RANGELY — Natural Resources Director Russ George convened the state’s first water round table Tuesday, telling participants that having water basins set their own large-scale water policy is preferable to continued drawn-out court battles over one of the state’s most precious commodities.
George said the round tables will set new guidelines for major water projects after voters rejected Referendum A, a $2 billion plan to sell bonds for water storage. The round tables were approved this year by the Legislature.
George told about three dozen people who showed up at Colorado Northwestern Community College for the first round table for the White-Yampa river basin that far too often, water disputes are settled by power, money and litigation.
“The water legal system isn’t always the best tool to set large-scale water policy,” he told the group.
The round tables are modeled after the multi-state 1922 Colorado River Compact, which allocates Colorado River water to seven Western states.
The round tables represent the state’s seven river basins and two sub-basins. Members were appointed by Gov. Bill Owens and lawmakers to represent everyone who is competing for the state’s scarce water supplies.
Dan Craig of Phippsburg said he grew up in Pueblo, “where we irrigated with our imaginations,” and he wants to help find ways for people to share water instead of fighting over it.
He said agriculture owns 84 percent of the state’s water, and farmers and ranchers will be among the first to suffer if compromises cannot be reached.
George said the White-Yampa round table has already made significant progress, drafting a set of bylaws that outline the forms and terms of the White River Basin Compact Subcommittee.
The round table Tuesday began a process for selecting two members from the basin to represent the round table on the Interbasin Compact Committee that oversees the intrastate compacts. Owens will appoint six members with backgrounds in the environment, recreation, local government, industry and agriculture. The chair of the House Agriculture Committee and Senate Agriculture Committee will each make one appointment.
The process has not been without controversy. Some lawmakers were concerned that the round tables would allow one basin to impose its will on other basins, and there wasn’t room for all interests at the table.
There also has been concern about a potential deal to divvy up water from the Colorado River struck between Denver and Western Slope water providers that bypasses the round tables.
Steve Henderson, owner of the Steamboat Flyfisher in Steamboat Springs, said the federal government should be taking an active role in the round tables because it restricts the amount of water available to protect endangered fish.
“What they’re doing at these round tables may go for naught,” Henderson said.