Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):
SOMETIMES playing defense can be your most effective offense.
Anticipating another eventual push to export water from the San Luis Valley aquifers and the headwaters of the Upper Rio Grande, officials in each of the six counties are drafting an intergovernmental agreement and specific planning regulations they hope will legally block any water exportation project.
Through an intergovernmental agreement, the counties would look to establish a “Joint Planning Area” to protect the Valley’s water resources and then adopt specific 1041 planning regulations that address protecting the Valley’s water resources from exportation.
“This might be our best opportunity to stop water exportation,” said Saguache County Commissioner Tom McCracken, who chairs the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments board. “I’m feeling really excited about it.”
It’s through the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments that county officials and city officials have been meeting to draft the intergovernmental agreement and eventually establish 1041 regulations specifically around water exportation proposals. Any proposal that would aim to take water out of the Valley, such as the Renewable Water Resources plan, would have to satisfy all the regulations in applying for the required county permits.
The city of Alamosa and the city of Monte Vista are expressing interest in being part of the water resources intergovernmental agreement as well.
In a speech last April where he addressed the RWR plan, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser encouraged the use of 1041 regulations so that communities have a “seat at the table in shaping the water projects that impact them.”
“Broadly speaking, a local government can use its 1041 powers to limit the negative impacts associated with the development of certain ‘areas’ or ‘activities of state interest.’ Such areas or activities might be related to everything from water infrastructure to buy-and-dry projects. Overall, these powers are intended to allow local governments to protect our lands, their value, and their use,” Weiser said.
CONVERSATIONS among county commissioners began in earnest early last summer following interest by Douglas County in the Renewable Water Resources proposal to pump 20,000 acre-feet every year out of the Valley to the Front Range bedroom community.
A visit by Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon last year to talk to RWR supporters in the San Luis Valley heightened concerns among county commissioners. Following Laydon’s visit, local county commissioners began conversations on how to counter both Douglas County’s interest and the ongoing efforts by Renewable Water Resources to export water from the Valley.
“I do still see a need and I feel good about the movement that’s been made,” said Alamosa County Commissioner Vern Heersink, who has been involved in the discussions from the beginning.
“I didn’t think we would have this much of a voice,” Heersink said, “and so it’s exciting to be working together with the other counties on a common goal.”
As headwater counties in the Upper Rio Grande Basin, there’s strength in numbers when it comes to battling water projects with smaller counties banding together to counter efforts by a large suburban county like Douglas County.
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments offers a template to the approach in how that region battled the Two Forks project in the 1990s.
“The only way a region like the San Luis Valley can be successful and have a real say in the water world is if it bands together,” said attorney Barbara Green. Her law firm, Sullivan Green Seavy, is advising the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments in the drafting of the intergovernmental agreement. The agreement itself has no regulatory effect but simply forms the “Joint Planning Area,” Green explained to commissioners at a meeting last week in Alamosa.
It’s the 1041 regulations that provide the teeth.
THE strategy could also provide a checkmate to Douglas County’s own interest to get into the business of being a water provider, which it currently is not.
At a recent Douglas County Commissioner work session, Laydon raised the idea of creating a volunteer water commission, similar to a county planning commission, to help Douglas County plan forward on securing water for its future needs.
“We know that the state does not have a concrete water plan. I think that’s to come,” Laydon said. “In the west and certainly in Douglas County we know that water is a top priority issue, a scarce resource that we need to have some long-range, thoughtful planning around.
“I think we’re overdue in Douglas County to really activate a water commission and have a comprehensive plan much like we do in transportation and our comprehensive master plan in land use.”
Bill Owens, former Republican governor of Colorado and RWR pitchman, has been courting Douglas County to buy into Renewable Water Resources. Attorneys hired by Douglas County have outlined the significant legal and logistical hurdles to the RWR proposal.
Having each of the San Luis Valley’s six counties adopt specific planning regulations around water exportation and enter into intergovernmental agreements adds another layer of local regulation around water projects.
The effort is not so Valley counties can meddle in each other’s business, said Heersink, but a specific response to any plans for water exportation.
“We want to prevent a diversion that takes the water out of the Valley,” he said.
Today [January 23, 2023], Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper urged the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to consider allocating additional funding from the recent omnibus funding bill for Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) or the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) for the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC).
The AVC is a planned 130-mile water-delivery system from the Pueblo Reservoir to communities in Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Prowers, and Pueblo counties. The Conduit is the final phase of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which Congress authorized in 1962.
“[T]he Conduit has been one of Colorado’s top priorities for nearly six decades,” wrote the senators. “Continuing to invest in this project will allow the project’s stakeholders to plan for more effective construction and delivery of clean drinking water throughout Southeast Colorado.”
In the letter, the senators highlight the $60 million allocated for the construction of the AVC from the BIL last fall, and ask BOR to allocate additional funds, which could be immediately applied to help advance different components of the AVC.
“For years, this project languished due to insufficient funding and a prohibitive cost-share agreement,” continued the senators. “Congressional appropriations over the past decade coupled with BOR’s recent $60 million award will finally enable the construction of this long-promised project. More investment, from the FY23 omnibus or future BIL awards, would accelerate the construction timeline and improve planning efficiency.”
Bennet and Hickenlooper have consistently advocated for increased funding for the AVC. The FY23 omnibus spending bill, which was signed into law in December, included $10.1 million for the Conduit after Bennet and Hickenlooper urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to continue to fund the project last May. In October, the senators visited Pueblo to celebrate the announcement of $60 million in BIL funds for the Conduit. The senators and U.S. Representative Ken Buck (R-Colo.) urged the OMB and BOR in July to allocate these funds. In March, Bennet and Hickenlooper secured $12 million for the Conduit from the FY22 omnibus bill. Prior to FY22, Bennet helped secure more than $70 million for the AVC. Bennet and Hickenlooper will continue working in Washington to ensure Colorado has the resources needed to complete this vital project for the region.
In 2009, Congress passed legislation Bennet worked on with former U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to authorize a federal cost share for the construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit. In 2013, Bennet and his colleagues sent a letter to the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS) in order to expedite the project’s pre-construction process. In 2014, following Bennet and Udall’s efforts to urge the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s EIS, the Record of Decision was signed in February. Bennet joined the groundbreaking for the project in October 2020.
The text of the letter is available HERE and below.
The Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) announced on Monday that it will direct $60 million in federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) towards advancing the construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC), a 130-mile pipeline project from Pueblo Reservoir east to Eads, Colorado that will deliver safe, clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has supported this project with $100 million in grants and loans. The Arkansas Valley Conduit project is the final element of the larger Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which Congress authorized in 1962. The project has literally been decades in the making.
“The SECWCD is thrilled with the announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation that $60 million from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has been allocated for construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit. This follows on the heels of the award of the first construction contract for the Boone reach,” said Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Senior Policy and Issues Manager Chris Woodka.
“This commitment from BoR is a clear indication of their intent to move this project forward to completion, and to direct resources to it so that clean drinking water will be delivered sooner than originally planned,” he added. “We thank each and every one of you for your patience, and your ongoing support.”
Today [October 17, 2022], Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper welcomed an announcement from the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) of the distribution of $60 million in funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to support the completion of the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC), providing Coloradans with a secure and safe supply of water. In July, the senators and U.S. Colorado Representative Ken Buck urged the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and BOR to allocate funds from the infrastructure law for the AVC. The Weeminuche Construction Authority, an enterprise of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, has been awarded the contract for this phase of construction of the AVC.
“Sixty years ago, President Kennedy came to Pueblo and promised to build the Arkansas Valley Conduit to deliver clean drinking water to families in Southeastern Colorado. Since I’ve been in the Senate, I’ve fought to ensure the federal government keeps its word to Colorado and finishes this vital infrastructure project,” said Bennet. “One of the first bills I passed helped to jumpstart and fund construction on the Arkansas Valley Conduit, and with this announcement, we’ve delivered more than $140 million to help complete construction and deliver on this decades-old promise.”
“Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, long-stalled projects like the Ark Valley Conduit are moving forward. Today, we’re bringing this 60 year project over the finish line,” said Hickenlooper.
The AVC is a planned 130-mile water-delivery system from the Pueblo Dam to communities throughout the Arkansas River Valley in Southeast Colorado. This funding will expedite the construction timeline for the Conduit and allow for federal drinking water standards to be met more quickly. The Conduit is the final phase of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which Congress authorized in 1962.
Bennet and Hickenlooper have consistently advocated for increased funding for the AVC. In May, the senators sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee to include funding for the AVC in the FY23 spending bill. In March, Bennet and Hickenlooper helped secure $12 million for the Conduit from the FY22 omnibus bill. Bennet and Hickenlooper will continue working in Washington to ensure communities have the resources needed to complete this vital project for the region.
“We have been working hard to move this project from planning to construction. This announcement follows the first construction contract award, and is a clear indication that the District and Reclamation will continue to partner in this long-time effort to bring clean drinking water to the Lower Arkansas Valley. Our Senators were key to obtaining more than $8 billion for the Bureau in the IIJA, and our delegation’s long-standing bipartisan support along with support from the State of Colorado have put the conduit on Reclamation’s front line for construction,” said Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board president Bill Long.
“The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and its construction enterprise are honored to be a partner in delivering safe drinking water to the Lower Arkansas Valley. Like other projects Weeminuche Construction Authority has been a part of, the Arkansas Valley Conduit has been a long time coming, but will provide enormous benefit. The infrastructure dollars for the Bureau of Reclamation, making this possible, are a credit to Senator Bennet’s efforts to build support for Western water infrastructure,” said Michael Preston, Board President, Weenuch-u’ Development Corporation of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
“As a regional leader in water issues in southern Colorado, Pueblo Water is proud to help push the Arkansas Valley Conduit forward. Our strong relationship with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other partners helped make it possible for this project to come to fruition. Through this partnership, communities in Southeastern Colorado will have access to clean water faster than thought possible,” said Seth Clayton, Executive Director of Pueblo Water.
Prior to this announcement, Bennet has helped secure over $80 million for the AVC.
In 2009, Congress passed legislation written by Bennet and former U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to authorize a federal cost share and the construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit. Bennet then worked to secure $5 million in federal funding for the project.
In 2013, Bennet and his colleagues sent a letter to the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS) in order to expedite the project’s completion. In 2014, following Bennet and Udall’s efforts to urge the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s EIS, the Record of Decision was signed in February. After President Obama’s budget included an insufficient level of funding for the project, Bennet led a bipartisan letter urging the administration and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to allow the Conduit’s construction to move ahead as planned. Bennet successfully urged the Department of Interior to designate $2 million in reprogrammed funding from FY14 for the Conduit. Bennet secured language in the FY15 Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act that sent a clear signal to the BOR that the Conduit should be a priority project.
In 2016, Bennet secured $2 million from the BOR’s reprogrammed funding for FY16, after the project had initially received only $500,000. Bennet then secured $3 million for the AVC as part of the FY17 spending bill. Bennet secured $3 million for the Conduit for FY18.
In April 2019, Bennet and former U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) wrote to then-Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Feinstein, urging them to provide funding for the Conduit. Bennet, Gardner, former U.S. Congressman Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), and Buck wrote to the Department of the Interior urging the Department to support the project. Bennet secured approximately $10 million each year for the Conduit in the FY19 and FY20 spending bills. In 2020, Bennet welcomed $28 million from the BOR to begin construction on the AVC to help bring clean drinking water to Colorado communities. He secured $11 million for the AVC in FY21. He joined the ground breaking in October 2020.
