Proposition DD barely squeaks by

A river project, partially funded by the CWCB on the Arkansas River at Granite. The project was removing a river-wide diversion structure and replacing it with a new diversion structure that will allow unimpeded boating through Granite. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A river project, partially funded by the CWCB on the Arkansas River at Granite. The project was removing a river-wide diversion structure and replacing it with a new diversion structure that will allow unimpeded boating through Granite. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

By Heather Sackett

Colorado voters have narrowly passed a measure that will legalize sports betting and use the taxes raised to fund projects outlined in the Colorado Water Plan.

As votes trickled in Tuesday night, the measure remained too close to call; at some points, the margin was just a few hundred votes. But by Wednesday evening the “yes” votes had decisively pulled ahead.

The unofficial results from the Colorado Secretary of State website show that 50.81 percent of voters supported Proposition DD and 49.19 percent were against it — a difference of more than 23,000 votes.

Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties passed the measure, with 61 percent, 59 percent and 58 percent of voters, respectively, supporting it. Fifty-two percent of voters in Garfield County voted against Proposition DD.

Beginning May 1, 2020, the state is authorized to collect a 10 percent tax up to $29 million (but probably closer to $15 million) a year from casino’s sports-betting proceeds. The money will go toward funding projects that align with the goals outlined in the water plan, as well as toward meeting interstate obligations such as the Colorado River Compact.

The funds would be administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a statewide agency charged with managing Colorado’s water supply.

District 5 State Sen. Kerry Donovan, who was a sponsor of the legislation behind Proposition DD, said going into Election Day she wasn’t sure whether it would pass. With Colorado’s growing population and the looming threat of climate change, the Western Slope will see an increasingly large burden when it comes to water supply, she said.

“As a rancher and a Western Slope native, I am really excited the state has decided to invest in the future of water in Colorado,” she said.

 An aerial view of Wolford Reservoir, formed by Ritschard Dam. The Colorado Water Plan outlines many different types of projects, including reservoirs and dams, that need funding. Source: Colorado River District
An aerial view of Wolford Reservoir, formed by Ritschard Dam. The Colorado Water Plan outlines many different types of projects, including reservoirs and dams, that need funding. Source: Colorado River District

Water Plan funding

Funding the water plan could mean a number of things. Outlined in a 567-page policy document, the water plan does not prescribe or endorse specific projects, but, instead, sets Colorado’s water values, goals and measurable objectives. According to the water plan, there is an estimated funding gap of $100 million per year over 30 years, but CWCB officials have said that number is an estimate and not precise.

Some of the projects outlined in the water plan stand in opposition to one another — for example, stream-restoration projects with an emphasis on environmental health and building or expanding dams and reservoirs that would divert and impound more Colorado River water.

CWCB director Becky Mitchell highlighted that the money could indeed go toward many different types of projects.

“I think the most exciting thing for us is that we will have a more permanent pool of funding and it will support all types of projects,” Mitchell said. “So, whether it’s a watershed health or agricultural project or storage project or recreational project, the benefit of a more permanent source of funding is to have secure funding for all types of projects.”

In addition to being distributed in the form of water-plan grants, the revenue could also be spent to ensure compliance with interstate compacts and to pay water users for temporary and voluntary reductions in consumptive use. That could mean a demand-management program — the feasibility of which the state is currently studying — in which agricultural water users would be paid to leave more water in the river.

Pitkin County is using this irrigation system to grow potatoes for vodka on county open space land. Funds raised from a sports betting tax could help fund a demand management program, which could pay irrigators on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis to leave more water in the river. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Pitkin County is using this irrigation system to grow potatoes for vodka on county open space land. Funds raised from a sports betting tax could help fund a demand management program, which could pay irrigators on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis to leave more water in the river. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Broad support

The measure had received broad support from environmental organizations, agriculture interests, water-conservation districts and even Aspen Skiing Company.

Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District also supported Proposition DD. While the estimated $15 million a year is a good start, river district community affairs director Jim Pokrandt stressed it’s not enough to implement all the projects outlined in the water plan.

“What this does is creates a funding stream,” he said. “And it’s really only a down payment. What we don’t want to see is the other funding streams diminish because everybody will say ‘Oh, you got (Proposition DD).’”

Although there wasn’t much organized opposition to Proposition DD, the measure asked voters to consider three complex topics in one question: a new tax, legalizing sports betting and funding the water plan.

Political Action Committee Yes on Proposition DD spent more than $2.3 million, which came mostly from casino and gaming interests, on its campaign. The only registered group in opposition was small-scale issue committee Coloradans for Climate Justice, which argued that fossil-fuel companies should pay for the damage to water-supply systems caused by climate change.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story appeared in the Times Nov. 6 edition.