John Salazar: I’m not sure I’m happy about this stuff

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Part of the settlement announced last week by the Lower Arkansas Valley Conservancy District and Reclamation hinges on authorizing legislation that would allow Aurora to use Fryingpan-Arkansas facilities to move water out of basin. The Lower Ark and Reclamation should have talked to Colorado’s congressional delegation before they struck the deal. Congressman John Salazar is opposed to Aurora moving the water out of basin. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for the Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

At least one lawmaker was caught off-guard by the proposal, and raised doubts about whether he could support such legislation in any form. “It upsets me and maybe gives me just cause to not support any legislation,” U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., said Friday. Other lawmakers in the area’s congressional delegation have not yet weighed in on the deal.

Salazar acknowledged that he had not seen the agreement, but he made it clear that Aurora has little say in whether the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a $300 million water supply pipeline for the lower valley, is approved in Congress. Support for the conduit is one piece of the new agreement, but Salazar said it appears the conduit is being “held hostage” by the two groups.

Legislation which should move to the house floor next week has been suggested by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and would use excess-capacity revenues – including Aurora’s lease, but with many more leases within the Arkansas Valley – to repay construction costs of the conduit. Salazar said if legislation is introduced, it should be written so that Aurora is not able to take any more water from the valley. “If we continue bleeding the Arkansas basin, it will just be Pueblo and Colorado Springs left,” Salazar said. While the agreement would provide opportunity for the Super Ditch, a corporation formed by farmers with the help of the Lower Ark district to lease water, Salazar said he is concerned about the impact of taking more water out of the river and what that will do to local economies. “I still have concerns with the Super Ditch concept,” Salazar said. “I’m not sure I’m happy about this stuff.”

More coverage from the Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The authorization, which would be only for Aurora and no other out-of-basin water user, has not been introduced in Congress, but Lower Ark and Aurora officials plan to talk to members of Congress about it later this month. The authorization would remove the two key elements of a 2007 federal lawsuit filed against Reclamation by the Lower Ark district that challenges Aurora’s ability to use the Fry-Ark Project because it was not authorized in either the 1962 Fryingpan-Arkansas Act or the 1958 Water Supply Act. “We have not been asked to, and I’m not sure we’d be willing to support that agreement,” Salazar said Thursday. “We were caught off-guard that it was even in the works.”

The agreement is the culmination of four years of on-again, off-again negotiations related to the Preferred Storage Options Plan between Aurora and the Lower Ark that Salazar and his brother, former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, helped launch in 2005. Lower Ark attorney Peter Nichols explained Wednesday that talks had broken several times over the four-year period, most recently last June. Talks restarted in January, leading to the agreement approved this week. Any new legislation should not be used to give Aurora more water and the conditions in the agreement unnecessarily link the Arkansas Valley Conduit’s future to Aurora’s ability to move water. “I believe at the very least, there would not be a single drop of more water going to Aurora through this proposed legislation,” Salazar said. “I have serious concerns that there are no conditions in this agreement to stop any more water from leaving the Arkansas Valley.”

Salazar said the Arkansas Valley Conduit would continue to move through Congress as part of the Public Lands Bill that won Senate approval for the second time Thursday. The bill will go back to the House, where it failed for lack of a two-thirds vote last week, and will only need a simple majority to pass…

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, sponsors of the Fry-Ark project, the conduit and PSOP, was supportive of the Aurora-Lower Ark agreement during a brief presentation Thursday, and some expressed hope that PSOP might be resurrected as a result. Aurora could pay more than $50 million over 40 years under excess-capacity contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation signed in 2007. The conduit legislation proposes using those revenues, along with other excess-capacity contracts, to repay construction costs of the conduit and other underfunded parts of the Fry-Ark project. District officials have said Aurora’s participation is helpful, but not necessary to make the plan work. The agreement between Aurora and the Lower Ark would put the federal lawsuit on hold for up to two years until legislation could be adopted, at which time, the Lower Ark would move to dismiss the case with prejudice, Nichols said. That means the Lower Ark could not file another lawsuit over the contract.

