Denver water resolutions aside, West Slope controls its own future

Steve King
State Senator Steve King, District 7

Like many Western Slope residents, I was disappointed at the decision by the Denver City Council to weigh in on a Western Slope economic development issue in the manner in which the council did. As the Denver Post reported, a council resolution centered on fears of the “possibility that future oil shale development could use up Denver’s water supply.”

The unfortunate wording of the resolution seemed to imply an entitlement on the part of the City of Denver to the water resources of the Western Slope. That implication gives insight to a lack of understanding of the history and complexities of water law in our state. I’m reminded of the Mark Twain saying, “Whiskey is for drinking.

Water is for fighting over.” In that regard, Colorado is certainly no exception. But over the years, we have worked out agreements, compacts and other forms of water law to ensure that issues are settled as amiably as possible and in accordance with due processes under the rule of law. It’s disappointing the City of Denver resolution harbors a sense of entitlement to Western Slope water that presumes to supersede all of these agreements.

Just as disturbing is the insinuation we would willingly do anything to harm our water supply — and by extension, the suggestion we’re not to be trusted to care for our own resources. I can assure the Denver City Council the people of the Western Slope have a long and honorable history of caring for our land, water and other resources going back generations. It’s also disconcerting council members would arrive at this resolution without first adequately familiarizing themselves with the issue. The suggestion in the resolution that oil shale development poses an egregious risk to the water supply ignores the science and research done in regards to oil shale. The most accurate estimates of potential water use by a large scale, commercial oil shale program — as provided not by the industry or any other interested party, but by Jeremy Boak from the Colorado School of Mines, probably the nation’s foremost expert on oil shale — are one to three barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. The science is progressing. But even with current technology, oil shale production is poised to use less water than other vital uses — including agriculture and production of bio-mass — while producing the critical resources of energy and jobs for Colorado.

There is a far bigger threat to Colorado’s water supply than oil shale development. Council’s time and energy would better serve the people of Denver by resolving to research and help prevent a catastrophic wildfire in any of Colorado’s water sheds. In 2012, a relatively small fire on the South Platte negatively affected the Cheesman Reservoir to the tune of $5 million dollars of remediation for the Denver Water District.

With roughly 4 million acres of dead trees in Colorado, it is not a matter of if, but when, such a catastrophic wildfire will be caused by nature or man. And when that fire occurs, local, county and state governments — and every citizen — will be affected. It’s difficult to imagine or overstate the resource loss to Colorado and lower basin states with whom we have a legal obligation to deliver safe, clean water.

There are clearly much larger threats to our water resources than oil shale development. The nearly 1 trillion barrels of recoverable oil in Western Colorado shale could free America from any reliance on overseas oil, providing an enormous measure of physical and economic security for the nation. The development of this industry would provide good jobs and positive economic growth to the struggling economy of the Western Slope, issues that are of prime importance to the people I represent — as are the royalties, severance taxes and other revenues that such an important growth industry would provide.

The preferred alternative of a recent U.S. Bureau of Land Management environmental analysis would reduce the available acreage for leasing and development of oil shale in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. What the BLM decision does is remove the land and incentive necessary for private companies to invest their own capital in research and development — essentially killing the industry and the many benefits it could provide.

 Denver is certainly entitled to make all the water resolutions it deems necessary. But we all would do well to remember the words of the late Colorado Congressman Wayne Aspinall: “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.” It’s to everyone’s benefit that this complex issue be fully vetted and that words, alongside actions, are given the respect of being carefully thought out.

State Sen. Steve King, a Republican from Grand Junction, represents District 7 in the Colorado Legislature. Reach King by e-mail at