Gail Schwartz keeps focus on renewable energy, water and economic development

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

As the legislative session is about to kick off, state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, has drought and renewable energy on her mind.

For her first bill of the 2013 session of the Colorado General Assembly, Schwartz will introduce legislation that would allow farmers to implement water-conservation measures without fear of endangering their water rights.

The bill, which would enact safeguards against the normal “use it or lose it” rules governing Colorado water rights, was defeated in a summer water committee, where a supermajority is required to move forward. But in the normal session, Schwartz, who is the chair of the Senate’s Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, would need just a majority to pass the bill. The idea, Schwartz said, is to protect farmers who choose to cut down on water use, since not taking the full allotment can expose water rights holders to abandonment claims.

“Given the drought circumstances, we need to do things differently,” said Schwartz, 63, who is halfway through her second and final term as a state senator.

In an interview in Aspen on Thursday, Schwartz emphasized her focus on energy and rural economic development, but she acknowledged that creating a system for legal marijuana sales and legislation concerning gun control would be headline-grabbing issues during the upcoming session, which officially kicks off on Wednesday.

With proper safeguards and oversight in place, Colorado’s status as being one of the first two states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana could end up being much ado about nothing, Schwartz said. 

“My inclination is we are just a little ahead of the curve,” Schwartz said.

She pointed to the state’s “good experience” so far regulating medical marijuana dispensaries as a road map. Schwartz predicted there will be a state licensing system with additional local controls for pot shops, but she said she is looking forward to the recommendations of a panel that is studying the issue.

“We need a good, strong, predictable system of access,” she said.


Schwartz added she is excited for the prospects of legalized industrial hemp farming in Colorado, because of the plant’s many uses from oils to textiles and its suitability for dry climates.

While acknowledging that gun ownership is a part of life in western Colorado, Schwartz said she would entertain conversations about banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as requiring background checks for online and secondary-market gun sales.

“The criminals know” where the loopholes are that could allow them to easily purchase weapons, Schwartz said.

Other bills Schwartz plans to carry this session include a proposal to assign renewable energy credits to methane-capture power generation systems. Such projects convert the methane gas that leaks out of coal mines into electricity, a recent example being a partnership involving the Elk Creek Coal Mine in Somerset and Aspen Skiing Co. that is expected to generate up to 3 megawatts of power. The rest of the surrounding valley could generate 50 to 100 additional megawatts through a robust methane capture program, Schwartz said. Her bill would aim to give developers of those projects more incentives.

“We need to give it value to make it a competitive resource,” she said, likening the program to incentives for solar and wind power. Schwartz said renewable energy is especially critical to her agenda, given the threat posed by climate change to the ski industry.

Schwartz also wants to move a bill that would use some of the tax dollars generated by fees on cell phone bills to deliver broadband Internet service to rural areas.

Schwartz’s Senate District 5 was changed in 2011’s reapportionment process, which dropped San Luis Valley counties and added Eagle and Lake counties. She will not have the chance to run for reelection in the new district, however, since term limits will require her to step down in 2014. While that is still two years away, Schwartz said she hopes to remain engaged in agriculture and energy issues, either on a state or federal level, after she leaves the legislature.