A proposal to pump groundwater from rural Nevada to Las Vegas is dead, bringing relief to a coalition of odd bedfellows who fought it for more than 30 years. But concerns linger that the pipeline may one day return.
For more than 30 years, Southern Nevada water officials had a simple plan to fuel the valley’s explosive growth: pump groundwater from rural valleys in eastern Nevada to Las Vegas. The water would make a 300-mile trip from arid basins in rural Nevada through a pipeline to Las Vegas. But for three decades, a group of odd bedfellows that included rural ranchers, environmentalists, Native American tribes and even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fought the project at every turn — before a judge finally dealt it a fatal blow in March 2020.
To its opponents, the pipeline was a looming threat that would have devastated ranching communities, high desert ecosystems, Native American sacred sites and more. But for Southern Nevada, the pipeline was a key backup plan should Lake Mead ever start to dry up — something once talked about as only a remote possibility decades down the line, but which now stands as a reality staring the Southwest square in the face. Conditions along the Colorado River have deteriorated far more rapidly than predicted, with eroding hydrology, climate change and chronic overuse all taking a toll during a two-decades-long drought…
The outlook was clear to [Pat] Mulroy in the early days of the drought, though. The water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell started what would be their two-decades long fall in the early 2000s, and Mulroy knew that climate change would progressively worsen that decline as the years went on. The authority at one point applied for the rights to pump as much as 180,000 acre-feet of water per year from those valleys to Las Vegas — what would have been a significant addition to Nevada’s annual 300,000 acre-foot allocation from the Colorado River. Mulroy said the project to pump billions of gallons of water from the eastern edge of the state to its most populated urban hub was planned “for conditions like they exist today.”
THE water attorney Douglas County hired to advise it on the proposed San Luis Valley water exportation project by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and his Renewable Water Resources group said “many hurdles” remain and that his legal concerns are unchanged.
Stephen Leonhardt, Douglas County’s lead water attorney consultant, made his concerns known in a Sept. 13 closed-door meeting with the three Douglas County commissioners. An executive summary of that meeting was made available to Alamosa Citizen on Friday following a Colorado Open Records request.
Leonhardt, engineer Bruce Lytle and water attorney Glenn Porzak – all Douglas County consultants – met with John Kim of Renewable Water Resources on July 26, according to the memo, as a follow up to an outline of issues and concerns Leonhardt earlier presented to Douglas County following a “deep dive” into the RWR proposal.
“While it was a good meeting, the discussion did not alter my initial analysis and conclusions and there remain many hurdles to a successful project, which are not resolved at this time,” Leonhardt wrote in a Sept. 28 executive summary released to The Citizen. “The legal concerns with the project remain unchanged.”
Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas has been pushing her fellow commissioners, Abe Laydon and George Teal, to release more details from their executive session meetings with Leonhardt. She said Friday on Twitter, “I remain OPPOSED for @douglascounty continuing to spend time and resources on taking water from the San Luis Valley when none of the water providers in Dougco are interested in participation with the concept.”
Laydon is facing re-election against challenger Kari Solberg in November. For Douglas County to continue showing interest in the Owens-led plan, RWR needs Laydon to earn a second term in the commissioners’ chambers.
But even then, the RWR water exportation concept faces major barriers, not the least of which is complying with state groundwater pumping rules that govern water in the San Luis Valley and the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa is already gearing up to knock back any legislative push Renewable Water Resources attempts to make in an effort to amend state rules governing groundwater pumping. He said RWR has lobbyists in place, and he expects the group to begin a lobbying process.
“I’ve always said they’ll be at the legislature at some point, going, ‘This is so important to the state we shouldn’t have to follow the same rules and regs,’” Simpson said.
He said he’s heard recently that RWR might approach the legislature with this plan in the 2023 session, which would align with RWR telling Leonhardt that it was developing a “legislative strategy” when he first outlined the problems.
“Why would they do that? They have zero chance of being successful, but that’s why they’ve hired lobbyists,” Simpson said.
“They don’t need a lobbyist if they’re just going to follow the rules as written,” Simpson said, alluding to RWR’s own statements in its proposal.
Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, said, “The last line of the memo says it all. The Douglas County Commissioners should take the extensive review provided by their independent water counsel to heart and move on from RWR. The legal issues with RWR’s proposal are insurmountable. In my opinion, any continued discussions or study of the RWR proposal is simply a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
The plan Douglas County has been reviewing would pump 22,000-acre feet a year from the northern end of the Valley in Saguache County and Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
One monumental task RWR faces is getting a state water court-approved augmentation plan in place that would demonstrate to the court that RWR has a portfolio of replacement water on the injured streams under a worst-case scenario.
Leonhardt has raised the required augmentation plan as a major barrier. “In the San Luis Valley, an augmentation plan for wells must not only prevent injury to water rights on the stream system, but must also maintain the sustainability of both the Confined Aquifer and the Unconfined Aquifer,” he wrote in his bulleted May memorandum to Douglas County Commissioners.
“This requires, at a minimum, providing one-for-one replacement for all water pumped, either by retiring historical well pumping or by recharging the aquifer.”
“After thorough consideration of its options, the City of Thornton has decided against filing a petition with the Colorado Supreme Court in its lawsuit against Larimer County,” the city announced in a statement.
The statement said the decision is about time. The time waiting for a potential Supreme Court decision is better spent working with Larimer County and its community…
Weld County landowners were influential opponents of Thornton when the city went through the permit application process. In 2019, the Weld County Planning Commission recommended approval of the project, but protests from landowners caused the planning commission to reverse its recommendation in 2020. Residents’ complaints were also cited by commissioners as a reason for denying the permit at a hearing on May 5, 2021.
Click the link to read “Thornton will not appeal its case against Larimer County over pipeline to Colorado Supreme Court” on the Fort Collins Coloradoan website (Bethany Osborn). Here’s an excerpt:
The announcement comes over a month after the state Court of Appeals upheld a decision from 8th Judicial District Judge Stephen Jouard, who ruled that Larimer County was within its right to deny the permit, though there were some exceptions. Larimer County commissioners originally denied Thornton a 1041 permit to construct 12 miles of a pipeline through unincorporated parts of the county in 2018 and again in 2019. Larimer County commissioners said both times that Thornton’s proposed project failed to meet several criteria required under 1041 permit and would significantly impact residents who lived along the proposed construction route. Commissioners said the city of Thornton failed to explore other options like running the water through the Poudre River, but both the district and appeals court said commissioners did not have the right to deny the permit for that reason alone…
Larimer County has been a major roadblock for the city’s plans to transport water from several farms in Larimer and Weld counties the city purchased over 30 years ago. Thornton hopes to be able to use the water to accommodate its growing population by 2025. The denial from county commissioners doesn’t appear to be halting progress on the project. According to the project website, 7 miles of the pipeline have already been installed.
Thornton officials said in the press release their preferred outcome is “an agreed upon solution between Thornton and Larimer County.” And “finding solutions to the benefit of the Coloradans living in both communities.”
Douglas County plans to release an executive summary of its most recent closed-door water briefing from attorney Steve Leonhardt, who met Sept. 13 with the county commissioners to update them on his latest talks with Renewable Water Resources.
Leonhardt told Douglas County officials that he wasn’t comfortable releasing his full notes from the meeting he held with Douglas County Commissioners and county administrators. Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas continues to push for full transparency and release of all the information from Leonhardt’s most recent discussions with RWR.
On Tuesday [September 27, 2022] during a county commissioner work session, Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon, who chairs the three-member board, said it would be appropriate for Douglas County to provide an executive summary of the Sept. 13 executive session given the ongoing public interest in the RWR discussions.
Douglas County Attorney Lance Ingalls told the commissioners he would work on an executive summary for review and in essence it would say, “Mr. Leonhardt’s conclusion is that the issues remain. That they have some ideas how to address them, they have some ideas of what’s bigger than others, but the bottom line of his followup with RWR is that issues remain. They still need to be resolved.”
Ingalls is stepping down from his position on Oct. 3. Douglas County said it has a national search underway for his replacement. He’s been overseeing the work of Leonhardt and other water attorneys Douglas County has hired to advise it in its talks with Renewable Water Resources.
Douglas County remains interested in the idea of moving water from the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s confined aquifer in the San Luis Valley for residential use in Douglas County, and has Leonhardt working with RWR to resolve a host of issues that Leonhardt previously identified as problematic for Douglas County. Here’s his two-part memorandum to the Douglas County commissioners back in May when he told Douglas County that there are too many holes in the RWR plan for Douglas County to make an investment.
Commissioner Thomas has called for a full public briefing of the Sept. 13 meeting, but Christopher Pratt, formerly the assistant county attorney and now acting county attorney with Ingalls pending departure, said Leonhardt is opposed to releasing full notes.
“He felt very strongly that he does not want that released,” Pratt told the county commissioners. “Those were his notes from the meeting. It’s not really something he generated for public dissemination.”
As Ingalls later stated to the commissioners, Leonhardt has been working to address the issues at a high level on behalf of Douglas County and that he still sees major problems for Douglas County to get involved with the RWR plan. How those are being addressed will remain between Douglas County and its attorneys for now.
“We’re talking about spending a significant amount of taxpayer money and I think the taxpayers have a right to know what’s going on,” Thomas said.
Four months after announcing they wouldn’t use federal COVID-19 funds on the proposal from Renewable Water Resources, or RWR, the commissioners heard a legal update on the project from the county’s outside counsel, Steve Leonhardt, Sept. 13. Leonhardt, who recently met with RWR, provided advice and a piece of “work product” for commissioners to review…
In May, Laydon made the decisive vote not to use a portion of the county’s $68 million in American Rescue Plan Act money on the proposal. However, he said he was still interested in continuing to look at the project. Since then, the county has continued to pay Leonhardt to talk with RWR…
Commissioner George Teal, a longtime supporter of the plan, said during the Sept. 13 meeting that Leonhardt’s advice reflects the current legal and political setting and that things could change in the decades it would take for the project to come to fruition…
Opponents of the plan have come from across the political spectrum, including Rep. Lauren Boebert, Gov. Jared Polis, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa and both U.S. senators.
Speaking of the November election, Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon is up for re-election in a race against Democratic challenger Kari Solberg. Should he win – and expectations are that he will in a county that trends toward local Republicans – expect Douglas County to make another full-court press on a deal with Renewable Water Resources. A renewed push, despite clear public opposition including from Douglas County residents, relies on Laydon being re-elected to the three-member board of commissioners, since it is a split public body with Commissioner Lora Thomas staunchly opposed to the idea of exporting water from the San Luis Valley and Commissioner George Teal a key ally of RWR. Laydon needs to win re-election for RWR to move forward. Upcoming campaign finance reports will show how big a bet RWR’s Bill Owens, Sean Tonner and other water exportation enthusiasts have placed behind him.
You’ll recall Douglas County decided not to use its federal COVID relief money to invest in RWR, but rather told its staff and water attorneys it has hired to negotiate and to continue working with RWR on the proposal. The deal was never dead – Douglas County simply took it off its public agenda while staff and attorneys worked on the plan with RWR’s Bill Owens and Sean Tonner. Earlier this month, on Sept. 13, Steve Leonhardt, the lead water attorney hired by Douglas County, met in executive session with the three commissioners to update them on his ongoing talks with Owens and RWR. Once November passes, and should Laydon win, expect Douglas County to again make its case for why its way of life in the suburbs of metro-Denver is more critical to the future of Colorado than the agriculture and environmental assets of the San Luis Valley and the health of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
Hmmm. I found a recent letter to Midwesterners published rather insulting. I think the West needs to solve its own problems without making problems for other regions at a huge cost. Who is going to pay for the water transfer anyway? Certainly, Midwesterners don’t want to. A few suggestions for Western states:
Stop building golf courses that use tons of water and get rid of most of them.
