Saguache: Folks in the San Luis Valley express opposition to out of basin export plan

The northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley has a raw, lonely beauty that rivals almost any place in the North American West. Photo/Allen Best

From The Center Post Dispatch (Teresa L. Benns):

Renewable Water Resources (RWR) managing partner Sean Tonner made his water export presentation to an overflow crowd at the Saguache Road and Bridge Building [April 9, 2019] evening, but nearly all those attending made it clear they were not receptive to the plan.

Tonner opened the discussion by telling county residents the plan is “still in the formation stages and has years to go.” He said he has already held 150 meetings to explain the project.

A former chief of staff for Gov. Bill Owen, who supported the plan, Tonner also worked with former State Senator Greg Brophy and other government officials on the project. Currently Tonner owns the 11,500-acre Gary Boyce ranch, purchased from Boyce’s wife following his death. He also leases grazing land in the same area.

Tonner claims less than two percent of the annual confined aquifer recharge — 500,000 acre-feet — is needed by the Front Range. Farmers could sell all or a portion of their water rights to RWR for twice the going amount. A total of $60 million has been set aside to procure water rights.

Already enough Saguache County farmers and ranchers have agreed to sell their water rights to satisfy the proposed 22,000 acre-feet project, Tonner reported. The plan is said to be able to retire more than 30,000 acre-feet, reducing the overall usage from the basin. This would presumably lessen the pressure on existing rivers and streams now providing water to the Front Range.

A pipeline along Highway 285, restricted to a 22,000-acre-foot capacity, would carry the water up over Poncha Pass into Chaffee County and from there it would eventually make its way into the Platte River. There would be no adverse impact on wildlife, Tonner claims.

The project would create a $50 million community fund for the county that could be used for a variety of purposes including education, law enforcement, tourism, economic development, conservation and other worthy cause. The county would manage the fund. Just the interest would generate $3-4 million annually which is twice the amount of the county’s sales tax grants, he pointed out.

Commissioners question Tonner

Citizens were asked to listen only during the meeting, although there was one uninvited comment by longtime water consultant Chris Canaly. Commissioners then offered their responses to Tonner’s plan, beginning with Jason Anderson.

Anderson asked Tonner if he had researched the plan to see if any communities in either Colorado or nationwide had ever benefited from water exportation. Tonner could not answer the question, although he told Anderson he is familiar with the history of similar projects.

J. Anderson also challenged Tonner’s statement that there is one to two billion acre-feet of water in the aquifer beneath the Valley, some of it below sea level. “We have a guess about what’s down there, but no one really knows,” Anderson told Tonner, echoing the opinions of several water exports who have advised the county. “And they estimate that all this water is connected, so where are the benefits, say, for Alamosa and Costilla counties?”

RWR replied that the benefit would lie in a lessening of the burden of water replacement. Commissioner Ken Anderson challenged Tonner on his definition of Front Range, reminding him that the San Juans are the higher front range. K. Anderson said he also had questions about the model RWR is using.

Commissioner Jason Anderson then asked Tonner what the county would do about the promised money for the community fund if there is another recession. RWR replied there would likely be another economic downturn, but said he thought it “is pretty bad when we have the ability to solve problems with renewable resources we are not going to use” and fail to do so.

This brought a united protest from the crowd, who denied the county’s water resources are “renewable.” Anderson reminded attendees that Tonner had a right as a Saguache County resident to voice his opinion whether they agreed with his ideas or not.

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