Whitehead was sworn in Monday to represent District 6, replacing Isgar, who resigned to become state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's office of rural development.
John Hollrah, chair of the Ouray Democratic Party, said he’s pleased with Whitehead’s selection.
“I think he’ll make a good state senator,” Hollrah said. “He brings an incredible amount of experience in water issues – he’s done that for decades. I think water will be one of the top two or three issues for western Colorado in the future, starting this year and next, and he is imminently qualified to replace Jim Isgar, who also had that kind of expertise in water and ag.”
Whitehead has given up his seat on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and retired as division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. He also resigned as executive director for the Southwestern Water Conservation district, but will continue to work there part-time.
The next legislative session doesn’t start until January, but Whitehead is getting acclimated already, and didn’t mince words about the state’s budget crunch.
“The primary issue this year is the budget, with potential cuts within departments,” he said. “It’s going to be tough – tougher than last year, if not more difficult.”
The 10 percent across-the-board cuts recently announced by Gov. Bill Ritter will affect everyone, he said.
“They’re already furloughing some state employees, and it may be more difficult to get services,” he said.
But Whitehead said he is optimistic about the future economic outlook, and he believes the economy is going to get better.
Whitehead said water issues may also make it onto the legislative stage and on Tuesday he went to Steamboat Springs for a water resources review meeting to talk about possible water legislation for the next session.
“It’s hard to tell what will happen in the legislature and I’m not even sure what committees I’ll be on,” he said. “Water Resources and possibly the ag committee, and I think that in that area I’ll be able to help with legislation. I have the background and I think they will rely on me for some of that expertise.”
Whitehead said he’ll work preserve agriculture and protect water and other natural resources on the Western Slope, but he was hesitant to take sides on a proposed uranium mill in the Paradox Valley.
He said he wants to be sensitive to environmental issues but development of energy resources is also on the table.
“Development and energy are issues we may have to deal with, and whether there should be development of energy resources, but it has to be sensitive to environmental issues,” he said.
On the other hand, development may depend on the economy and energy prices, and while alternative energy sources should be pursued, coal and uranium should be part of the mix, he said, adding that “protection of natural resources is critical.”
Health care, another issue on the national stage, is also a concern for Coloradans, he said, but he doesn’t think the federal government should hurry up just to adopt a plan.
“The system is not working perfectly, but I think we shouldn’t move too quickly,” he said. He said he hasn’t had a chance to study President Obama’s healthcare plan, but the country needs to “take logical steps.”
In Colorado, the lack of rural health care in some areas is a big concern, Whitehead said.
“We’re more remote than a lot of the state, but my hope is that I can stand up for people in southwest Colorado and let them know in the capitol that we’re out there.”
Transportation is another area that needs improvement in the western side of the state, he said.
“We need to make sure we get our fair share,” he said. “We don’t have interstate highways, yet we have needs. Transportation is commerce for us and I want to try to make sure that we get what we deserve – even more than we deserve.”
When was sworn into the Senate, Whitehead’s wife Becca and their daughters Risa, 7, and Isabel, 10, were with him as well as his mother and other family members. Isgar was also a witness and the oath of office was given by Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs, the court’s water expert.
Sen. Brandon Shaffer, Senate president, said in a news release he believes Whitehead is ready to take over.
“Sen. Isgar has some big shoes to fill, but with Whitehead’s extensive knowledge of water and ag issues, I’m confident he is up to the challenge.”