Awise man once said, “developers only have to win once; the community has to win every time.” It’s the same with water exportation proposals. The Renewable Water Resources plan suffered a setback when Douglas County chose not to invest with federal COVID money, but the push to export water from the San Luis Valley aquifers is not dead.
“I don’t think anyone should let down their guard and think we ‘won.’” That’s the voice of Karen Hickman, a Douglas County resident who’s been following the discussions in Castle Rock, and who emailed us her thoughts after listening to Monday’s meeting.
She finished by saying, “Commissioner Teal doesn’t like to lose so there must be another plan in the works!”
There is, and Douglas County hired-attorney Steve Leonhardt pointed to it in his first confidential memorandum to the three commissioners on March 23, 2022 when he wrote, “RWR is developing a legislative strategy to address this issue.”
The issue being the required augmentation plan and meeting the rules and regulations governing groundwater withdrawals in the Upper Rio Grande Basin of the high-desert San Luis Valley.
Enter State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also serves as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. He’s been pointing out the problems of the Renewable Water Resources plan from the beginning and understood all along that Bill Owens and Sean Tonner would look to take a path through the state legislature.
“Since the first engagement with RWR proponents and the description of their pipe dream concept I felt the only path forward for them was some sort of legislative relief from the Confined Aquifer New Use Rules and the Rules and Regulations for Groundwater Withdrawals in Division 3,” Simpson told Alamosa Citizen. “I suspect they would have to make the case that their concept was of such vital state interest that the state should create a variance of some sort for them to allow confined aquifer withdrawals outside of the Rules we all have adopted and operate under.
“I can’t say for sure what that looks like, maybe as simple as a variance request,” he said. “I think the memo from Steve Leonhardt, the letter from their original attorney to the AG’s office, emails from Sean Tonner to Jerry Berry and the language in their presentation to the commissioners all point to the same thing, ‘but for the rules’ this would be a beneficial concept.”
A legislative strategy for Owens and Tonner might revolve around the “public trust doctrine” that allows the public to decide the best and most appropriate use of the waters of the state. It’s an area that Simpson said he’ll be watching.
As Renewable Water Resources regroups, keep in mind Douglas County commissioners are limited to two four-year terms and that Commissioner George Teal, who supported the request for $10 million of American Rescue Plan Act money from Douglas County, is in the second year of his first term. Commissioner Abe Laydon is up for re-election in November and was able to avoid a primary challenge at the Douglas County Republican assembly when county delegates denied a floor nomination from his challenger. Commissioner Lora Thomas is running for Douglas County Sheriff in November; her term as commissioner doesn’t end until 2025 so she could remain on the county commission if she loses the sheriff’s race. If she wins the sheriff’s race, Teal and Laydon will likely look to influence whoever takes her place.
All of this matters because Owens, the former governor of Colorado, and Tonner, his former chief of staff, both live in Douglas County and are active in Douglas County Republican politics as well as state Republican politics.
Owens; Tonner; their other partner, John Kim; Teal; and Laydon run in the same local political and social circles in Douglas County and along the Colorado Front Range.
Expect them to push forward.