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Representatives reach agreement with DNR for water storage project funds PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marianne Goodland, Legislative reporter   
An agreement among area legislators, a coalition of wildlife supporters, and the Department of Natural Resources means that freshman legislator Rep. Jon Becker will put an end to his second major solo bill of the 2011 session. But Becker said last week he is pleased with the outcome—17 state dams getting repaired—in contrast to the outcome on his first bill, which drew strong opposition that led to its demise.

On Monday, Feb. 14, Becker asked that his bill, HB 1150, be postponed indefinitely by the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. The bill would have diverted $5 million from the DNR’s Division of Wildlife to the agency’s Colorado Water Conservation Board, to be put toward funding water storage projects.

The bill’s problem, and Becker’s too, was that diverting the money from DOW would have cost the agency $200 million over the next 10 years in federal funds. That money, according to DOW, funds hunter and aquatic education, sportfish and wildlife restoration and boating access.

Lisa Dale of DOW said the money represents 25 percent of the division’s annual funding. Losing it “would have touched everything we do,” she said.

And that put Becker on the radar for hunters and fishermen and women, and not in a good way, and as a result HB 1150 faced probable defeat on Monday.

Instead, Becker got a little help from Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and the cooperation of a new Citizen’s Wildlife Advisory Council that Sonnenberg heads. Sonnenberg said he made sure the “right people were in the right room at the right time” to hammer out the issues and, eventually, the agreement.

It was never Becker’s intent to cause DOW to lose the federal funds, Sonnenberg said, and the common dialogue among the groups resulted in a “win-win situation for wildlife, sportsmen” and agriculture.

On Feb. 17, DOW announced it would put at least $6 million into a five-year plan for water storage projects that will primarily benefit wildlife purposes. The water projects under the agreement target 17 dams statewide that need repairs and improvements, including Two Buttes in southeastern Colorado and Beaver Park Reservoir in Boulder County. DNR spokesman Todd Hartman said Thursday that three dams need millions of dollars in restoration work, five others require funding of at least $500,000 each and the last nine will need about $300,000 each.

The five-year plan will be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review, according to DNR officials. Water projects can be pursued by the division “so long as they have the primary purpose of protecting wildlife,” the division said in a Thursday statement, but those projects can have other benefits, such as water supply for irrigation and other agricultural needs.

“I believe any water project that saves or increases our water storage is good for all of Colorado,” Becker said last Thursday.

It’s not the first time DOW has put money into water projects; the division has spent about $2 million on fish and wildlife water projects in the last five years and owns 104 dams. But under the agreement, water projects will become a higher priority for the division, according to Sonnenberg.

DNR Executive Director Mike King and Becker unveiled the agreement Thursday morning to a gathering of sports and wildlife enthusiasts who were at the capitol for “Sportsmen’s Day,” and the announcement got a positive reception from the group. Becker said he was happy to get the water projects funded through agreement rather than through legislation. It’s an agreement that will be “beneficial to everyone,” he said, one that will keep everyone at the table talking.

That’s also one of the purposes of the Citizen’s Wildlife Advisory Council, which Sonnenberg said was started to resolve the often-adversarial relationship between the sportsmen community and landowners. The 23-member group includes Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Adams County, who chairs the legislative sportsmen’s caucus at the capitol.

The possibility of a second major defeat for one of Becker’s bills prompted Sonnenberg to get involved and he said he stepped in to “mentor” the freshman legislator.

Earlier this month, Becker was forced to pull his first solo bill of the session, HB 1075, which would have removed bicycle paths and mass transit projects from those funded by FASTER, a 2009 bill that increased motor vehicle fees for transportation projects.

Becker cited strong opposition from county and municipal organizations as the reason for pulling the bill. As to why HB 1150 got into bill form without cooperation from DOW, King said simply, “We’re both new here.” King has been at DNR just eight months, and this is also his first legislative session.

But with the agreement now under their belts, both King and Becker say they now have a working relationship on sports, wildlife and agricultural issues that will continue, and will lead to better collaboration in the future.

Sonnenberg complimented Becker for working through the issues and finding the solutions. “Jon has hit the ground running as a freshman legislator to find common sense solutions to problems that face Colorado,” Sonnenberg said in a statement. He added later that Becker has “gotten more done in the last 30 days behind the scenes than many legislators do all session.”

Becker also has been at the forefront of legislative action recently for another reason: balancing the state’s 2010-11 budget. As a member of the Joint Budget Committee, Becker last week helped marshal through a package of 29 bills that will close a $216 million gap in the state’s 10-11 budget, which ends June 30.

The package still needs compromise work from the JBC and one more round of approvals from both the House and Senate before it heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper for signing.

Hickenlooper last week unveiled his plans for the state’s 2011-12 budget, and those plans include halting state operations at Bonny Lake State Park, north of Burlington. A state budget official said Tuesday, Feb. 15 that the decision is based on the budget shortfall, but he also pointed out that the lake is nearly dry.

The lake is scheduled for draining at the end of the 2011 summer season in order to comply with the state’s water compact with Kansas.