Press "Enter" to skip to content

Gunnison will vote on taxing itself for water war

Article by Chris Dickey

Gunnison Water – October 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE CONTROVERSY over diverting water from the Gunnison Basin to the Front Range has outlasted two District Court rulings and one from the Colorado Supreme Court rulings. Today, the issue seems no closer to being decided than when it first arose more than a decade ago.

The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District has taken the lead role in opposing transbasin diversion. As a result of this expensive legal battle, the taxpayers of the district are being asked to approve a tax hike.

If the November ballot issue passes, additional revenues will be used to replenish the district’s depleted war chest and prepare for the next go-round: another Arapahoe County appeal of Judge Robert Brown’s decision that not enough unappropriated water exists to make a transbasin diversion feasible.

The last tax increase of the water district came in 1990, when voters agreed to a seven-fold mill levy increase, primarily to fight the proposed Union Park diversion project. The mill levy has been ratcheted down in recent years to comply with Bruce Amendment revenue limits. This year’s budget includes about $270,000 in tax revenues.

Voters within the water district, which encompasses Gunnison and Hinsdale counties, will have two options in November. The first is to allow the water district to de-Bruce, which would result in a $150,000 boost to its budget. A second question asks not only to bring the levy back to what was approved in 1990, but increase it an additional 30%. This option would increase the district’s annual budget to more than $500,000.

UGRWCD officials feel confident the public supports spending more money to protect the basin’s water resources. But staving off transmountain diversion isn’t the only purpose of a tax increase. The water district also has substantial water rights dating back to the 1950s which it stands to lose if it can’t convince Judge Brown this spring that adequate efforts have been made toward implementing what’s called the Upper Gunnison Project.

This project was originally conceived by the Bureau of Reclamation as an irrigation project involving the construction of several large reservoirs in the Gunnison Basin. Because no construction has taken place, these rights remain conditional and the district has to face the court every six years in a diligence hearing. Earmarking additional revenues for this purpose is viewed as an important component that could be used to show the court the district is making progress.

One of the concerns is that the gates to transbasin diversion could be opened if these rights — more than 80,000 acre feet of storage and a flow right of 1,500 cubic feet per second — are waived. However, the prospect of building dams has stirred the ire of many in the Gunnison Valley, from environmentalists to ranchers.

So, while the community is divided on how best to use UGRWCD water, it is united when it comes to transbasin diversion. A `Not One Drop’ campaign was adopted in 1990 and has only gained momentum since.

UNION PARK RESERVOIR is the center of this controversy. Front Range entrepreneur Dave Miller in the 1980s conceived the idea of collecting water from the headwaters of the Gunnison River, storing it in a reservoir approximately the size of Blue Mesa, and diverting about 100,000 acre feet annually through the Continental Divide. Arapahoe County took the project over in 1988.

Judge Brown in 1991 ruled against this application. Arapahoe County appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, which upheld most of Brown’s decision but did raise a couple of questions. The second trial was held late last year in which Brown found even less water available for diversion than he did in 1991.

A couple of months ago, Arapahoe County again filed an appeal. The Front Range county then received a commitment from six water and sanitation districts within its boundaries to pick up the tab for this round of litigation.

There are two main points to this appeal, both concerning federal operation of the Aspinall Unit, which includes Blue Mesa, Crystal, and Marrow Point reservoirs. Should the court’s interpretation of these issues be overturned, it would mean that ample water is available in the basin for a Union Park project.

Even if the Union Park litigation comes to a close, many believe transbasin diversion issues will continue to haunt the Gunnison Basin.

“There is no end to the controversy,” explained Dick Bratton, longtime attorney for the UGRWCD. “Demands for water on the Front Range continue to grow, so over the long term it’s simple arithmetic. With the resources of both people and money, they’ll come back here sooner or later.

“It’ll be a tough battle long after I’m dead and gone.”

Chris Dickey edited the Salida Mountain Mail this spring before returning to a free-lance career in Gunnison.