supply for the growing population. Whether we have the water or not, the population is growing on the Front Range, and high mountain water storage is a piece of the solution.”

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland