Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting recap: The impending water court trial and conservation issues dominated

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From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Now that the culmination is in sight for the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) the water district has spearheaded for about eight years, it looks like some of the San Luis Valley counties may not sign off on it, Robbins told the board on Tuesday. If they do not, the residents in their counties will not be covered by it.

The first of its kind in the U.S., the HCP was designed to permit the routine maintenance by farmers, ranchers, city and county crews in areas that might otherwise be up for critical habitat designation for endangered species such as the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Under the plan, farmers could still clear ditches and ranchers could still graze their cattle.

Without an HCP to provide mitigating habitat to allow the counties incidental take permits for those routine activities, individuals, cities and counties would have to apply for individual permits or stay out of the willows.

Robbins said this plan has been the subject of dozens of public meetings, but now some of the county officials or their legal counsel are raising questions that might mean some deal breakers with them signing off on the plan.

“It’s entirely possible one or more counties may decide they don’t want to take advantage of the benefits afforded by the habitat plan, which is unfortunate,” Robbins said.

He added, “We can’t make cities and counties participate if they do not want to. We will tell the Fish and Wildlife Service they are not covered by the HCP and Fish and Wildlife can determine critical habitat and take whatever actions it wishes.”

One of the issues being raised now, he said, was concern over federal jurisdiction, which is what the plan is attempting to avoid.

“It is absolutely beyond my comprehension why anyone would not want to take a very low cost way to avoid interactions with the Fish and Wildlife Service and why governments within the Valley would not want to avoid having to deal with that,” Robbins said.

Another issue is the multi-year clause in the HCP, Robbins explained. Some counties argue they cannot enter a contract encumbering county funds for more than one year at a time. The HCP is a 30-year agreement.

Robbins said all of the counties and their attorneys have had questions about the HCP. The county attorney for Conejos County wants to reserve the right to litigation. Robbins said governmental entities regularly enter into agreements in which they state they will not sue each other.

Robbins said the water district staff, board and legal counsel will do everything they can to get the HCP approved and implemented, especially given the time, effort and money involved in developing it, “but if it doesn’t work, there’s not much we can do about it.”

The HCP should be final in November or December.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

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