colorado's water plan

Colorado is a great place to work, recreate, and raise our families, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. That means our population continues to grow. Matched up against the fact that we face a drier future, we must “get it right” to ensure clean and reliable water for cities, farms, other businesses, and the environment.

Four years ago, the state released a blueprint for how to address our water future—Colorado’s Water Plan. Western Resource Advocates and our conservation partners played a huge role in helping shape the Plan and its many objectives. We helped make sure the Plan included goals for urban conservation, stream health and recreation, updating infrastructure for farmers and ranchers, and better land use planning, so that new residential development is as water-thrifty as possible.

Now we need to fund the Plan, especially those parts that historically have NOT received the funding they need to take off. The Plan estimates the total need to be $100 million a year for the next 30 years. This funding is essential to show success meeting a wide variety of needs across the state, from helping growing cities get more efficient with their water use to implementing stream health measures in rivers like the Yampa, Gunnison, and Colorado. We are working in collaboration with water experts to find those new sources of funding. But so far, the state has not lined up a permanent source of revenue to adequately fund the Plan.

Earlier this year, with broad bipartisan support, the legislature passed House Bill 19-1327; it is on the statewide ballot this fall as Proposition DD for voter approval. Prop DD would legalize sports betting, impose a new tax on proceeds of sports betting, and apply the vast majority of tax money raised to implement Colorado’s Water Plan.

Why use sports betting as means to fund Colorado’s Water Plan?

Along with many others, we saw this new funding source coming down the pike, and knew that Colorado voters have a history of being willing to impose “sin” taxes that go to a good cause. Great Outdoors Colorado – which helps preserve open space, and establish local parks and other amenities for citizens of all walks of life and all over the state – is funded by the Colorado Lottery. Since the question of whether to legalize sports betting was going to land on the ballot, we supported the revenue going to help implement Colorado’s Water Plan. If you are completely opposed to new forms of legalized gambling in Colorado, then you should not support DD. But if you support or are indifferent to that idea, then we urge you to vote “yes” on Proposition DD.

Will this funding completely solve Colorado’s water needs?

The clear answer is “no.” Colorado’s Water Plan forecast a need of $100 million each year. If approved by voters, DD is projected to raise somewhere between $10 million and $15 million annually in its first few years. [The ultimate cap on the tax proceeds is $29M; to exceed that amount, the issue would need to be brought back to the voters again.] So, the funds from Proposition DD would be just a down payment on the full cost to implement Colorado’s Water Plan.

It’s important to note that, starting in 2016, Colorado state agencies devoted new funding for implementing the Plan, but relied on a fund that could be tapped only for a few years. That funding is going to taper off soon, so we need a new source to keep up the momentum. We will be supporting efforts to bring a larger funding measure to voters in the near future. Proposition DD would be taking just the first step toward truly meeting our water needs.

Will any funding from Prop DD go toward building traditional water infrastructure?

Prop DD asks voters to tax online sports betting revenue in order to “fund state water projects.” While it may sound like this funding would only be for traditional water infrastructure like dams, diversions, and pipelines, the state’s definition of “projects” is much broader and includes all components of Colorado’s Water Plan, including important conservation work that is historically underfunded. So while a fraction of the funds could be used for infrastructure projects, based on how the state agency has most recently allocated funds to implement the Water Plan, much of the funding would be available to improve stream health, increase urban conservation; and upgrade ditches, canals, and other infrastructure used by farmers and ranchers, along with a host of other needs identified in Colorado’s Water Plan. With the total funding from DD likely to be $10-15 million in the first few years, the amount going toward traditional water infrastructure will be quite small (pipelines are massively expensive undertakings, so a couple millions of dollars will not tip the balance toward the viability of a specific project). In contrast, the availability of a few million dollars could do a lot to help improve urban water efficiency in a growing Colorado community, or for stream health in a local river.

We know there is the need to get more clarity on exactly how new funding will be spent. We are hard at work on that right now, with a large group of collaborators, including folks from major water providers, irrigators, and the business community. Western Resource Advocates and our partners will continue to push to have funding pay for things that help Colorado’s rivers, not hurt them.

In sum, WRA gave some serious thought on whether to support Prop DD. We know many people do not like the idea of expanding gambling in the state. But if voters do approve this new form of gambling, along with a tax on that gambling, we think Water Plan implementation is a very good place to spend that money.

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