Stop planting grass and plants that don’t belong in a desert and watering them day and night to grow
Replace water parks with something that fits into a desert area
Stop developers from building more homes and promising 100 years of water usage. Obviously, you are running out much sooner. City planners are not doing a good job about growth and water management in a region that was way overbuilt 20 years ago.
Reduce the asphalt and concrete poured to make roads and parking lots. No trees or greenery certainly doesn’t keep things cooler.
As the region’s climate becomes drier, more pipelines are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks.
Pipelines that are advancing the fastest are rural and tribal projects backed by federal funding.
The proposals echo a century of large-scale water engineering that ushered in the modern era in the American West.
Across the country’s western drylands, a motley group of actors is responding to the region’s intensifying water crisis by reviving a well-worn but risky tactic: building water pipelines to tap remote groundwater basins and reservoirs to feed fast-growing metropolitan areas, or to supply rural towns that lack a reliable source.
Government agencies, wildcat entrepreneurs, and city utilities are among those vying to pump and pipe water across vast distances — potentially at great economic and environmental cost. Even as critics question the suitability of the water transfers in a new climate era, supporters in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, the federal government, Indian tribes, and other states are prepared to spend billions on water-supply pipelines.
The pipelines range in length from several dozen miles to several hundred and the largest are intended to transport tens of millions of gallons per day. Among these is the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline, a roughly $2 billion project that aims to deliver 86,000 acre-feet (28 billion gallons) each year to Washington County, in Utah’s southwest corner.
Not all the projects are cut from the same cloth. Because of the daunting expense, lengthy permitting process, and legal battles, projects with federal backing have a leg up. The infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last November includes $1 billion for rural water supply projects in the western states. Many of these projects, including one in progress in eastern New Mexico, were authorized more than a decade ago.
The infrastructure bill also includes $2.5 billion for tribal water rights settlements, which typically include a water-supply component. The Navajo-Gallup water pipeline, now under construction in northwest New Mexico to supply the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, and the city of Gallup, is part of the San Juan River water rights settlement.
The current batch of pipeline proposals traces its lineage to a century of engineering and building mammoth water supply projects that ushered in the modern era of the American West. State and federal canals snake the length of California. Los Angeles bullied its way into the Owens Valley in the 1910s, eventually siphoning the valley’s water through an aqueduct. A few years later, San Francisco reached into Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir and pipeline. The Central Arizona Project, which broke ground in the 1970s, was built to lift 1.5 million acre-feet of water — almost 500 billion gallons a year — more than a half mile in elevation along its 336-mile course to supply Phoenix and Tucson. In Colorado, at least 11 major projects pierce the Rockies, transferring water to the high-growth Front Range. States west of the 100th meridian would not have been able to attract millions of residents or develop their commercial and agricultural sectors without these water projects.
As the region’s climate becomes drier, more diversions are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks. Large-scale engineering retains its appeal and pipeline options are doggedly pursued by state and local agencies, and a band of self-styled water entrepreneurs.
Renewable Resources, a firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, wants to pump groundwater from the San Luis Valley to Front Range cities that are mushrooming with new subdivisions. A competing outfit, Water Horse Resources, is led by Aaron Million, who has dreamed for more than a decade of piping more Colorado River water to the Front Range. The potential water source for Water Horse is some 500 miles away: Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which straddles Wyoming and Utah. Another Front Range project in the Fort Collins area envisions a pair of new reservoirs and an 80-mile pipe network that extends to 15 communities. Called the Northern Integrated Supply Project, it is still waiting on an key federal permit.
In New Mexico, meanwhile, supporters of the Agustin Plains scheme wish to export 54,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from a high desert basin to communities along the Rio Grande, some 60 miles to the east. The state engineer rejected the permit in 2018, but the applicant is appealing.
Southwest Utah is another epicenter of contested water diversions. The most recent came to light in April, when Escalante Valley Partners filed an application with the state Division of Water Rights for more than 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year for export. The water, more than 44 million gallons a day, would come from 115 wells drilled between 1,000 and 5,000 feet deep in Beryl-Enterprise, a basin where the state has restricted use of shallow groundwater due to over-extraction.
In the same area, the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District is championing the $260 million Pine Valley Water Supply project, currently being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management for a right-of-way permit. If approved, the district would construct 66 miles of pipeline to access groundwater in neighboring Beaver County.
The most expensive water project in southwest Utah is a proposed 140-mile pipeline to Lake Powell. Critics contend that Lake Powell and the Colorado River that flows into it cannot handle any more diversions. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Powell and is reviewing the pipeline application, is already taking emergency action to augment the shrinking reservoir, holding back more water than usual and releasing extra supplies from reservoirs higher in the watershed.
Zach Renstrom is the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the pipeline project’s chief beneficiary. The basic logic of today’s water manager is not so different from an investment adviser: manage risk through a portfolio of investments. Critics assert that Washington County residents, though use has declined from its very high early 2000s peak, still consume more water than almost any community in the U.S. and that water conservation practices should be sufficient. But Renstrom defends the need for another water source — even a very expensive one, with an overall price tag of about $2 billion — because Washington County’s single source right now is the Virgin River.
“Especially as someone who looks at climate change very seriously and believes in climate change and knows we need to account for that, to make sure the next generation has the tools that it needs to deal with those issues, I think we need to build these large water infrastructure projects,” Renstrom told Circle of Blue.
Utah officials are also pursuing a project in the state’s northern reaches to send water from the Bear River, the main tributary of the shrinking Great Salt Lake, to communities some 90 miles distant along the Wasatch Front. The state does not anticipate needing the project for several decades.
Those projects are miniscule compared to calls to divert eastern rivers like the Mississippi. An undertaking like that — which has legal, technical, environmental, and economic hurdles so enormous as to be implausible today, water experts say — echo even more grandiose and farfetched schemes that were proposed in the 1960s: engineering fantasies like the North American Water and Power Alliance, a continental-scale replumbing of North America’s watersheds, which never advanced much farther than the Parsons Company’s drafting board.
Few of these projects have secured all required permits and fewer still have broken ground. But it is often the case that designs that look appealing in sketches fold when they collide with real world obstacles.
One of the biggest obstacles is supply, says Denise Fort, a professor emerita at the University of New Mexico. Do these areas hold enough water to support more diversions?
Nearly a decade ago, Fort co-authored a report with the Natural Resources Defense Council on the proliferation of pipeline proposals in the western states. In reviewing that report today, Fort told Circle of Blue that the findings still hold true.
“Many of the pipeline projects under consideration today are dramatically different from those constructed in the past, in terms of sustainability of water supplies, available alternatives, costs, environmental impacts and energy use,” the report concluded. “The communities and agencies that are considering these projects would be well served by a careful analysis of the implications of these important choices.”
Fort said that, in many cases, pursuit of these pipelines is an attempt to continue a water-consuming lifestyle in a region that can no longer support the burden of that demand. Scientists expect the flow of the Colorado River to decline by 9 percent with each degree Celsius that the planet warms.
“We know what the future is, it’s coming,” Fort said. “And so we can’t continue to act as though it’s just a cyclical thing, and the water will reappear. We know that it will not.”
Fort believes that instead of sticking more straws into a shrinking pool, municipalities should seriously consider reallocating water from agriculture, which uses the lion’s share of the region’s supply. Instead of growing alfalfa for export, that water could be directed to cities. This approach is not without controversy and requires careful crafting — rural communities, in some cases, have resisted “buy and dry,” preferring leases that do not permanently sever water from land.
But such a move is what El Paso is banking on. The largest city in West Texas has spent $220 million since 2016 to purchase 70,000 acres of ranch land about 90 miles east, in Dell City. Crucially, the land comes with water rights. Today, El Paso leases the land for farming. But in several decades the city plans to pipe the water beneath those fields to its residents.
At the foundation of these debates about pipelines are competing views of the American West.
One school of thought is that water follows growth. “I think it’s much cheaper to take the water to the people than move people to the water. You disrupt a lot less lives that way,” Todd Adams, deputy director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told the Utah Water Summit last October.
The other view is one of conservation and restraint, championed by people like Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a group that advocates against transferring water out of its natural basin.
“There is a suburban Manifest Destiny mindset throughout the region that I think is antithetical as it relates to the amount of resources that are available,” Roerink told Circle of Blue.
Looking at the history of pipeline projects and water transfers in the West, Roerink worries about unintended financial and environmental consequences if the current contenders move ahead. In the arid Great Basin, which covers much of Nevada and Utah, he is particularly attuned to dry soils if groundwater-dependent basins are depleted. It’s not an unheard of risk. To offset environmental damage in the Owens Valley from its aqueduct, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has spent $2.5 billion in ratepayer funds to suppress dust storms.
Many of the biggest projects were built in an era of minimal environmental review and major government subsidy. Those conditions have changed, one of many reasons why mega-projects like diverting the Mississippi River westward are implausible, even fanciful.
Of the pipeline projects currently under construction, most are not fanciful. Most are like the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System — smaller in scale and federally supported.
Congress authorized the 140-mile project in 2009 and is contributing 75 percent of the cost. The rest is coming from local partners, which include four communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties.
The project received $177.4 million from the federal government this year and $30 million from the state government. If funding in future years comes in as expected, construction should be completed in six to eight years, Orlando Ortega, the administrator of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, told Circle of Blue.
The project is a federal priority because the partner communities are all served by groundwater from the depleting Ogallala aquifer. At some point, the water will run out. The pipeline is designed to bring surface water from the state-owned Ute Lake.
Like all western water supply projects, there are questions about the long-term availability of Ute Lake as the region dries.
“We are very sensitive to drought conditions, and would certainly be cutting back on our reservation, if needed,” Ortega said.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies.
THE IRS. Head lice. Bill Cosby. Nickleback. Congress.
Every member of this unlikely group has one thing in common: Each is more popular than the Renewable Water Resources plan to pump water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range of Colorado.
According to the Alamosa Citizen survey of voter attitudes in the San Luis Valley, the RWR plan is supported by less than 1 percent of local voters. It is opposed by 91 percent. Eight percent said they had no opinion of the water export project proposed by former Gov. Bill Owens and several other leaders of his administration.
Widespread opposition to RWR was one of the major findings on natural resource issues to come from the random survey, which was directed by the Alamosa Citizen and financed, in part, by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
The survey also yielded many other strong local opinions on the health of the Rio Grande (pessimistic), climate change (it’s hurting the river), and the impact of drought on local farms and businesses (not good.) More on those issues below.
Still, it’s hard to find anything in modern American life liked less than RWR’s approval rating of 0.7 percent. Among the things with better approval ratings among voters than the RWR project: head lice, colonoscopies, used car salesmen, and dental root canal procedures, according to one national poll.
Anchovies on pizza, as well as turnips and brussel sprouts for dinner, get higher ratings than RWR. Disgraced comedian Bill Cosby is 20 times more popular in the U.S. than RWR is in the San Luis Valley. The Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Congress all get higher marks, according to another poll.
RWR backers said their own polling showed better numbers, but they declined to release the poll.
“From day one to today, our team has never wavered in visiting the San Luis Valley, meeting with individuals and educating them about what we aim to do,” said Renewable Water Resources spokeswoman Monica McCafferty in a statement. “We are naturally suspect of this survey (Alamosa Citizen) that is likely agenda-driven. We stand by our proposal, which took years to craft and presents numerous advantages for the San Luis Valley.”
The Alamosa Citizen conducted a 48-question survey which included questions on water and environmental issues. The survey was mailed to a random sampling of registered voters in each of the six counties of the San Luis Valley and was conducted by Nebraska-based rural survey specialist Craig Schroeder, who has surveyed attitudes of more than 60,000 people in 47 states over the past 20 years.
RWR proposes to pump out 22,000 acre-feet of water per year from a deep aquifer in the San Luis Valley while buying and retiring 31,000 acre feet of water currently used in the Valley for irrigated agriculture. As a result, RWR says a “surplus of 9,000 acre-feet will go back into the San Luis Valley’s shallow section of the aquifer.”
Local water officials have disputed RWR’s ability to export supplies from the Valley without harming existing farmers, wildlife, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The region faces increasing water restrictions after two decades of drought.
RWR had been wooing suburban Douglas County as a destination for the water, but the Alamosa Citizen reported last month that county commissioners there backed away from the proposal after their attorney highlighted several legal and engineering hurdles.
The company told Douglas County it is pursuing a “legislative strategy” for some of those issues.
“People here have been hearing about these water export proposals for 60 years now, and we’re just tired of it,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also serves as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “When it happened in other places, the outcome of selling your water rights for export has not turned out well for the community.”
HE Alamosa Citizen survey showed citizen awareness of the water project is extremely high. Nearly 94 percent of respondents said they had heard of a project to export water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range of Colorado.
About two-thirds of respondents said they had heard specifically of Renewable Water Resources.
Of the residents who were familiar with RWR, 63 percent said they disapproved of the company. Eight percent approved. The remainder said they had no opinion about the company.
“Leave our water here,” one survey respondent wrote. “If Denver can’t handle their needs, then they need to control growth.”
“Exporting SLV water will devastate the valley – farming, wildlife, and habitat,” wrote another.
“Water export to Douglas County would be an economic death sentence for the San Luis Valley and the communities it sustains,” said another respondent.
The Alamosa Citizen survey showed the RWR plan comes at a tough time for water users in the San Luis Valley.
When asked whether the Rio Grande aquifer had enough water to share with growing areas of Colorado that need more water, Valley residents responded with a resounding no – 89 percent disagreed.
Eight of every 10 survey respondents agreed that the Rio Grande is “diminishing from severe drought.” By a 48 to 35 percent margin, Valley residents disagreed with this statement: “The Rio Grande is a healthy river.”
Two-thirds of Valley residents agreed that climate change is negatively affecting the Rio Grande. Only 14 percent agreed that the Rio Grande can “withstand climate change.”
In some ways, this means the San Luis Valley is more concerned about climate change than other regions, especially rural areas where voters have been more skeptical about the issue. The most recent national poll by Gallup on environmental issues found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the effects of climate change have already begun to happen.
The Valley’s belief in climate change is unusual especially when politics are considered. Nationally, only 11 percent of Republicans say they believe climate change will pose a serious threat in their own lifetimes. But in the San Luis Valley, most survey respondents say the threat is already here.
Only one in 10 local respondents agree that the Valley has enough water to meet local needs for the next 30 years. Nearly 85 percent of respondents say the Valley will face cutbacks in irrigation water in the next five years.
“Farmers are out of time to self-regulate,” wrote one respondent. “The state should start imposing harsh restrictions now instead of kicking the can down the road.”
“The San Luis Valley has become a desert because of climate change and the farmers / ranchers who have drained the aquifer by installing sprinkler systems,” wrote another respondent.
“Farmers don’t need bossy legislators telling them how to use their water,” wrote another. “Most farmers are already on the brink of fiscal disaster. They need help, not more laws curtailing their use of water.”
Almost every resident said there was a chance they would be personally impacted by drought.
About seven of 10 Valley residents agreed with this statement: “We need to act now to reduce water use to continue to grow the San Luis Valley’s economy in the future.”
Only 8 percent disagreed with this statement: “Rising temperatures will impact the San Luis Valley’s future water needs.”
“Climate change is bigger than we are,” wrote one respondent.
Two memos the commissioners received addressed Laydon’s hesitation in making a decision. The memos, both generated by Stephen Leonhardt — Douglas County’s legal counsel who attended the public meetings, including the one held April 23 — presented a 26-point list of significant obstacles the county would have to overcome if deciding to vote for the export, not the least of which involved the need to “develop a legislative strategy” to change state law and “numerous hurdles to obtain federal, state and county permits for the project”, including obtaining approval from the Secretary of the Department of Interior.
As the memo explains, that may be problematic in relation to the Wirth Amendment, which specifically applies, at the federal level, to conditions that must be met for any project to export water from the San Luis Valley. The memo also suggests that that will be a solo effort, stating, “The RWR project is not consistent with the Colorado Water Plan so it likely will not qualify for any state assistance in meeting permit requirements.”
Many of the points also validated concerns raised numerous times by opponents throughout the meetings, such as “RWR has not yet developed an augmentation plan in sufficient detail”, “there is no unappropriated water available in the confined aquifer for RWR’s proposed pumping” and RWR is presenting an inaccurate picture of how much water is available.
THE Renewable Water Resources proposal runs counter to the Colorado Water Plan, would likely trigger a federal review under the Wirth Amendment for the harm it could do to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and doesn’t have a developed augmentation plan to meet the required one-for-one replacement within the same Response Area to get the plan through state water court.
Those are some of the findings Attorney Steve Leonhardt laid out in confidential memorandums released Tuesday by Douglas County. The problems Leonhardt sees with the proposal convinced Commissioner Abe Laydon to not support RWR’s request for investment by using federal American Rescue Plan Act money.
However, Laydon and Commissioner George Teal remained open to Renewable Water Resources coming back to them if they can solve the concerns spelled out by Leonhardt, who Douglas County hired on contract to review the RWR plan. Commissioner Lora Thomas, who’s been opposed to RWR, said she did not want Douglas County to spend any more of its time and tax dollars on the RWR plan.
“This is good news for the San Luis Valley and it speaks to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who spoke out against this unviable proposal,” state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said in a released statement.
The problems detailed by Leonhardt are many, particularly as the water exportation proposal relates to the required augmentation plan and the need for Renewable Water Resources to solve that problem by changing existing state rules that govern groundwater pumping in the Valley.
RWR told Douglas County it’s developing a “legislative strategy” to address the requirement.
“In the San Luis Valley, an augmentation plan for wells must not only prevent injury to water rights on the stream system, but must also maintain the sustainability of both the Confined Aquifer and the Unconfined Aquifer,” Leonhardt said in a bulleted memorandum.
“This requires, at a minimum, providing one-for-one replacement for all water pumped, either by retiring historical well pumping or by recharging the aquifer.”
The attorney said not only does the RWR proposal lack a developed augmentation plan but that it cannot meet the state rule that requires “one-for-one replacement within the same ResponseArea.”
“RWR cannot meet this requirement, even if it were to acquire and retire all wells within its Response Area. Therefore, RWR’s plan cannot succeed without an amendment to this rule. RWR is developing a legislative strategy to address this issue.”
Leonhardt’s memo concluded that “the two reasonable options would be to (1) reject the proposal; or (2) continue discussions with RWR (and perhaps other interested parties in Douglas County and/or the San Luis Valley) to see if agreement can be reached on an acceptable proposal.”
Laydon and Teal chose option 2. Thomas wanted Douglas County to walk away altogether.
“Douglas County welcomes ongoing discussions with RWR, should they be able to provide new information or otherwise overcome these hurdles,” said a statement released by Douglas County.
Simpson, during a recent taping of The Valley Pod, told Alamosa Citizen that changing the rules and regulations governing groundwater pumping in the Valley would be a difficult challenge.
“To change the rules and regs, they’d have to go to court as well,” Simpson said. “They would be seeking authorization to change the rules that we all live by. Those are confined aquifer new-use rules and rules and regulations for groundwater withdrawals that everybody else here lives with.
“I’ve highlighted this from the very beginning, that’s a pretty tough hill for them to climb. The money behind this though, I suspect if Douglas County wants to participate in this we’ll see them in court.”
Douglas County officials said Tuesday they would not use their COVID-relief funding to help finance a controversial $400 million-plus proposal to export farm water from the San Luis Valley to their fast-growing, water-short region.
In a statement the commissioners said the federal rules would not allow the funds to be spent to help finance early work on the proposed project, and that it faced too many legal hurdles to justify the time and money the county would need to devote to it.
The county made public Tuesday two extensive legal memos, based on its outside attorneys’ review of engineering, and legal and regulatory requirements the project would have to adhere to in order to proceed. The memos formed the basis for the county’s rejection of the funding request.
“The Board of Douglas County Commissioners has made the decision, based on objective legal recommendations from outside counsel, that American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are inapplicable to the RWR proposal and that RWR has significant additional hurdles to overcome in order to demonstrate not only a ‘do no harm’ approach, but also a ‘win-win’ for Douglas County and the San Luis Valley,” the board said.
The proposal comes from Renewable Water Resources (RWR), a well-connected Denver development firm that includes former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens.
Among other things, the memos said that RWR’s claim that there was enough water in the valley’s aquifers to support the export plan, was incorrect, based on hydrologic models presented over the course of several public work sessions.
The county’s attorneys also said the proposal did not comply with the Colorado Water Plan, which outlines how the state will meet future water needs. That lack of compliance means that Douglas County would likely not win any potential state funding for the export proposal.
County Commissioner Lora Thomas came out against the idea early, with Commissioner Abe Layden joining her this week in voting against the proposal. Commissioner George Teal voted for the proposal.
“I am ecstatic that I got a second vote to stop it,” Thomas said. “The hurdles are too steep for us to get over. I don’t see a future for it.”
RWR declined an interview request regarding the decision, but in a statement it said it planned to continue working with the county to see if the legal concerns raised could be resolved.
“Our team is eager to address the county’s remaining questions as raised in the legal analysis. We are confident in our ability to mitigate any areas of concern,” it said.
Opposition to the proposal sprang up quickly last December after RWR submitted its $10 million funding request to the commissioners.
Critics, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa, argued that no water should be taken from the San Luis Valley because it is already facing major water shortages due to the ongoing drought and over-pumping of its aquifers by growers. The valley faces a looming well-shutdown if it can’t reduce its water use enough to bring its fragile water system back into balance.
RWR said its plan to shut down agricultural wells could help the valley, but many disagreed.
State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said in a statement that he was pleased with Douglas County’s decision. “This is good news for the San Luis Valley and it speaks to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who spoke out against this unviable proposal.”
Environmental groups also came out in opposition, as have numerous elected leaders including Democrats Gov. Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser, U.S. Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the valley.
Douglas County does not deliver water to its residents, but relies on more than a dozen individual communities and water districts to provide that service. And they are all facing the need to develop new water supplies.
But two of the largest providers, Parker Water & Sanitation District and Castle Rock Water, have said they would not support the RWR proposal because they had already spent millions of dollars developing new, more sustainable, politically acceptable projects. Those projects include a South Platte River pipeline that is being developed in partnership with farmers in the northeastern corner of the state.
What comes next for RWR’s proposal isn’t clear yet. RWR spokeswoman Monica McCafferty said the firm’s attorneys were still reviewing the legal memos the county released Tuesday.
RWR has said previously that it might ask lawmakers to change state water laws to remove some of the legal barriers to its proposal.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Click the link to read “Douglas County commissioners reject using federal money for water project, will continue talks” on the Colorado Politics website (Marianne Goodland). Here’s an excerpt:
At the heart of Tuesday’s decision: Two memos from water attorneys regarding the project that has been kept under wraps since mid-March. Commissioners authorized their release to the public Tuesday.
