A rare vote on water

  For decades, water conservancy districts across the West have been shielded from the ballot box. Almost always, judges or governors appoint the board members, who have the power to levy taxes.

This summer, for only the second time in 62 years, voters in Colorado had the chance to elect board members to a water district. Reformers went one for two. Sierra Club volunteer and Crested Butte resident Steve Glazer ran unopposed and won a seat on the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Twice previously, the district court judge had refused to appoint Glazer to the seat. But environmentalist and two-term incumbent Ramon Reed lost to rancher Greg Peterson, 276-73. Peterson was the rancher the district court judge would probably have appointed if Reed hadn't forced an election by collecting signatures of more than 10 percent of the electors in his district.

Water conservancy districts are special districts formed to tax property owners and repay the federal government for dams and irrigation systems. In general, the boards are appointed rather than elected, Glazer says, "because water interests today don't want to be subject to the public's environmental values."

Nevertheless, state laws setting up water districts must walk a line between control and democracy. Attorney Tim De Young of Albuquerque, a specialist in conservancy districts, says that the broader the powers of a special district, the more the courts require elections.

Irrigation districts, which have narrow powers and tax only irrigated land, can get away with appointed boards. But conservancy districts, which can irrigate and drain land and perform other functions, need to provide for at least the possibility of elections. In Gunnison County, it was the petition process that allowed the reformers to bypass the judge and hold an election.

* Ed Marston

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