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The long, strange trip to the ballot box

Article by Jeanne Englert

Water Politics – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

THOUGH IT WAS a lot of work, citizens groups in Chaffee and Gunnison counties have succeeded in getting elected representation on the Upper Arkansas and Upper Gunnison water conservancy district boards, which have historically been appointed by judges.

And they plan to do it again. Both Citizens for Water Integrity (Chaffee County) and High Country Citizens Alliance (Gunnison County) have already begun circulating petitions for director districts in which the incumbents’ terms will expire this year.

At long last, voters and taxpayers in Colorado WCDs have an opportunity to choose who should be directors. Yet few of those who cast ballots in those elections know how difficult it has been to give them this opportunity.

The movement to elect WCD boards actually began at a 1984 Glenwood Springs water conference, almost by accident. Its organizer, the lone Friends of the Earth outreach worker, Connie Albrecht, decided to put me on a panel to discuss the future of water in Western Colorado as the token grassroots activist.

By the time it got to my turn on the panel, which included the chief Water Establishment lawyer, Greg Hobbs (now a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court), a county commissioner, and head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, I realized all the points in the speech I’d prepared had been made.

So I just plunged ahead and said that despite what these august panelists before me had said, the most important thing we need to do for the future of Colorado water use is determine: “Who decides?” Us or them? We, the people, or a few elite, water-establishment lawyers and appointed water conservancy district board members?

The conference attendees cheered. I figured it was because it was getting close to lunch, and that their butts were getting sore from sitting so long on uncomfortable chairs, but at lunch there were scheduled appearances of Third Congressional District candidates.

One of the Democratic Party hopefuls said, “I agree with Jeannie Englebert. These boards should be elected.”

Phil Klingsmith, the Republican hopeful from Gunnison, said, “I don’t normally agree with Jeannie Englert, but I do agree that these water boards should be elected.”

(It was, I noted, difficult to be against elections when you’re running for office.)

The best was yet to come. The Durango opponents of the Animas-La Plata project presented a play in which the Lord creates the water conservancy district to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. The judge then rejects Victoria Principle, who had degrees in theology, philosoph,y and hydrology, in favor of an irrigator with a third-grade education.

The folks from Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, and Steamboat Springs were astounded. “Why that’s just like our District,” they said. “That’s just like our District.”

APPARENTLY IT DOESN’T TAKE MUCH to shake up _the Colorado Water Establishment. According to a confidential memo Albrecht obtained later, the Colorado Water Congress lawyers fretted about how these people are contemplating “negative changes” in the water conservancy district law even before we thought about getting organized. I thought the memo quite amusing in that it warned the conservancy districts to abide by the local budget and audit laws after they discovered that at least one-quarter of these WCDs had never filed a budget or done an audit as required by law.

There was good reason why the Colorado Water Congress would feel threatened by my Glenwood Springs speech. The CWC is a private water-development organization nominally supported by dues, but a significant amount of its funding, we learned, came from water conservancy districts.

ONE STARTLING DISCOVERY we made in our sleuthing was “the special project” — $5,000 line items in several WCD budgets. It was an attempt to lobby to exempt the Upper Colorado River Basin from the Endangered Species Act.

Even though I lived through most of what followed, I still find it hard to believe — the bullying, the insults, the arbitrary changes in committee hearing times every time a bill to elect water boards came up in the legislature.

Chief bully Senator Tilman “Tilly” Bishop killed one of our reform bills by holding a hearing at 5 a.m. He also refused to let Charla Palmer of Steamboat Springs distribute a letter from District Judge Richard P. Doucett, who wrote that judges had no business appointing boards of special districts that can levy taxes.

I had to track down Jack and Mary McElroy from Grand County in a motel in Denver to tell them, at 11 p.m., that the Committee had again changed both the time and the place of the hearing.

The House Minority and Majority leaders, in a noble bipartisan effort, almost got us a decent amendment to the Act in 1985, but Senator Tilman quashed that one in conference committee.

Possibly the most disheartening betrayal was what happened to James C. Decker, a political science professor at Fort Lewis College in Durango. According to Decker, his representative, Jim Dyer, had promised him he’d vote for the bill to get it out of committee and onto the floor, but Dyer reneged on that promise.

“What am I supposed to tell my students?” Decker asked, noting that “No taxation without representation” is a basic tenet of our democracy.