The first memo, dated March 23, is from attorneys Stephen Leonhardt and April Hendricks of the firm Burns, Figa & Will. Its executive summary said there is “no unappropriated water” available in the confined aquifer, the source for the RWR project. In addition, RWR has not come up with an augmentation plan in sufficient detail to demonstrate that its plan will meet the requirements of the state water rules and avoid injury to other water rights, the memo added. The RWR project “is not consistent” with the state’s water plan, so no state dollars would likely be available for it; and that Douglas County will face numerous hurdles to obtain federal, state and county permits for the project after a decree from state water court is entered. “RWR does not intend to obtain permits before going to Water Court, and RWR’s current proposal calls for Douglas County to bear all responsibility for obtaining the required permits for this project. Obtaining the required federal, state, and county permits likely will take several years, at a substantial financial cost to Douglas County, with a risk that one or more permits will be denied.”
The May 2 memo notes that Leonhardt and Douglas County attorney Lance Ingalls attended a meeting with RWR’s attorneys at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck as well as RWR principal John Kim on April 1…
The May 2 memo is divided into several sections, including water availability, sale of water rights, water supply impacts, sustainability of the closed aquifer, and dry-up of irrigated agricultural lands. Among the findings:
Questions on whether ARPA money could be used for the project
Recognition that an RWR-supported community fund would not mitigate economic losses from the dry-up of irrigated lands and impacts on related businesses
Opposition from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which is managed by state Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, a major opponent of the projects
Difficulty in rehabilitating the land once the water is removed
The closed aquifer cannot sustain any new pumping, and that a buyer of water rights could only use those rights for their originally decreed purposes, meaning RWR would have to go to water court to change those uses from agricultural to municipal, which could mean a lengthy court battle
Both Laydon and Teal directed the commission’s staff to continue working on a deal with RWR that does not use ARPA money.
The Douglas County commissioners have decided not to use American Rescue Plan Act dollars on a controversial water supply project but may consider it again in the future. Commissioner Abe Laydon, the decisive vote on the issue, announced his vote during a May 24 work session…
Laydon said his decision was because the county’s outside legal counsel concluded that the project was not eligible for ARPA funds and recommended the county not participate…
One issue outlined in the memo is that Renewable Water Resources has not formed an augmentation plan — as would be required by law — showing how they will avoid injury to other water rights through their project. Commissioner Lora Thomas has been against the proposal since it was brought before the county and said she is not in support of continuing any conversations with RWR or paying for outside legal counsel to continue assessing it.
DOUGLAS County will release a redacted version of an attorney memorandum at the same time it gives its decision on whether to move ahead with a proposal by Renewable Water Resources to transport water from San Luis Valley aquifers to the affluent metro-Denver suburb.
The three county commissioners met for over an hour in a closed-to-the-public executive session Thursday to discuss which portions of water attorney Steve Leonhardt’s analysis and recommendations on the RWR plan would be redacted.
“We will release our decision alongside this redacted memorandum,” said Commissioner Abe Laydon, chair of the board. A disappointed Commissioner Lora Thomas said she was under the impression a redacted version would be released as early as Thursday but now the release will occur at a future board work session.
SLV WATER: Find more coverage of the RWR plan and other Valley water issues HERE
Laydon said a “large majority” of the information contained in Leonhardt’s memorandum to the commissioners would be made public. Redacted would be any information privileged to Renewable Water Resources or any information that would harm Douglas County in any future water discussions. Personal information of individuals Laydon and Leonhardt said they met privately with in the San Luis Valley would also be redacted.
Meanwhile, the SLV Ecosystem Council submitted 255 signatures to the Douglas County commissioners in opposition to the water exportation plan. In the letter, SLV Ecosystem Council Director Chris Canaly slammed the commissioners for canceling a public meeting in the San Luis Valley and for their treatment of water and environmental experts who took time to educate the commissioners on the Valley’s dire water situation.
“… SLV representatives compiled critical research and presented significant facts and valuable findings that embody generations of historical water knowledge of the Rio Grande basin. Your reaction to this good faith effort has been complete dismissal, even disdain.”
RIO Grande County Commissioner John Noffsker made Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon a counter-offer to the Renewable Water Resources exportation proposal: Douglas County gives the San Luis Valley its annual sales tax collections from Park Meadows Mall in exchange for some water.
Noffsker’s point? That the Valley has no more right to sales tax dollars collected by Douglas County than Douglas County has to water in the San Luis Valley aquifers.
Pleasantries were exchanged Saturday [April 23, 2022] between Laydon and a few mostly elected officials during a two-hour exchange at Nino’s Restaurant in Monte Vista. The conversation didn’t reveal anything new or anything Laydon and Douglas County haven’t heard over the past four months as Douglas County weighs whether to invest in the Renewable Water Resources water exportation plan.
“You’re the tip of the spear on this one,” Noffsker said in making Laydon aware that people watching Douglas County’s deliberations know Laydon holds the deciding vote on the three-member commission, with Commissioner Lora Thomas dead set against RWR and Commissioner George Teal in support.
“Once you start putting a straw in this body of water, there’s no end game,” Noffsker said.
“You’re basically saying to us, much as what happened to the Native Americans, that you have something we want and we can do more with it than you can, and that is wrong,” said Noffsker. “It’s morally wrong. When we have to sit here and defend how we use our water, we shouldn’t have to do that. This water belongs to the Valley. It should not be taken out of here to benefit somebody else.”
The meeting at Nino’s with Noffsker and other local elected officials was Laydon’s second of the day. Earlier Laydon and Special Counsel Steve Leonhardt met privately with farmers who Laydon said expressed a variety of concerns, from lack of knowing what’s going on in the subdistrict formations of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to concerns about their small operations and whether small farms would survive the period of persistent drought and climate change.
With the local elected officials, which included Monte Vista Mayor Dale Becker and Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman and Commissioner Lori Laske, Laydon raised the idea of a community fund that Renewable Water Resources has touted as part of its proposal. The Douglas County commissioner was told the community fund was a slap in the face to residents of the San Luis Valley.
“It’s not about money, it’s about keeping the (water) resource here,” said Alamosa City Councilman Mike Carson. Carson works at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is coordinating the Protect San Luis Valley campaign fighting the RWR exportation proposal.
Karla Shriver, president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Subdistrict 2 board, said additional financial relief for Valley farmers is on the way through legislation currently moving through the state legislature. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Cleave Simpson would create a new compact compliance fund and would have around $30 million of American Rescue Plan Act money awarded to Colorado in it to help farmers in the San Luis Valley meet groundwater compliance targets set by the state. Read more about the legislation HERE.
Renewable Water Resources has voiced opposition to the legislation. It sees the bill as a government bailout for San Luis Valley farmers at a time when RWR is asking for money from Douglas County and dangling those tax dollars in front of Valley farmers to buy them out.
Noffsker said the RWR proposal is only about making a return on investment, while the Valley fights for its economic livelihood.
“I don’t mean any urban/rural fights,” said Noffsker. “But what’s happening is an urban area that apparently wants to grow more, wants to take from us to do it. If we do something like this, we are being dictated to by the Front Range on what our lives are going to be. That is not correct.”
Laydon, as he’s said in other meetings, told the group that Douglas County only wants to partner with communities that welcome Douglas County and that want to partner with it. He didn’t find that broad support on his weekend trip to the San Luis Valley, and he hasn’t heard any outpouring of support in the months he and his colleagues have been studying the Renewable Water Resources exportation plan.
Unless, of course, Douglas County wants to give up its retail sales tax revenues. Sacrificing a golf course or two might help as well.
We write to you today, on behalf of our organizations and tens of thousands of supporters across the American West, to express extreme concern over Renewable Water Resources’ proposal to develop a groundwater pumping project in the San Luis Valley that would then export water to the Colorado Front Range. This project represents a serious threat to the water security of the San Luis Valley and to the plant, wildlife, and human communities that depend on this water source. As downstream neighbors we have grave concerns over the cascading effects of this project throughout the entire Rio Grande Basin, and we urge the Commission to reject this proposal.
The Rio Grande Basin cannot afford for any water to be exported out of the Valley.
This project would be the first pipeline built in the San Luis Valley with the intent to export water. But the idea of taking water out of the San Luis Valley for use in other basins is not new. Renewable Water Resources’ proposal is the most recent in a string of such schemes that began in the 1980s. Similar proposals have been decidedly shut down by Colorado courts, which have noted the adverse effects these proposals would have on the aquifer and to surface water rights. In fact, surface waters in the Valley have been recognized as over appropriated since the early 20th century, meaning every drop that flows through the Valley and more is promised to someone. It is incredibly clear that the San Luis Valley has no water to spare.
Exporting water from the San Luis Valley will threaten hope for a sustainable aquifer.
In addition to surface waters, groundwater is also over appropriated in the Valley. We have serious concerns over the effects of the proposed pumping on overall groundwater levels and their impacts to surrounding wetlands and streams. Of particular concern are potential effects to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. Farmers in the Valley are already working together and making sacrifices to reduce water demand through the sub-district project, which was created following decades of drought conditions. This voluntary project facilitates farmers within the Valley combining efforts to ensure groundwater levels are maintained. Renewable Water Resources’ proposal undermines years of this difficult work. The demands for water and challenges associated with allocating it equitably will only increase as the impacts of climate change continue to intensify, this proposal will make an already challenging situation worse and undo years of community-driven efforts to find solutions.
Exporting water from the San Luis Valley will have consequences for the entire Rio Grande Basin.
The concerns over this project expand beyond the San Luis Valley. The project also has the potential to threaten the downstream communities and the environment in the Rio Grande Basin for thousands of miles. The Rio Grande Compact and the 1944 treaty with Mexico define how much water must flow from the Rio Grande’s headwaters in Colorado to New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. As a headwaters state, Colorado has a significant responsibility to its neighbors and it is keenly felt downstream when those responsibilities are ignored. For example, during the twentieth century, Colorado consumed more water than it was allotted under the Compact and subsequently accrued a nearly one-million-acre-foot debt to downstream states. This overuse had consequences to downstream communities, agricultural production, and ecosystems. It resulted in lawsuits that ultimately ended with the U.S. Supreme Court requiring Colorado to repay this debt over time. Luckily for Colorado, a wet period of hydrology that filled downstream reservoirs triggered a provision of the Compact that forgave the prior debt and wiped the slate clean for better management going forward. With projected precipitation regime shifts under climate change, we are unlikely to see such a wet period again.
The water challenges we are facing within the Rio Grande Basin make it painfully obvious that a repeat of this situation would be catastrophic for water users across all three states and Mexico. We must think more holistically about the river systems on which we all depend. The San Luis Valley is an integral part of the Rio Grande Basin, a river that runs nearly 1,900 miles and sustains municipal and irrigation uses for more than six million people and two million acres of land across three states and two countries. We urge the Commission to not further complicate this situation by taking vital water from the San Luis Valley and threatening it and others’ water futures.
The communities of the San Luis Valley are working to address their water scarcity challenges in collaborative and inclusive ways. Although there is still much work to do to create a sustainable aquifer and healthy Rio Grande for people and the environment, Renewable Water Resources’ proposal flies in the face of these efforts. Please do the right thing for the communities within the San Luis Valley and those that depend on the water, also vital downstream, by rejecting this ill-advised project.
Castle Rock’s building boom has barely slowed over the past 20 years and its appetite for growth and need for water hasn’t slowed much either.
