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Remember "Econvergence"? Big '90s buzzword -- take a company, merge with another company, launch some new, incomprehensible product, and presto! One plus one equals much more than two! And we'll all get rich.

Didn't work out, except for a few corporate scam artists like former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio.

Yup, Nacchio, even more than Enron chief Ken Lay, perfectly embodies the vices of the last decade of the 20th century. Qwest, a corporate shell spun off from Phil Anschutz' railway empire, was never a real company, at least in the sense of having customers, revenues and profits. In the innocent days of yore, when crooked gold mining deals were all the fashion, a mine was defined as a hole in the ground, while a mining company was a hole in the ground with a liar on top.

These are more sophisticated times; the single liar has been replaced by a whole corporate structure dedicated to creating and selling a veritable mountain of lies.

A couple of years ago, Qwest used its inflated paper to acquire US West, a stodgy old telephone company. The stock soared; Nacchio cashed out to the tune of $400 million or so, and the party came to an end. Turned out that Qwest's revenues were phony, Qwest's assets were worthless, and Qwest's debts were all too real. What's left? Just the stodgy old phone company, now burdened with billions in debt and a largely worthless fiber optic network.

So what did Nacchio and his henchmen do? They took Colorado's leading company, and destroyed it. They caused thousands of job losses, cost investors billions and then walked. You and I might get tossed in the slammer for failing to pay a few parking tickets; these malefactors of great wealth will never do a second of jail time.

Oh, well, life's unfair, and so what? Maybe Nacchio'll get his comeuppance; why, I'll bet there are a couple of crusty old geezers at his country club who won't speak to him. That'll teach him!

Anyway, fuhgeddaboutit -- Nacchio's back in Jersey and we have some convergent phenomena of our own to worry about. Unlike Qwest's airy fantasies, these phenomena are real. Thanks to the Hayman Fire and to the swift imposition of compulsory water conservation measures, most of us have gotten a wakeup call.

The forests are tinder-dry, as likely to burn as a pile of oil-soaked rags. In Colorado Springs, we're facing a water crisis; we use more than we can deliver and our reservoirs are depleting rapidly. Cold comfort, but we're not alone -- all of our sister cities on the Front Range are in the same fix.

How did we get there? It's arguable that our problems with water are rooted in policies and practices that are as secretive, arcane and insider-driven as Qwest's accounting practices. In Colorado, water is allocated, stored, used, transferred, or exchanged through insider transactions. Historically, the public has been shut out of this process, as have elected officials. It's a cozy little world of special interests, government agencies, lawyers and water providers. Deals are cut, massive amounts of public monies are invested, and water, as former Gov. John Love famously said, flows uphill towards money.

Water has been cheap and, so it seemed, endlessly available. Not surprisingly, the politicians and the public left the water buffaloes alone. But just as Qwest's meltdown has caught the attention of regulators, and spawned dozens of lawsuits, maybe our water crisis will lead to some overdue reforms.

Let's look, for example, at the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Never heard of it? Take a look at your property tax bill; it gets a few of your bucks every year. It's the vehicle that was created to finance and administer the so-called Fryingpan-Arkansas project, a transmountain water diversion project a few decades back. It's still powerful, important and essentially unaccountable. Its directors are appointed by a federal judge in Pueblo, guided by a set of meaningless criteria. They're well-connected insiders, chosen for their devotion to the status quo. Just recently, sleekly attired Lou Mellini, our city's consummate political insider, was appointed to a term, as was retired Colorado Springs Utilities executive Harold Miskel. And once you're on the board, you stay; it's a four-year term, but four of the current directors have served more than 15 years, two for more than 20.

There are literally dozens of such organizations, large and small, operating in a governmental netherworld, scrutinized by no one, accountable to no one. They're the detritus of a century's worth of inside baseball, of an opaque and archaic system that needs to become transparent, public and accountable.

But why complain? At least the judge didn't appoint Joe Nacchio to the board.

-- jhazlehurst@csindy

  • John Hazlehurst on practicing the secretive and arcane

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