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Water and Democracy: An Unstable Combination?

Article by Ed Quillen

Water Conservancy Districts – April 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

AS THIS EDITION went to press, it appeared almost certain that there would be a novel election in Chaffee County: one for a director’s seat on the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, the first such election since the district was formed in 1979.

The district is split into four divisions, corresponding to school districts: Custer County, Western Frémont County (Cotopaxi schools), Northern Chaffee County (Buena Vista), and Southern Chaffee County (Salida).

Like most special districts in Colorado, water conservancy districts can levy taxes. But they’re different from most special districts because their board members are appointed, not elected by the public.

These board members aren’t even appointed by an elected official or body. They’re appointed by district judges, who are in turn appointed by the governor. Judges face the voters only at six-year intervals, and then the question is whether to “retain” or “not retain.” Judges don’t have to defend against a challenger who might promise a different policy on water-conservancy board appointments.

But there is a provision in state law for electing board members. It requires a petition, and it’s a one-shot deal — at the end of a four-year term, that seat will be filled by judicial appointment, unless residents go through the petition process again.

These elections are rare. Colorado adopted the water-conservancy district law in 1937, first allowed for elections in 1945, and not until the 1980s was there an election. That was in the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Weld County (how that northeastern region got to be “Central Colorado” may indicate the arrogance of some Front Range residents).

The records of that election have pretty well faded, but two years ago, there was an election in the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Last year, there was another in that district. And now, the Upper Arkansas.

One might look at this as an outbreak of wholesome American democracy. Or, one might look at as an attempt by malcontents with various hidden agendas (no more growth, send the water to downstream cities, etc.) to subvert a system that has served Colorado water users for 64 years.

There are arguments advanced by good people on both sides. Beyond this question of whether water conservancy district board members should be elected, there is another issue: Has the Upper Arkansas WCD been operating in the best interests of its residents? After all, people who are pleased with its operations with appointed directors are unlikely to be taking the trouble to circulate petitions to elect a director.

The administration of water in Colorado is complex and confusing. But with an election likely in one part of Central Colorado, and with conservancy board elections recently conducted in another part, this is a good time to try answering some of those questions — and to offer some suggestions. ¤