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New Political Environment of Water
Analysis of New Era of Water Development,
Management and Politics

January 2003

by Floyd Ciruli

Soon after the turn of the 21st Century, water supply quickly became Colorado’s most salient natural resource issue. The historic drought immediately impacted the economy, environment and nearly every Coloradan’s lifestyle. Today, the drought has changed the politics of water. Many decisions of the 2003 legislative session and state and local government will be controversial, expensive and take years to implement. But they will be critical to securing adequate water supplies both during this drought and in the long-term.

The following describes the factors and trends defining the new era in water politics. It was prepared for the Colorado Water Congress annual conference on January 23, 2003. The material was developed during 2002 as the drought intensified and its political implications became clear. Included are results from a statewide public opinion poll conducted for the Parker Water & Sanitation District in July 2002. The materials were augmented and refined after presentations to the State Legislative Interim Water Resources Committee, the Douglas County legislative delegation at a Parker town hall meeting and the Denver Water Board.

• • • • • • • •

  • The extraordinary drought conditions have caused a shift in the political environment, which has prompted a new era in Colorado water development and water politics. The implications of the new politics of water are just beginning to be perceived. Some observations on the new era:

  • Historically, the public’s interest in water supply issues is low and media attention sparse. But with the drought, water has become a top issue for Colorado voters, alongside the economy, schools and health care. Snow pack, reservoir levels, water restrictions and proposals for new supply are front-page news. Water managers have become high profile spokespersons who announce dire drought-related warnings and restrictions.

  • Water policy and politics are normally conducted behind the scenes in poorly attended meetings of agricultural legislative committees and public utility and conservation district work sessions. Today, the Colorado Water Congress’s meetings are standing room only and legislative committees hold sessions late into the evenings in packed hearing rooms.

  • Water is for fighting over—especially when it’s in short supply. Long-held conflicts between east and west slope, urban and suburban, metro and rural areas are clearly visible during this drought. But due to the seriousness of the drought and the increased media and voter attention, good faith efforts at compromise appear to be making progress.

  • Water law, regulations and projects tend to develop slowly over many years. But today, dozens of new legislative bills could significantly change water law, and new water limitations and fees proliferate daily from utilities along the Front Range. New projects to expand storage, conserve supplies, reuse water and drill wells are announced regularly.

  • All water politics are local. Projects are proposed by local interests and paid for by local beneficiaries. But the state has increasingly had to referee for competing areas and water users. The threat to the economy is so severe that project planning and financing, especially for proposed multi-basin, multi-billion dollar projects, has expanded the state’s role.

The more serious the drought becomes in 2003 the more likely water politics in Colorado will change permanently in new and unpredicted directions.


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