More coverage from the Pueblo Chieftain (Peter Roper):

The $300 million pipeline project [Arkansas Valley Conduit] that Colorado lawmakers have been prodding through Congress is just one item in a lengthy public lands bill that the Senate approved on a 77-20 vote Thursday. It was the second time since January that the Senate approved the legislation, but the public lands package was rejected in the House just a week ago. That’s not expected to happen a second time. Hoping for fast action, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had brought the bill to a vote on “special consideration” – a procedure that requires a two-thirds majority – and House Republicans, plus some Democrats, stopped the bill by keeping the final tally two votes short of two-thirds. Pelosi has said she will bring the measure back for another vote soon and a simple majority will be all that’s needed. It passing is very likely given the Democratic majority in the House.

More coverage from the Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Last week’s potential settlement of a federal lawsuit about using a project intended to provide more water to the Arkansas River basin to move water from the basin stirs long-standing issues with yet another agreement…

In late 2004, and often since then, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District ook a hard line opposing the authority of the Bureau of Reclamation to allow Aurora to use the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project to move water out of the valley…

In 2007, after Reclamation approved a 40-year deal for Aurora to store and move water upstream, the Lower Ark dug its heels in and filed a federal lawsuit against Reclamation. The suit was joined by Aurora and Arkansas Valley Native, a group of four influential men who own water rights and also opposed the contract. It was the most rigorous challenge to the deals with Aurora since 1986, when Reclamation began leasing excess-capacity space in Lake Pueblo to the city of 300,000 east of Denver…

With the federal court challenge, however, it became evident there was never clear authority for Aurora’s involvement in the Fry-Ark Project. While Reclamation claimed the authority has always been implicit in federal statutes, the Lower Ark challenged the leases under specific legislation by Congress in 1958 and 1962. The [Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District] was never comfortable with Aurora’s participation in the Fry-Ark Project – which dates back to the beginnings of the Homestake Project in the 1950s – and sought to incorporate formal authority as part of its suggested Preferred Storage Options Plan legislation, which continually failed in Congress.

However, Aurora is able, under the agreement, to buy new water rights in the valley if a new pipeline that would take water out of the valley is built. The Southern Delivery System, still in the permit process, is not counted as a new pipeline under the agreement. The agreement reads: “Should additional delivery systems, which are neither promoted, financed nor used by Aurora, become operational that allow for the delivery of additional agricultural water rights from the mainstem of the Arkansas River for use in other locations, the parties recognize that the competition for agricultural water rights will increase significantly and that it is in the best interests of the owners of such rights to maximize the market for such water.”[…]

While the Lower Ark has spent much of the last five years fighting Aurora, Lower Ark officials believe they may have enlisted an ally in keeping other water interests outside the valley at bay. “We continuously worry about Aurora, but what about Denver and the South Metro District?” asked Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Ark district. “This agreement with Aurora will help keep other pipelines out of the basin.” Provisions requiring Aurora’s support for studies of past water transfers, water quality in the Arkansas River basin and regional water management are also important to preserving water for the basin, Winner said. Aurora’s support on the conduit legislation is needed to assure the project will continue to move smoothly through Congress and into reality, he added…

Beyond the old fight with Aurora, there are numerous opportunities for partnerships built into the agreement. Besides the water leasing and studies, there are provisions that allow the Lower Ark, primarily on behalf of the Super Ditch, to gain storage space in existing reservoirs like Lake Henry and Lake Meredith in Crowley County, and in future projects like Box Creek Reservoir in Lake County. Aurora will also share the expertise it has gained in its farming programs under the Rocky Ford Ditch – where it worked with farmers to study drip irrigation and alternative cropping – with the rest of the valley. Aurora also committed to working with Crowley County on revegetation. The city revegetated lands under its court decree for shares of the Colorado Canal it purchased in the 1980s. However, over time and especially following the 2002 drought, weeds overcame the dried-up farmland, creating conditions for a tragic brush fire last year. While the negotiations for the current deal occurred out of the public eye – they’ve been going on with staff and lawyers since January, but were not discussed in an open meeting until last week – it’s no secret that Aurora and the Lower Ark have had on-again, off-again talks since 2005…

“We are confident that our agreement with Aurora Water mitigates our concerns and we are pleased to have their financial and technical support for future projects that benefit the Lower Arkansas Valley,” said Pete Moore of Crowley County, who was elected chairman of the Lower Ark board in January.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

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