DENVER – Farmers and ranchers from along the Lower Arkansas River were riled about a bill that would protect governments from being sued over stormwater detention and mitigation systems that impact water flows.
“I think the amendments we drafted make that clear,” Sonnenberg said. “The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservation District had concerns. We worked with them and they came out neutral on the bill but didn’t tell everyone they riled up.”
After several hours of testimony, Sonnenberg postponed a vote on the bill and said it will be taken up on Wednesday after he has had a chance to communicate with the farmers.
The bill does two things.
It empowers communities to install mitigation systems in response to flood, debris and containment threats posed by wildfire burn scars without having to pay for potential damages to water rights downstream.
No one took issue with that part of the bill.
The second half of the bill dealt with other water quality detention ponds that hold water to filter out sediments and prevent flooding. The bill stipulates those ponds cannot hold water for more than 72 hours unless it’s more than a five-year flood and then the water must be released within not more than 120 hours.
That is the part that drew several farmers and ranchers who rely on peak flows in the Arkansas River to the Capitol to testify late Thursday night.
The ranchers and farmers started by pointing out that the Arkansas River is the most overappropriated river in Colorado.
Their gripe is with plans for the Fountain Creek watershed, including water detention. Fountain Creek flows from Colorado Springs to Pueblo and into the Arkansas River.
Don McBee farms 1,100 acres about 10 miles north of Lamar and gets most of his water from the Arkansas River when it has peak flows, such as during a significant rain storm upstream.
“The problem is a stormwater detention pond, it changes the flow. If they slow down the flow it might never get to the peak I need,” McBee said. “Then it becomes someone else’s water.”
McBee said he doesn’t have issues with urban stormwater retention, or flood mitigation and contaminant facilities near burn scars.
“They are temporary,” McBee said. “We can give a little bit. We are part of the community.”
But McBee said the proposed projects on Fountain Creek are permanent and will have an impact on his water rights.
McBee said he’d be “a lot less opposed” to the bill if it were amended to put the burden of proof for damages on the stormwater entity rather than the senior water rights holders.
Sonnenberg amended the bill to reflect that change.
Now if a downstream water rights owner brings a claim that their water rights have been damaged the burden of proof will rest with the entity that altered the river to prove it didn’t impact it, Sonnenberg said.
El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark said the Fountain Creek watershed projects are critical for improving water quality as it flows to the Arkansas River and needs the proposed change in law to move forward.
“It would unnecessarily delay important projects for clean water,” Clark said. “We want to be good neighbors to our downstream partners.”
She said the bill does three things: allows for clean water, protects water rights and protects life and property from floods.
The whole issue came to a head when the state engineer sent a letter to Colorado Springs Utilities and others saying that some of the fire-zone water management systems in El Paso County are violating water rights of those downstream.
Sonnenberg said before that letter went out there had never been an issue with holding water for 72 hours but now it will be clearly written in law.
Contact Megan Schrader: 286-0644