Pitkin County’s opposition to tax follows pattern of ‘misalignment’ with River District

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Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Pitkin County commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday opposing the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s proposed tax increase. The River District has said the tax revenue would be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, but commissioners said the ballot language was too ambiguous. The headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, near Independence Pass, are shown here in a file photo.

In a reflection of long-simmering mistrust of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Pitkin County is opposing the organization’s proposed tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Pitkin County commissioners in a special meeting Tuesday passed a resolution that said that without an identified use for the revenue, a tax increase is irresponsible and not in the best interests of county citizens.

The ballot question tells voters in the 15-county district that the money will be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation. But commissioners said the language was flawed and too ambiguous.

“It’s not that we don’t support the efforts of the water district, it’s not that we don’t support protecting water on the Western Slope,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “It’s just that I would like more clarification, more specification in the ballot language as to the benefits to the Pitkin County taxpayers.”

The resolution opposing the River District tax hike passed on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Greg Poschman and Steve Child voting against it. Both said they would like to hear from members of the public and the River District before making a decision.

River District general manager Andy Mueller wasn’t happy with the way the meeting was noticed or that the draft resolution wasn’t included in the packet materials for the public to see. In a last-minute request to postpone Tuesday’s vote, Mueller asked commissioners in a Monday night email for an opportunity to engage in direct communications with Pitkin’s five-member Board of County Commissioners about the ballot measure.

The BOCC did not take any public comment at Tuesday’s meeting. In order to vote on the resolution, the BOCC came out of Tuesday’s work session and went into a “special meeting.”

“The fact that they refused to allow public comment and input, and that they held it during a really strangely noticed meeting is really disturbing,” said Mueller, who learned Monday about the county’s resolution to oppose the tax measure. “The public in Pitkin County deserves a hell of a lot better.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said the BOCC discussed in August all the different questions on the ballot this year and whether the elected officials should bring in presenters both pro and con.

“The board decided at that time that we didn’t think it was necessary and there was enough information out there for us to make a decision rather than put time on the schedule, which we frankly don’t have, to allow these groups to come in and present,” McNicholas Kury said. “I know the River District would have liked the opportunity to present. (Pitkin County Attorney) John Ely sits on that board, and he’s given us the accurate picture. He’s been fair in his summaries.”

In July, the River District decided to move ahead with Ballot Issue 7A, which will ask voters to raise its property taxes from a quarter mill to a half mill. That works out to an increase of $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value, and will raise nearly $5 million annually.

According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy for Pitkin County’s median home value would increase from $18.93 per year to $40.28. Pitkin County’s median home value, at $1.13 million, is the highest in the 15-county district. The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which was created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache counties.

Ely, the Pitkin County representative on the River District board, was the lone “no” vote against the ballot measure in July, saying that the district’s fiscal implementation plan — where it outlines how the tax money could be allocated — is not directly tied to the ballot language, so there’s no commitment on how exactly the money will be spent.

On Tuesday, Ely told the BOCC that environmentally minded Pitkin County has been a proponent of enhancing streamflows and improving riparian ecosystems, while the River District has been more “traditional” in seeking ways to develop the Western Slope’s water, meaning dam and reservoir projects.

“The district has not been aligned with many Pitkin County directives,” he said.

After learning of Tuesday afternoon’s impending vote on the resolution, environmental groups American Rivers and Western Resource Advocates, which support 7A, scrambled to rally their members in an attempt to stop, or at least postpone, the vote.

“Pitkin County representatives need to understand that this issue is bigger than them,” Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, wrote in an email. “The most progressive communities and the most conservative communities, conservation organizations, agricultural associations, ranchers, water providers, business leadership, etc. are putting their differences aside and coming together to do what needs to be done for the Colorado River. None of us are getting everything we want nor are we going to agree on everything in the future — but we know we have to do something now.”

Other counties, including Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Delta, have passed resolutions supporting the River District’s ballot measure.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Water from the Colorado River flows through the Grand Valley Irrigation Company’s canal near Palisade, shown in a file photo. Pitkin County commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday opposing the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s proposed tax increase.

Historic mistrust

Pitkin County’s opposition to a River District tax increase is just the latest in the historically antagonistic relationship between the two entities, a dynamic that Poschman noted Tuesday.

“I know maybe there’s a necessary and justified amount of suspicion and mistrust that the money could be spent against our interests, because we do have a misalignment with Pitkin County and the River District,” he said.

Some of that mistrust can be traced to a River District-led project that included conditional water rights for 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River. The water rights for what is known as the West Divide Project were tied to three dams and reservoirs, including a dam just downstream from Redstone, which would have created the 129,000-acre-foot Osgood Reservoir.

The River District abandoned these conditional water rights in 2011 after being sued in water court by Pitkin County, but the memory is still raw for some.

“The timescale is still fresh in the minds of those people up the Crystal,” said Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar.

The River District and Pitkin County have also been on opposing sides of designating the upper Crystal as “Wild & Scenic.” The River District has opposed the federal designation, saying it would end water-development opportunities in the valley, but Pitkin County still supports the move.

Brent Gardner-Smith

The narrows just below Placita where a dam big enough to store 62,009 acre-feet of water was once planned by the Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District. The Pitkin County BOCC passed a resolution opposing the River District’s proposed tax increase.

Competing water studies

The county is also going its own way on an analysis of water needs in the Crystal Valley. It recently hired hydrologist Kristina Wynne of Englewood-based water consultants Bishop-Brogden Associates to study backup water-supply options for Crystal River water users instead of relying on a study already underway by the River District and Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District.

2018’s summer drought revealed a water shortage on the Crystal that may not leave enough for both agricultural users and residential subdivisions. Irrigators south of Carbondale placed a call on the river, meaning that upstream junior water rights holders — including some homes that use wells — would have to stop using water so the downstream senior irrigators could get their full amount.

The River District, which often advocates for the interests of agricultural water users, was awarded state grant money to study the issue.

Mueller maintains that his organization is no longer the dam builders of yore and emphasizes his desire for collaboration. Last week, he told members of the Crystal River Caucus that the River District will commit to not damming the mainstem of the Crystal and will emphasize solutions to the water shortage other than storage.

“I recognize our district has a lot of trust-building to do in the valley,” he said. “I think, frankly, the River District has evolved and realized that damming anything on the Crystal is not a good idea.”

But it’s a hard sell for some in Pitkin County.

“It’s pretty alarming we didn’t get a heads up from the River District,” said Kury, the county commissioner, regarding the district’s Crystal River study. “We’ve had to fight the River District before. We were taken off guard by the outreach to our constituents about shutting off their wells. I have some hesitancy in that relationship.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift  Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 17 edition of The Aspen Times.

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