In Colorado you can ski down some of the nation’s steepest slopes, play in the vast Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and drink enough craft beer and smoke enough pot to leave you splayed out on a grassy Denver park.
But you can’t land your seaplane on the state’s public waters, and after a vote Thursday by a Colorado Senate committee it’s going to stay that way.
“I didn’t realize I would be kicking such a large hornets nest,” said Raymond Hawkins, a Colorado seaplane pilot and member of the national Seaplane Pilots Association who was pushing for legislation to bring the aircraft to the state’s mainstream.
Supporters of the bill say Colorado is the only U.S. state that doesn’t allow seaplanes to land on public waters and were hoping the legislation could be an economic boon. But after three hours of testimony on Thursday afternoon, much of it from conservation groups and boaters against the bill, the future of seaplanes in the state was dealt a blow, falling in a 7-4 Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee vote.
Legislators heeded concerns about the aircraft bringing invasive species — specifically the zebra and quagga mussels, which have ravaged the nation’s lakes — and making Colorado’s already overcrowded lakes and reservoirs unsafe.
Conservation Colorado, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife invasive species expert, Denver Water, Northern Water and the Colorado Water Congress were among the groups that spoke against the legislation. Chief among their concerns was a lack of suitable ways to ensure the mussels are staying out of the state through a vigorous inspection process like the one in place for all boats.
“If this bill passes, how does CPW implement a mandatory inspection and decontamination program?” said Elizabeth Brown, invasive species coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “There is no successful model in this nation for which we can follow that does not include self certification.”
Brown held up a section of pipe clogged with mussels as an example of the costly consequences of infestation on water infrastructure.
“With a growing population in Colorado, the lakes that we have are becoming more and more crowded,” testified Chris George, a Colorado boater. “There is no room for (seaplanes) and I think it puts everybody in danger. I just don’t see the benefit.”
Proponents said having seaplanes on public waters would attract aeronautics businesses to Colorado and aid in firefighting efforts, not to mention produce tourism dollars. They said seaplane accidents are rare and that pilots would never put the public in danger.
“Invasive species, of course, scares us to death,” testified Gary Tobey, of the Colorado Pilots Association. “We really need to be aviation friendly. The benefit here really outweighs the risk in that regard.”
The legislation — Senate Bill 235 — proposed a pilot project that would allow seaplanes to land or take off from two undetermined state park lakes. However, that’s only after they’ve been inspected and decontaminated of aquatic nuisance species.
Seaplanes can technically land on private lakes in Colorado, and an event in southeast Colorado before the legislative session drew four aircraft. There are about 80registered seaplanes in the state and several hundred pilots qualified to fly them, proponents said.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Arapahoe County, and Sen. Jovan Melton, D-Arapahoe County. It came after years of efforts by seaplane enthusiasts to be allowed to take off and land on Colorado public waters.
“I think that what we have here today is that there is a tremendous amount of concern about boating,” Todd said. “There is a concern about safety and the number of boats that are on a body of water. I think that is an aside. No pilot is going to subject themselves, that expensive piece of machinery that they are flying, into danger.”
The agriculture and natural resource committees chairman, Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, who represents northeast Colorado, called concerns about invasive species a “red herring” as he voted in support of the bill.
Statewide efforts are under way in Colorado to enact legislation that would allow for the operation of aircraft on certain state waters. Colorado is currently the only state in the United States which does not allow for such operations. On April 6, 2017, a bipartisan bill was presented to the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Larry Crowder (R) and Sen. Nancy Todd (D) as well as Rep. Jovan Milton (D). SB17-235 was postponed indefinitely in committee after a motion from Sen. Baumgardner (R) was passed, effectively killing the bill.
Presently, education and rallying continue to reshape the public perception of seaplanes. Legislation will be presented soon that focuses on studying any potential adverse effects of seaplane operations, and identify methods of mitigation. The most pronounced fears were expressed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) concerning invasive species, such as the zebra mussel. Other concerns cited included overcrowding lakes and disturbing natural ecosystems.
SB17-235 addressed all of these issues. Invasive species, such as the zebra mussel, will be mitigated by establishing an inspection and decontamination process, similar to those used by boaters. Under the new legislation, pilots would be required to inspect, decontaminate, and certify their planes before operating on any Colorado waters. The process would have been at no cost to CPW or taxpayers and would have overwhelmingly deteriorated any likelihood of invasive species being introduced to state waters at the hand of a pilot. Operations would also be compliant of FAA regulations established for pilots to ensure safe handling of their aircraft on Colorado waters, effectively discrediting any irrational fear of pilots wrecking their very expensive airplanes into boaters. Furthermore, unlike boats, seaplanes require no infrastructure to operate. Boats need ramps, while aircraft do not. Boats also incorporate water into their motors to cool them and muffle exhaust, mixing toxic gases, unburned oil, and unburned fuel into the water while aircraft leave no trace behind.
Colorado is well on its way to experiencing the many benefits that come from seaplanes. One such benefit would be the ability to train Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) pilots to skim water off of the surface of lakes and large ponds, leading to drastically decreased time between attacks on wildfires. Additional benefits would include increased revenues and demand for jobs relating to training, tourism, repair and manufacture, and transportation. Seaplanes provide a very important function in our society, and Colorado is really missing out!
Ray Hawkins with the Seaplane Pilots Association is spearheading a campaign to educate the public on the importance of seaplanes. A “Splash-in” is planned for May 20, 2017 at Lake Meredith in Crowley County. Planes must land at the La Junta airport (KLHX) to be inspected before obtaining authorization to land on the private lake. Multiple vendors will be present, and public support is greatly appreciated. Vendors are also still being accepted, so please call ahead to reserve a spot. Aircraft will land beginning at 7:30 a.m. in La Junta and will continue to Lake Meredith beginning at 8 a.m. For more information, contact Cade Sallee at 719-251-3921. Interested parties may also find more information at http://coloradopilots.org/. The event will also be broadcasted by KTHN radio 92.1 FM.
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