The city, which ranks No. 1 in the state for water conservation, will still need to at least double its water supplies in the next 40 years to cope with that growth. It uses roughly 9,800 acre-feet of water now and may need as much as 24,000 acre-feet when it reaches buildout.
With an eye on that growth and the ongoing need for more water, Douglas County commissioners are debating whether to spend $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to help finance a controversial San Luis Valley farm water export proposal.
Thirteen Douglas County and South Metro regional water suppliers say they have no need or desire for that farm water, according to Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. [Editor’s note: Lisa Darling is president of the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News]
“It is not part of our plan and it is not something we are interested in,” said Mark Marlowe, director of Castle Rock Water. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our long-term plan and we are pursuing the projects that are in that plan. The San Luis Valley is not in the plan.”
Renewable Water Resources, a development firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Sean Tonner, has spent years acquiring agricultural water rights in the San Luis Valley. It hopes to sell that water to users in the south metro area, delivering it via a new pipeline. In December, RWR asked the Douglas County commissioners for $10 million to help finance the $400 million plus project.
Tonner did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but he has said previously that the water demands in south metro Denver will be so intense in the coming decades, that the San Luis Valley export proposal makes sense.
Opposition to the export plan stems in part from concern in the drought-strapped San Luis Valley about losing even a small amount of its water to the Front Range. But RWR has said the impact to local water supplies could be mitigated, and that the proposed pipeline could help fund new economic development initiatives in the valley.
Stakes for new water in Douglas County and the south metro area are high. In addition to demand fueled by growth, the region’s reliance on shrinking, non-renewable aquifers is putting additional pressure on the drive to develop new water sources.
Marlowe and other water utility directors in the region have been working for 20 years to wean themselves from the deep aquifers that once provided clean water, cheaply, to any developer who could drill a well. But once growth took off, and Douglas County communities super-charged their pumping, the aquifers began declining. Because these underground reservoirs are so deep, and because of the rock formations that lie over them, they don’t recharge from rain and snowfall, as some aquifers do.
At one point in the early 2000s the aquifers were declining at roughly 30 feet a year. Cities responded by drilling more, deeper wells and using costly electricity to pull water up from the deep rock formations.
Since then, thanks to a comprehensive effort to build recycled water plants and develop renewable supplies in nearby creeks and rivers, they’ve been able to take pressure off the aquifers, which are now declining at roughly 5 feet per year, according to the South Metro Water Supply Authority.
The goal among Douglas County communities is to wean themselves from the aquifers, using them only in times of severe drought.
Ron Redd is director of Parker Water and Sanitation District, which serves Parker and several other communities as well as some unincorporated parts of Douglas County.
Like Castle Rock, Parker needs to nearly double its water supplies in the coming decades. It now uses about 10,000 acre-feet annually and will likely need 20,000 acre-feet at buildout to keep up with growth.
Parker is developing a large-scale pipeline project that will bring renewable South Platte River water from the northeastern corner of the state and pipe it down to the south metro area. Castle Rock is also a partner in that project along with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Sterling.
Redd said the San Luis Valley export plan isn’t needed because of water projects, such as the South Platte Water Partnership, that are already in the works.
“For me to walk away from a project in which we already have water, and hope a third party can deliver the water, just doesn’t make sense,” Redd said.
The costs of building two major pipelines would also likely be prohibitive for Douglas County residents, Redd said.
“We would have to choose one. We could not do both.”
Steve Koster is Douglas County’s assistant planning director and oversees new developments, which must demonstrate an adequate supply of water to enter the county’s planning approval process.
Koster said small communities in unincorporated parts of the county reach out to his department routinely, looking for help in establishing sustainable water supplies.
He said the county provides grants for engineering and cost studies to small developments hoping to partner with an established water provider.
“All of them are working to diversify and strengthen their water systems so they are sustainable. Having a system that encourages those partnerships is what we’re looking at,” Koster said.
Whether an RWR pipeline will play a role in the water future of Douglas County and the south metro area isn’t clear yet.
Douglas County spokeswoman Wendy Holmes said commissioners are evaluating more than a dozen proposals from water districts, including RWR, and that the commission has not set a deadline for when it will decide who to fund.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
On an average day, 25 people move to Douglas County. Each one needs to drink, shower, water their lawn and wash their dishes. The full impact of that growth is difficult to see, but it’s easy to understand: more people need more water. And in a county where thousands of homes rely on a limited supply of underground aquifers, water providers are constantly working to shift to more sustainable resources before they run out.
Some aquifers buried under Douglas County have lost two to six feet in depth of water. Local water providers have noticed their supply wells aren’t producing like they once did.
“It’s like sucking water out of the bathtub with a straw,” said Rick McLoud, water resources manager for Centennial Water & Sanitation. “There’s only so much water in the bathtub and the sooner you suck it out with a straw, the sooner it will be gone.”
To meet those demands, water providers are planning a mix of conservation efforts, wastewater projects and new infrastructure for renewable resources of water. The county government is also looking at how to bring in more water and is considering spending a portion of their $68 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act on the issue.
‘Overreliance on groundwater’
As Douglas County’s development has surged since the 1990s, many of the largest communities such as Parker and Castle Rock have relied on groundwater to fill residents’ bathtubs and sinks, said State Engineer Kevin Rein…Groundwater from aquifers makes up about 65% of the water used by Parker Water and Sanitation, which is the provider for Parker and parts of Lone Tree and Castle Pines, and by Castle Rock Water. Centennial Water uses about 20% groundwater. Those ratios can change depending on drought conditions…
Douglas County sits on a layer of several aquifers, including the Arapahoe, Denver, Dawson and the Laramie-Fox Hills aquifers. Most major water providers use the water in the Arapahoe and Denver aquifers, which reach depths of 1,700 and 600 feet beneath the ground, respectively…
Under Douglas County’s guidelines for development in unincorporated areas, only the western part of the county is not allowed to rely on their groundwater for development, said Steve Koster, assistant director of planning services for the county. Those communities must provide either a renewable water source or use groundwater from the eastern part of the county. Koster said the county is not actively looking at requiring or incentivizing developers to instead look for renewable resources of water…
Parker Water and Sanitation is working on a project that will partner with a water conservancy district in Sterling, a town in eastern Colorado, to capture unused water during high runoff years from the South Platte River there and store it to pipe back to the town. The project won’t impact existing water rights and won’t allow buy-and-dry of nearby agriculture, Redd said. In order to meet Parker’s projected water demands, the project will need to be complete by 2040, Redd said. That project would get Parker Water to 75% renewable water and would provide water for more than 300,000 people in Douglas County, including in Parker, Castle Rock and portions of Castle Pines and Lone Tree, according to a project proposal. Castle Rock Water is a partner on that project.
Over the next 20 to 30 years, Castle Rock plans to invest about $500 million in renewable water projects including new pipelines, additional storage and water rights. Marlowe said the reason they spread out those projects over time is to keep rates for their customers down. By 2050, Castle Rock plans to move to 75% renewable and by 2065 have a 100% renewable system for wet or average years.
Dominion Water and Sanitation, which serves about 1,200 homes in Sterling Ranch, plans to be 90% renewable by 2040. Sterling Ranch is slated to add about 11,000 more homes to their community in that same time period at a rate of 450 homes per year. Dominion also plans to include about 700 other existing homes from smaller communities to their service area soon. Right now, Dominion is 100% renewable but is set to drill wells in the Cherokee Ranch area to blend some groundwater into their system, making it more drought-resistant, Cole said. They are also planning to build a river intake on the South Platte River and a wastewater treatment facility, which will provide at least 1,600 acre-feet of water per year to Sterling Ranch…
Castle Rock plans to incorporate programs in the coming years that encourage more efficient utilities and lawns that don’t require heavy irrigation. At the statewide level, a bill being considered by the legislature this session would pay residents up to $2 per square foot to rip out their irrigated turf and replace it with less thirsty alternatives. Sterling Ranch has focused on a program they call “demand management” that allows residents to have a live look at their water usage and bills…Their community also has banned the use of bluegrass, a type of turf that demands lots of water. Instead they offer a variety of drought-resistant plants for landscaping…
As the commissioners consider how to approach the issue, $68 million in federal funds has the potential to aid in addressing the water demands of a growing community. One proposal for the money, which the commissioners have dedicated six two-hour meetings to discussing, would pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley. Renewable Water Resources, the private company proposing the project, says that’s enough for 70,000 houses. The project has been met with ire from many in the valley, though, as multiple water conservation districts and elected officials there have said they don’t have enough water to spare and it would damage their agriculture-based economy…So far, all the major water providers in Douglas County have said they are not interested in using the water from the RWR proposal. Darling says that’s in part because many providers have already heavily invested in other projects…
Commissioners have also heard presentations from Parker Water, who asked them to consider using about $20 million of the federal funds to help their South Platte River project, and Dominion, who asked for help funding their regional wastewater plant in partnership with Castle Rock Water and the Plum Creek Reclamation Authority.
Thousands of people in the Lower Arkansas Valley who’ve struggled to deal with contaminated water for more than 20 years will have access to clean water by 2024 under a new agreement signed by the federal government and two Colorado water agencies last week.
The Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC), as the clean water delivery project is known, will bring water from Pueblo Reservoir through the city of Pueblo and out to communities on the Eastern Plains, such as Avondale and Boone, by 2024, and other communities, such as La Junta, as soon as 2027.
Water officials said the entire pipeline should be completed by 2035 if not sooner. The project will ultimately serve 50,000 people, officials said.
Under the agreements, signed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Pueblo Water Board, and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District March 18, some $40 million in federal and local funding will be available to launch construction, with subsequent funding for the $600 million project anticipated to come from Congress and local water agencies.
In addition, the agreement allows Reclamation and Southeastern to pipe the water through the city of Pueblo’s water system, rather than building a separate system to move the water out to the Eastern Plains. Officials said this new agreement will shave costs and several years off the project.
“This contract signing marks one of the most significant milestones to date towards making the AVC a reality and bringing clean water to communities that desperately need it. It advances the project over 14 miles east from Pueblo Reservoir which puts us much closer to our first participants in Avondale and Boone,” said Brent Esplin, regional director of the Missouri Basin and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Gulf regions for Reclamation, in a statement.
Naturally occurring selenium and lead, as well as radionuclides, have dogged the region’s water systems since the 1960s. Many of the communities face enforcement actions from the state health department because they don’t have the financial resources to treat the water for drinking and then to treat it again for discharge into the wastewater systems that discharge to the Lower Arkansas River and its tributaries, according to Chris Woodka, senior policy manager with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Southeastern operates the federal Fryingpan-Arkansas Project’s Pueblo Reservoir.
“This project will relieve some of the pressures that they face. They will get better quality drinking water and they will see improvements to their discharged water,” Woodka said.
The idea is to deliver clean water from Pueblo Reservoir directly to the communities via the 34-mile pipeline, reducing and sometimes eliminating the contaminants that the water now picks up when it travels through streams and irrigation ditches.
The conduit has been on planning boards for more than 50 years but it wasn’t until a new federal law was approved in 2009 stipulating that the federal government would pick up 65% of the costs that the plan began to advance, Woodka said.
Since then the region has wrestled with getting federal cash to start work and convincing local water agencies and the communities who need the water to cooperate on design issues and costs, Woodka said.
“People are convinced it will get built,” Woodka said. “Now the questions are about affordability.”
And for small towns, those are big questions.
Tom Seaba is La Junta’s director of utilities. His city has comparatively clean water, with no radionuclides and a selenium issue that it is treating via reverse osmosis.
