Southwest lawmakers divine water in suburbs

DENVER – Get ready for the Great Kentucky Bluegrass War of 2014.

Two Southwest Colorado lawmakers want to make new suburban lawns a bit smaller as a way to prevent cities from siphoning away farm and ranch water. The idea highlights the list of bills local legislators will propose when the Legislature’s 2014 session begins Jan. 8.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, got the lawn idea from Durango water engineer Steve Harris and worked on it with Bruce Whitehead, whom she defeated in the 2010 Senate race. It would require new subdivisions that intend to buy farm water rights to make sure no more than 15 percent of their lots are covered with grass lawns.

It’s a good first step, Roberts said, in “recognizing that Colorado is a high-altitude desert.”

She will sponsor the bill with Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and two Democrats, Rep. Ed Vigil of the San Luis Valley and Sen. Mary Hodge of Brighton.

They can expect powerful opposition from local governments and home builders.

Coram, whose district includes Montezuma County, is taking on another thorny issue – converting phone company Centurylink’s subsidy to serve rural customers into a fund to build rural broadband. Efforts to overhaul the telecommunications law have failed the past two years.

He’s also running a bill to deny driver’s licenses to people who suffer from seizures. A Montrose family was killed in a Denver-area car accident two years ago by a driver who suffered a seizure.

“Frankly, if you have seizures, you have no more business driving a car than if you’re drunk,” Coram said.

Although several Republican legislators are eager to try to repeal laws about guns, voting and renewable energy mandates that Democrats passed last year, Coram said he won’t be part of any efforts to rehash the debates of 2013.

Roberts also plans to resurrect a bill that she co-sponsored with former Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio to elect county commissioners from the districts they represent, instead of by a county-wide vote. County voters would have to approve the change, under Roberts’ bill.

And she will push for the money to fix Colorado’s troubled emergency radio system. Fire chiefs in Southwest Colorado have told her the radio system is a disaster waiting to happen. But local governments can’t afford to build and maintain the digital towers.

“It’s going to be expensive, and we’re going to have to work on a multi-year plan,” Roberts said.