The wonderful folks in Lyons, which is in the St. Vrain and Lefthand WCD, tried to air their grievances, one of which was that after a judge appointed one of their members to that board, the District hired a surveyor, who determined that Ron Gosnell’s residence was just four feet outside the boundaries of that director district.

BETWEEN 1985 AND 1998 we introduced or tried to amend bills to establish a simple change in the water conservancy district law; it would have water boards elected like other special-district boards — like hospital district boards or fire district boards. Besides the grassroots groups that had supported the movement from the beginning, we recruited a county commissioner to testify.

We also had a rancher who was a board member of the Clifton Water District. A sterling citizen who was a senior member of the Civil Air Patrol, a CPA, and an appointed board member of a water conservancy district, he said that because he disagreed with the others on the board, they wouldn’t let him know when and where the next meeting of the board was.

IN RESPONSE to another of our basic gripes, Representative Lew Entz (San Luis Valley) tried to tell me in an interim committee hearing that we should have no problem about getting access to records because, “We (the legislature) passed the Colorado Public Records law.”

And the lobbyist for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District had just said such districts had never denied any records.

“Yours did,” I retorted, adding that sure we could get their records if we had $3,000 a pop to go into court every time we were denied a document.

The main argument against us was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Ain’t broke? Oh yeah? Well, then how come people from Steamboat, Grand Junction, Clifton, Glenwood, Carbondale, Aspen, Silt, Pleasant View, Dolores, Durango, Hooper, Saguache, Pueblo, Boulder, Erie, Allenspark, Fort Collins, Cedaredge, Eckert, Austin Dacona, LaSalle, Montrose, Meeker, Weldona, Lyons, Crested Butte, Kremmling, Gunnison, Pagosa, Loveland, and Buena Vista were all clamoring for elected WCD boards?

Not to mention the six judges who had gone on record to say the law violated the doctrine of Separation of Powers, and the resolutions from Pitkin County, Carbondale, Lyons, and Fort Collins plus a 1985 water conference held in Salida, which 95 people attended. At that conference, our one dissident WCD board member, Greg Durett of West Divide WCD, summed up our sentiments: “It’s God, Mom, and Apple Pie.”

There were other arguments advanced against elections. My favorite was “The wrong people might get elected,” from the attorney for West Divide. (He threatened to sue Albrecht and me for libel because we quoted him.)

At least Iola Grant of the Basalt WCD was honest about it. She said, “I’m sure I’d get elected, but I don’t want the hassle.”

A corollary to that was that qualified people won’t run. Third Congressional District Scott McInnis, who was then in the legislature, said something to that effect. My reply to him was, “Scott, are you saying you’re not qualified? That you’re the wrong person for the job?”

There was the high cost of elections. Patiently I would explain that the gist of our bill was to put WCDs in Title 32, regular special district law, which says if there is no challenge to the incumbent, the incumbent would be automatically reinstated.

Members of the legislature’s agriculture committee also said there was obviously no interest in changing the law because no elections had been held since the 1985 amendment was passed. We would explain that this so-called process was even worse than what had been on the law books before because it required that 10 percent of the registered voters who had lived in such a District for a year had to petition for an election. A year from when? The day one signs the petition? The day the petition is submitted to the judge? How does one prove residency of 365 days?

TWO NOBLE, if quixotic, attempts to go for a ballot initiative did, however, get the Water Establishment’s attention. The result was the law that the Citizens for Water Integrity and High Country Alliance successfully used to hold elections in 1999, 2000, and 2001.

I was happy that our long, collective struggle has resulted in some elections, but this statute is still an insult to all Colorado citizens and to our country’s Founding Fathers.

To that end, I have approached my state senator, Terry Phillips, to reintroduce the bill. At the least, its introduction will allow folks to explain what hoops they have had to jump through to call for a one-time election of one director.

Ralph Nader said, “There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.” My salute to the folks in the Upper Arkansas, and Upper Gunnison, and to all those who came before them.

Jeanne Englert was born in Aspen before it became a suburb of Hollywood, and she first encountered water conservancy districts in Durango. She now lives in Lafayette. She used excerpts from her book in progress, One Dam Thing After Another, in writing this article.

Water Conservancy Districts were covered extensively in the April, 2001, edition of Colorado Central. In those articles, the managers of the Upper Arkansas and Upper Gunnison River districts explained why they were opposed to board elections. The articles are on the magazine website,, and the back issue is available from Colorado Central, P.O. Box 946, Salida CO 81201, for $2.50 postpaid.