“It could be the silver bullet that everyone would like to take care of the contaminants that are in the water. The flip side is the cost,” Seaba said.
La Junta charges customer $2.50 per thousand gallons for water now, which includes treatment costs. The new water will cost $2.19 per thousand gallons, untreated, and La Junta will still have to find a way to recoup the cost to disinfect and treat the water.
“Now that we’re getting down to brass tacks, we need to see if the underlying reality will do for us what everyone hopes it will. If we can connect and that takes care of the problems we have, sign us up. But if it doesn’t, we will have to do something else,” Seaba said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
THIS was supposed to be the week that the three Douglas County Commissioners, Lora Thomas, Abe Laydon and George Teal, visited the San Luis Valley to host a community meeting on Douglas County’s consideration of the Renewable Water Resources proposal to export water out of the Valley north.
There’s still an expectation that Laydon and Teal will find their way down, on their own, away from the public spotlight in their own pursuit of reasons to support or not the Renewable Water Resources plan.
For her part, Thomas has been opposed from the outset and prefers that Douglas County focus on a water project in its own backyard – the Platte Valley Water Project with Parker Water & Sanitation and Castle Rock Water.
She’s also been troubled by what she sees as conflicts of interest among her fellow commissioners for their public positioning of RWR and their perceived coziness with Republican moneyman Bill Owens, a former governor of Colorado, and his entourage at Renewable Water Resources.
It would have been those dynamics, a split and at times feuding Douglas County commission, that would have arrived at the Ski Hi Regional Events Complex in Monte Vista to hear from Valley residents. But after Teal made comments that there was nothing to gain from such a meeting since Valley residents didn’t seem interested in finding a deal with Douglas County and supporters of RWR felt threatened and silenced, the commissioners punted.
That doesn’t mean Douglas County – and Laydon and Teal, specifically – has lost interest in RWR. Quite the contrary. What’s puzzling is nobody outside RWR understands why, particularly since Douglas County is not a provider of water services and would find itself entangled in years of litigation at a minimum.
“I have zero ulterior motives, other than wanting to secure proactive win/win water solutions for both communities,” Laydon said to Alamosa Citizen. “I’m persuaded by facts, not noise or propaganda. We have engaged in a deep-dive water series and study with a hydrologist and water attorney who have yet to compile their findings into final recommendations.”
The three commissioners huddled in executive session for two hours Monday to hear from Stephen H. Leonhardt with the law firm Burns Figa & Will, and Tom Hatton from Applegate Group, Inc. Leonhardt and Burns Figa & Will have been retained as special counsel to help Douglas County understand the legal issues surrounding the Renewable Water Resources proposal, while Applegate Group, Inc., has been retained to consult on engineering and hydraulic aspects of the RWR plan, according to public files.
Both the special legal counsel and Applegate consultants had their contracts recently amended to include more money and more time on the RWR plan. Douglas County also this month issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) for additional water consultant services. The RFQ has an April 8 deadline.
Following Monday’s lengthy executive session, the commissioners will receive a confidential memo summarizing what they heard. Where they are with a decision on RWR is harder to determine. Since Thomas is opposed and Teal is in support of RWR, the past weeks have become the Abe Laydon show to see where he lands.
“I don’t know where we’re headed,” said State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who is also general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is a farmer and rancher in the San Luis Valley.
Like others who have made presentations to help Douglas County commissioners understand the ever-declining water conditions of the San Luis Valley aquifers – the unconfined and confined – and threats to the Valley’s ecosystem from 20 years of drought and loss of wetlands, Simpson is frustrated at the spectacle Douglas County has created.
“To make this thing work they have to change the rules and regulations that we all have lived under and crafted over the last 20 years,” he said of the Renewable Water Resources proposal.
It’s not simply Laydon casting the deciding vote to move the RWR proposal forward. If he were to take that gamble for Douglas County, RWR then would have to ask State Engineer Kevin Rein to change the rules governing water to meet the intent of their proposal, said Simpson.
“If I was Douglas County I’d say ‘I’m not going to give you a dime until you get the rules changed’ and the likelihood of them changing the rules here is nearly zero percent from my perspective,” Simpson said.
Coming out of Monday’s executive session with their special counsel and hydrologist consultant, Laydon said he was happy to hear the expertise and “objective facts” that were discussed. He and Teal have made it a point to say Valley representatives and residents they’ve heard from are not objective and instead overfilled with emotion.
“I very intentionally have taken the emotion out of my presentations and conversations with them,” said Simpson. “And honestly, even the folks at RWR from the very beginning, I said ‘I appreciate this is a business proposition from your perspective, I’m happy to sit down with you and let’s debate the pros and cons, but you can’t put out false information.’
“They claim we’re putting out false information and I can say with absolute certainty none of the stuff that I’ve presented or the meetings I’ve been in with them is false information. It’s all 100 percent accurate and quite the contrary from the other perspective. I can demonstrate without doubt that the information they’re getting is false.”
Simpson has sat with Laydon and extended invitations to bring in others like Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and one of Colorado’s foremost experts in water law, to help Laydon better grasp the drought conditions and over pumping situation in the Valley. Former Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen is another person Laydon has been invited to hear from.
For Laydon, he’s focused on the consultants that Douglas County has hired to help him make a decision. Presumably he heard some of what he’s looking for in Monday’s closed meeting. Following it he, Thomas and Teal sat through their first presentation on the Platte Valley Water Project.
ERIC Harmon is the type of person Douglas County says it wants to listen to.
He’s a hydrogeologist with expertise on the San Luis Valley aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. In fact, his team completed the groundwater component of the Rio Grande Decision Support System, which is generally described in state water court documents as “an interactive computer-based system that utilizes data and computer models to help decision makers solve unstructured problems.” The RGDSS is what the state relies on to determine the impact of groundwater pumping.
Harmon is also retired and hasn’t been part of any of the presentations that the three Douglas County commissioners have heard on Renewable Water Resources and its pitch to Douglas County to partner on exporting from the San Luis Valley.
What does Harmon’s experience and expertise say about the RWR proposal? He wrote a letter to the Douglas County commissioners outlining his concerns and recommendation that Douglas County reject the RWR proposal. He has yet to hear back from the commissioners. Alamosa Citizen also asked Douglas County for a response to Harmon’s letter.
“The Renewable Water Resources (RWR) proposal to Douglas County to use ARPA funds should be rejected in favor of less risky projects,” Harmon told the commissioners. “RWR’s project would place undue risks on San Luis Valley (SLV) water users and ratepayers (water customers) in Douglas County. Why? For that, we need to get down into the weeds on the SLV aquifers.”
Harmon said he has given expert testimony in the Division 3 Water Court (San Luis Valley) in the AWDI case (1991), the Confined Aquifer New Use Rules case (2006), the Great Sand Dunes In-Place Groundwater Right case (2008) and the Groundwater Rules case (2018).
“Confined aquifer tests in the SLV by my testing team were done as part of Colorado’s Rio Grande Decision Support System (RGDSS) in the early 2000s,” he said to the commissioners. “Our tests showed repeatedly that pumping impacts move outward from a confined aquifer well very rapidly, often causing drawdown (water level decline) up to ½ mile away within one day of pump startup. At several locations, pumping a deep well caused measurable drawdown in layers much shallower than the pumping zone. This is how confined aquifers work: drawdown spreads out very far, very fast. The SLV confined aquifer is ‘leaky.’”
After he sent along his letter to AlamosaCitizen.com for publishing, we asked him a few additional questions. The exchange is below:
AC: What concerns or thoughts, if any, can you share on the drought the San Luis Valley has been experiencing going back to 2002?
EH: Conditions are never static in hydrology. The dynamic nature of water, weather patterns, and the hydrologic cycle means that conditions are always changing. But where there is a long-term drought, the job of scientists and engineers becomes harder. It means that any predictions we are asked to make may be less reliable than we would like, because we don’t always have similar historic conditions we can look back on to compare to.
AC: The streamflow measurements documented by Davis Engineering for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District demonstrate troubling patterns. Have you recently looked at those streamflow measurements? In your view what type of impact is drought, climate change having on the basin and should that be a concern with the RWR proposal?
EH: I have tried to keep up with the general hydrologic trends in the Valley, including snowpack and streamflow. I have also kept up with the trends of Unconfined Aquifer storage change that Davis Engineering has done for RGWCD for many years. It is clear that even after a number of years of self-imposed pumping reductions in the Subdistricts, there is still too little water available to meet the irrigation demand, and to replenish the groundwater storage deficit in the Unconfined Aquifer in the Closed Basin. If drought or climate change persist in the future, as appears likely, then these impacts should be of concern in any new appropriation of water, whether by RWR or anyone else.
AC: Would the change in conditions, drought persistence, declining snow melt, particularly along the Sangre de Cristo range factor into a water court proceeding?
EH: Declining snowpack, earlier and faster runoff, and drought persistence certainly are of concern in the Sangre de Cristos, as they are in the San Juans. Valley-wide, the water supply from the Sangres is considerably less than it is from the San Juans. Smaller drainage areas, the “rain shadow” effect of the San Juans before the snowstorms get to the Sangres, and differences in topography and geology between the two ranges all are factors. If asked, I would advise the water court to look very hard at all of these factors. If groundwater recharge is less in the future than is predicted, it would almost certainly have an impact on the question of injury.
AC: Commissioner Teal said at the last meeting (March 8) that Douglas County has heard repeatedly that there is a “million acre feet” of water in the SLV aquifer. How does one address that notion?
EH: I can’t find any reference to a “million acre feet” in RWR’s proposal or in the presentations to Douglas County. RWR has stated that 22,000 acre-feet per year, the amount they intend to pump, is 2.5% of the aquifer’s annual recharge. So RWR’s number for annual recharge is 880,000 acre-feet. I do not know if this is what Commissioner Teal is referring to. The important thing, however, is not the annual groundwater recharge or the volume of groundwater in storage in the aquifer. The important thing is that the Valley’s water resources are over-appropriated. As Colorado Division of Water Resources officials have pointed out, this means there is no water available for appropriation and full (“1 for 1”) replacement is required under the Rules.
The decision to cancel the event came during a March 9 work session in which county staff told the commissioners they were expecting 300 to 400 people to attend and that it appeared a protest was planned to take place…
Commissioner George Teal, who has voiced his support for the project, said was in favor of canceling the meeting, adding that he had initially hoped to have “actual conversations” with residents and “get past the visceral, emotional aspects of this project.”
He said he’s heard from people in the valley who support the RWR project but feel they are being intimidated to remain quiet….Commissioner Abe Laydon, who has said he hasn’t yet decided if he supports the project, said he still wants to go to the valley but said the event had been “hijacked by a group of folks” and said he didn’t want to be part of it…Commissioner Lora Thomas, who has vocally opposed the plan, said she’s not interested in going to the valley…
When asked where the county learned of reports of intimidation, a county spokesperson referenced comments from a speaker during one of the commissioners work sessions on the topic — Jerry Berry, who is a farmer in the San Luis Valley and a representative for RWR…
In a Feb. 28 meeting, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority Lisa Darling told the commissioners that none of the major water districts in Douglas County are interested in the water from RWR.
Polis has issued a statement that he is: “against any inter-basin transfer without local support of impacted communities. This is a proposed inter-basin transfer with deep concerns and opposition in the San Luis Valley and the governor is opposed.”
Polis joins Colorado Attorney General, Phil Weiser, who has already expressed strong opposition to the trans-basin export.
