Legislature makes its move on developing a water plan

DENVER – No one is trying to keep it a secret, but legislators are worried that few people have heard of the Colorado Water Plan.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has directed his administration to prepare the state’s first-ever comprehensive water strategy by December. The document will guide the state’s efforts to protect rural farm economies while bringing more water to the Front Range for the millions of people expected to move to Colorado by the middle of the century.

But legislators fret that they will be left out of the process. And they worry the public will be caught unaware, even though years of work and hundreds of public meetings have gone into drafting the plan.

Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, said he wants to avoid repeating mistakes the state government made when it partnered with a private company to expand the highway between Denver and Boulder and add toll lanes. Even though every local government in the area signed off on the plan in public meetings, hundreds of angry people turned out last winter to oppose the plan and said they were taken by surprise.

“Perception is reality,”Lebsock said. “It’s absolutely critical that our government, with an assist from the Legislature, is willing to hold public meetings.”

That’s the idea behind Senate Bill 115, which advanced Monday after an 11-1 vote in the House Agriculture Committee.

It was proposed by Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, who thought Hickenlooper’s administration was ignoring the Legislature while drafting the water plan. Originally, the bill would have required the Legislature to approve the Colorado Water Plan.

Now, the bill requires the Legislature’s summer water committee to hold hearings around the state this year and in 2015 to take public testimony on the plan. Two of the meetings would have to be in Southwest Colorado.

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is sponsoring the bill in the House.

“I realize there were some hurt feelings over this,” Coram said. “But I think we need to be involved. We are the Legislature.”

Nine years ago, the Legislature created a system of “water roundtables” in each major river basin to start working on a state water plan while reaching out to as many people as possible. Those roundtables have been at work for nearly a decade and have held hundreds of public meetings, which have not always been well attended.