Among the natural resource issues still being finalized are regulating leach mining for uranium, requiring proof of sustainable water supplies for new developments, stopping abuses in conservation easements for open space, and deciding how best to divvy up severance tax revenue.
District 6 Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, threw a controversial water bill into the mix Thursday with the introduction of a late bill aimed at helping well users on the South Platte River replace past depletions. He said the 11th hour effort has the backing of the governor and the Department of Natural Resources.
“This will only work in wet years when there’s water available,” said Isgar. “If we can’t help people in a wet year, when can we?”
Isgar’s bill would allow irrigators with decreed augmentation plans to use leased water in substitute water supply plans to replace water pumped from the river before 2003. Current law allows such temporary plans to be used only while an augmentation plan is pending in water court.
Hundreds of wells along the Platte in Weld, Adams and Morgan counties were curtailed in 2006 when they were unable to prove they owned the rights to augmentation water. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District reportedly has enough water this year to lease up to 9,200 acre feet to the well users.
“This will provide enough source of water to make up past depletions,” Isgar said.
Lobbyists were buzzing about the bill long before it was introduced. Western Slope interests said they feared it would increase the demand for transmountain diversions to the Front Range, while senior water users on the eastern plains said the issue should go to water court.
“I think it’s unwise to have a major water fight this late in the session,” said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, whose hometown along with Boulder and Sterling were among the objectors when a similar non-legislative plan was proposed in 2006.
McNulty predicted that even if the bill passes in the last five working days of the session, cities and ditch companies with senior water rights will force any lease agreements into water court, so no wells would benefit this spring anyway.
Meanwhile, the Senate was scheduled to take a final vote today on an amended version of House Bill 1161, which expands the authority of the Mined Land Reclamation Board to regulate in situ uranium mines such as one proposed for Weld County near the Wyoming border.
“This bill strikes a balance,” said Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, whose district is on the other side of Interstate 25 from the proposed Powertech (USA) mine.
The bill requires that an applicant for the uranium mine that uses a leaching process to demonstrate it can reclaim groundwater and surface water both during and at the end of the mine’s operation.
“Radioactivity brings up a lot of fear in people and we have the responsibility to protect public health and environment,” Johnson said. “They have a right to exercise the mineral (property) rights but not to leave behind a disaster that takes generations of taxpayers to clean up.”
Northwestern Colorado Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, said he opposed the bill because the regulation goes too far.
The House will have to approve the Senate’s version of the bill before it can go to the governor’s desk. If the House does not agree to the changes, a conference committee will be appointed.
A bill to save Colorado’s popular conservation easement program by cracking down on abuses is nearing the finish line. Isgar is the Senate sponsor of HB1353, which has one more stop in the House for approval of Senate amendments before heading to the governor.
“The original purpose (of the program) was to preserve agriculture land by letting farmers and ranchers stay on land and sell some development rights,” Isgar said. “It protected a lot of land…but there was abuse because of the potential to make a lot of money. People started creating their own trusts and finding appraisers who inflated values.”
Since its inception, the conservation easement program has preserved an estimated 1.5 million acres from development.
The bill creates an 11-member oversight commission and certification process to guard against inflated appraisals and to ensure the legitimacy of land trusts that maintain the easements.
Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, said she is willing to go along with Senate amendments that weakened her House Bill 1141, which requires developers to prove they have adequate water supplies before construction permits are approved.
“It still does what we want it to do,” Curry said of the Senate’s amendment, which allows developers to relay on the water supply plans of local water providers when they apply for their permits.
Curry’s House District 61 is in the midst of one of the biggest energy booms in the country. She said the pressure for new housing and commercial development is enormous.
“New development brings new jobs and can lift the whole economy,” Curry said. “But if we’re not careful – if we don’t develop Colorado responsibility – Colorado’s homeowners will be left without water.
Her bill will go to the governor once the House accepts the Senate’s version.
Isgar also is in the midst of negotiations to reconcile several bills that seek funding the DNR’s portion of severance tax revenue. They include the endangered species trust fund, the effort to keep the destructive zebra mussel out of Colorado’s lakes and ponds, and additional funding to help low-income residents with their energy bills.
“I’m concerned about the sustainability of the operational account,” said Isgar during debate Wednesday over funding for low-income energy assistance. “We are funding a lot more out this account. As things are now, we will be overspending by $3.5 million in fiscal year 2009-10.”