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Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in the Vail Daily on June 2.
Colorado voters in November will go to the polls with a chance to quite literally wager on the future of the state by either approving or rejecting sports gambling in order to provide a reliable funding source for implementing Colorado’s Water Plan.
The state plan finalized in 2015 identifies a wide range of water storage projects, conservation measures and drought resiliency programs in the state’s nine river basins. Its objective is to improve Colorado’s overall water situation in the face of an ever-growing population and dwindling water supplies due to climate change.
“I would say it’s going to take a lot of different pieces to solve the problem that we know is coming, which is huge population growth that is not matched with where the water resources are,” said state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, who sponsored the Senate version of House Bill 1327 to set up the framework for legalized sports gambling.
Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law earlier this week, authorizing casinos in Blackhawk, Central City and Cripple Creek to open in-person sports books or contract with brick and mortar or Internet sports gambling operators in other states to provide sports betting across Colorado.
If Proposition DD is approved by the voters, the state would then collect a 10 percent tax on net sports betting proceeds, and that money would go into the state’s Sports Betting Fund, which would then fund the Water Implementation Cash Fund to pay for Colorado’s Water Plan.
“The reason I’m on a sports betting bill – maybe not the most intuitive connection for Senate District 5 – but [the district] does bear the burden of solving the water problem for Colorado and — I don’t think this is an overly rhetorical statement — for the western United States, because we’re the headwaters for every almond grower in California and for every shower in Las Vegas,” Donovan added. “They need our water.”
But so does the booming Front Range, where the majority of the state’s population resides, creating a seemingly insatiable demand for water from Colorado’s Western Slope. Donovan’s massive SD5 is made up of seven counties on the Western Slope, including Eagle County. There would be no in-person sports betting in her district – just legalized online sports gambling.
“Why I’m involved in a bill on sports betting is because of the piece of it that establishes ongoing and annual funding for the water plan, because what I’ve learned at the capitol over the last five years is when it comes down to money allocations, rural Colorado is always going to get outvoted,” Donovan said.
Legislators touting the bipartisan bill and its subsequent ballot question this November say illegal sports gambling is already a $150 billion annual industry in the United States.
“It’s one of those issues where everyone’s doing it, so we might as well regulate it and make sure that people aren’t losing their money and that it’s being done with adherence to standards and truth – that when you bet on the Broncos and the Broncos actually win you actually get money,” Donovan said. “I think there’s some value in professionalizing it.”
Some of the proceeds would be dedicated to treating gambling addiction, and Donovan compares the bill to Great Outdoor Colorado (GOCO), which uses state lottery funds to pay for a wide range of parks, trails, open space and even river projects.
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry met with legislative staff in Denver earlier this week to discuss the language for Proposition DD. The details are still being worked out, she says, but it appears that funding for specific water plan projects would be based on grant requests through the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). Those grant requests may then be handled by the various basin roundtables that handle current grant requests.
Chandler-Henry said there was talk at the meeting of using the funding to “close the gap.”
“There is a water gap identified in the water plan — more demand from population growth than water available,” Chandler-Henry said. “Closing that gap is pretty contentious. Does that mean more trans-mountain diversions?
“Front Range water providers talk about ‘new water’ — of which there is no such thing. Western Slope counties see closing the gap through conservation and connecting land and water planning as a better approach,” she added.
And that is the age-old tug of war defining the Colorado water debate for decades – pitting the cities of the Front Range against the recreation and agricultural interests of the Western Slope. It’s a sure bet that argument won’t be settled soon, even if voters approve sports gambling.