Last week, US Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper issued a statement opposing the RWR proposal and invoking Public Law 102-575, also known as the Wirth Amendment. The Amendment, named for former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth, provides for review by the Department of the Interior prior to approval of any export of water from the San Luis Valley.
Trouble swirls above the aquifers of Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where farmers and ranchers raise and grow much of the region’s cattle, potatoes, alfalfa and barley. Those aquifers are losing water as the American West dries out and whatever remains is spoken for. Farmers and ranchers have labored for decades to use less of the valley’s most precious resource. Today, the farmers say, a new but familiar threat approaches.
A Front Range company called Renewable Water Resources, backed by a cadre of builders, developers and former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, wants to drill into the aquifers storing the valley’s declining water supply and pipe it to the ever-growing Douglas County.
The Front Range has money, Renewable Water Resources’ Managing Partner Sean Tonner often says. And the San Luis Valley has water. Tonner is quick to cite poverty statistics for valley residents and says his company can pay those willing to sell their water rights and bring millions more to stimulate the local economy. It’s a win-win deal, he said.
Opposition is widespread among the valley’s farmers, ranchers, water managers, environmentalists, bankers and politicians. Alamosa, Rio Grande and Mineral counties, alongside the cities of Alamosa, Monte Vista, La Jara, Manassa and Crestone passed resolutions opposing the project. So have Conejos Clean Water, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. People in the valley describe the plan as an old-fashioned “buy and dry” scheme…
Not only would Tonner’s plan further dry life in the mountain valley but, residents warn, it would also set a dangerous precedent that other fast-growing Front Range communities could quench their thirst by taking the one thing the San Luis Valley needs most. Money the project would bring into the valley – including a $50 million community fund – isn’t the “magic bullet” for the area’s economic woes, but Tonner argues it’s the best plan proposed yet. And in return, if Douglas County moves now, he said its commissioners can lock-in a renewable source of high-quality water at rates far below market prices.
The deal hinges on Douglas County’s split, three-person Board of County Commissioners.
The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project is receiving $123 million from the recent federal infrastructure law to help complete the regional water system.
U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced this week that $1.7 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will be used to fulfill settlements for several tribal water rights claims, in addition to funding for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project…
Components of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project remain under construction in northwest New Mexico. When completed, it will deliver San Juan River water to communities on the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla Apache Nation as well as the city of Gallup…
The $123 million will fully fund four existing construction projects and two new construction contracts that the bureau plans to award this fiscal year…
According to the bureau, the current construction projects are pumping plants in Sheep Springs and in the area of Bahatl’ah and Coyote Canyon chapters, a pipeline from Yah-ta-hey to Tsé Bonito and the segment that will serve Church Rock, Iyanbito, Bááháálí, Chichiltah and Tsé Lichíí chapters.
The amount will also pay for the project’s portion on a new electrical transmission line being built by Western Area Power Authority and Navajo Tribal Utility Authority…
That settlement will bring a regional water system to the Pueblos of Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Tesuque.
Douglas County Commissioners should not move forward with Renewable Water Resources’ (RWR) request to utilize American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stimulus funds to export water from the northern San Luis Valley (SLV). The RWR proposal would significantly impact the economy, environment, and culture of the San Luis Valley, a unique region home to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and three national wildlife refuges, which collectively attract more than 600,000 visitors annually to the SLV. The SLV cities, farmers, and residents universally oppose the RWR proposal. The project would result in the “buy and dry” of agriculture, which has led to the devastation of other rural communities in Colorado.
As conservation organizations, we represent thousands of hunters and anglers in Colorado. Healthy wildlife habitats are necessary to sustain wildlife populations, and wetlands, riparian corridors, and mesic areas are critical in our arid state. The proposed RWR project would impact fish and wildlife habitats on multiple fronts. Groundwater and surface water resources in the SLV are connected, with aquifers sustaining streamflow, which supports habitat for cold-water fisheries. Therefore, removing water from the aquifers could negatively affect aquatic ecosystems important to the region. For example, the proposed wellfields of 22 to 25 groundwater pumping wells for the RWR project would neighbor the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, potentially impacting the wetland and aquatic ecosystems that support breeding and feeding grounds of migratory birds and waterfowl. Baca is also home to the state’s most viable population of Rio Grande Chub, a state species of concern. Other potentially affected species include the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout and Gunnison Sage Grouse. The RWR proposal would also require the dry-up of 20,000 irrigated acres in the valley. Impacts to irrigated agriculture in the SLV resulting from the RWR project would also negatively affect fish and wildlife since most of the SLV’s wetlands occur on private property and are sustained through irrigation and water delivery.
The RWR plan runs contrary to the Colorado Water Plan. The plan, which guides state water planning and policy, establishes a conceptual framework for guiding negotiations around new transbasin diversion projects, including developing adequate measures to reduce socio-economic and environmental impacts on the basin of origin, which the RWR fails to accomplish meaningfully. The Colorado Water Plan also strongly condemns the practice of “buy and dry,” which has led to significant socio-economic and environmental impacts in rural communities and instead supports alternative approaches such as investments in conservation and smart land-use planning.
More cost-effective strategies exist, including investments in water conservation and water recycling/reuse. And there is no surplus water in the SLV to export. The SLV aquifers are over-appropriated and climatic trends point to less available water. Therefore, the RWR proposal presents a likely expensive, unpopular, and risky approach to meeting the growing water needs of Douglas County.
Our organizations recognize that Douglas County is growing and reliant on an unsustainable groundwater resource. We encourage Douglas County to use the federal funds to make needed investments to address water supply needs in a way that prioritizes local water supplies, promotes conservation, and creates jobs for the community rather than siphoning these funds to a speculative and costly water export proposal that will have significant impacts on rural Coloradans and the unique environment of the San Luis Valley.
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
National Wild Turkey Federation
Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers
Colorado Wildlife Federation
Alexander Funk is the director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
We write today to bring to your attention a matter in Colorado’s San Luis Valley where your agencies play an important and unique oversight role under Public Law 102-575. Through the attached letter from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (the District), we have been alerted to a proposal called Renewable Water Resources which would transfer groundwater out of the basin from the confined aquifer beneath the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and Closed Basin Project. After hearing concerns from our San Luis Valley constituents about this proposal for months, the District’s letter from yesterday, and considering Colorado’s current exceptional drought, we both oppose this proposal. Further, we ask for your attention under the Wirth Amendment, if an opportunity for review comes before your agencies.
The San Luis Valley is experiencing unprecedented drought that has placed a severe demand on local water resources. Valley residents, including farmers, ranchers, and business owners, rely heavily on groundwater aquifers to support their economy and way of life. Since 2005, in response to this drought, local farmers have undertaken an ambitious, collaborative effort to reduce their own pumping with the goal of achieving sustainability. This export proposal continues to seek funding to move forward despite the fact it would exacerbate local water challenges, even with conservation efforts. In addition to concerns from the District, five San Luis Valley counties are opposed to this proposal.
Public Law 102-575, also called the “Wirth Amendment”, was passed in 1992 and provides a legal framework and elevated standard of environmental review for any transfer of groundwater out of the basin that may adversely affect these public resources. We highlight this law because of its relevance to the San Luis Valley and an elevated standard of review for any project that might adversely affect Great Sand Dunes National Park, Closed Basin Project, Baca National Wildlife Refuge. For your convenience, we have pulled out the relevant language on page 64 of P.L. 102-575 (Title XV, Section 1501-1504):
SEC 1501: PERMIT ISSUANCE PROHIBITED
(a) No agency or instrument of the United States shall issue any permit, license, right-of way, grant, loan or other authorization or assistance for any project or feature of any project to withdraw water from the San Luis Valley, Colorado, for export to another basin in Colorado or export to any portion of another State, unless the Secretary of the Interior determines, after due consideration of all findings provided by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, that the project will not:
(1) increase the costs or negatively affect operation of the Closed Basin Project;
(2) adversely affect the purposes of any national wildlife refuge or Federal wildlife habitat area withdrawal located in the San Luis Valley, Colorado; or
(3) adversely affect the purposes of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colorado.
(b) Nothing in this title shall be construed to alter, amend, or limit any provision of Federal or State law that applies to any project or feature of a project to withdraw water from the San Luis Valley, Colorado, for export to another basin in Colorado or another State. Nothing in this title shall be construed to limit any agency’s authority or responsibility to reject, limit, or condition any such project on any basis independent of the requirements of this title.
The Colorado delegation previously raised similar concerns with your agencies. In 2014, Senator Bennet led a letter with Senator Udall, Congressmen Tipton and Gardner elevating these same responsibilities to your attention in the face of a similar groundwater export proposal.
On behalf of our San Luis Valley constituents and the water resources so critical to their economic future, we must oppose the Renewable Water Resources proposal. We thank you for your assistance when your agencies are presented with the opportunity to review this matter.
The bill creates the groundwater compact compliance and sustainability fund to help finance groundwater use reduction efforts in the Rio Grande River Basin and the Republican River Basin, including buying and retiring irrigation wells and irrigated acreage.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board administers the fund and can make expenditures based on recommendations from the board of directors of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District or the Republican River Water Conservation District. A conservation district’s recommendations must first be approved by the state engineer…
Clearly referencing the water development investment group Renewable Water Resources (RWR), Donovan wanted to know how to explain a group of people wanting to export water from the valley when it is clear water scarcity is already an issue. Robbins, who was testifying at the time, responded that it was something they “were trying to understand themselves” but said that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District is united in their resolve to fight the efforts with all they have.
Referencing the RWR proposal, Donovan then commented that being given money to build a senior citizen center or for law enforcement won’t help much if there are no senior citizens or communities left. She then commented that the General Assembly is receiving the message that the group “needs to look for water somewhere else.”
Click the link to read the article on The Crestone Eagle (Lisa Cyriacks). Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado released a report in January that identified 282 new projects within the South Platte River Basin on their side of the border, at a total cost of $9.87 billion…
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a Republican, said Colorado has been issuing water usage permits that would cut into Nebraska’s rightful share…
Douglas County Commissioners are currently considering a plan to supplement their water supply by bringing water from the San Luis Valley (SLV) to their county. Douglas County relies primarily on water from the Denver Basin. The South Platte serves as a principal source of water for the Colorado Front Range and the Eastern Plains.
Renewable Water Resources (RWR) is proposing to move 20,000 acre-feet of water annually from the San Luis Valley’s aquifer to Douglas County…
The unconfined aquifer, which provides irrigation water, has not recharged this winter as it typically does during the off-irrigation season.
Producers in Subdistrict 5 of the conservation district (western Saguache County) will likely face another irrigation season where groundwater wells are shut down…
The San Luis Creek runs through the middle of the wellfield and Rio Alto Creek through the southwestern side. Both these creeks supply the wetlands on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge created under the Great Sand Dunes National Park Act.
RGWCD plans to challenge RWR’s proposal in the Water Court. “We can’t see a path forward without injury or that would comply with rules and regulations as they exist today,” [Cleave] Simpson said.
RENEWABLE Water Resources promoter Sean Tonner touted a $50 million community fund in his pitch to Douglas County commissioners Monday to support a plan to move water from the San Luis Valley to Douglas County.
San Luis Valley farmers countered with figures that showed an annual loss of $53 million, or 5 percent, to the Valley’s economy from dried-up irrigated land resulting from the acre-feet of water that RWR wants to pump out of the San Luis Valley on an in-perpetuity basis.
In their fourth work session studying a possible investment in the RWR plan, Douglas County commissioners heard differing views on the economic impact of pumping water from the San Luis Valley to Douglas County. At this point Douglas County isn’t sure how much of its federal COVID relief money it can invest in the RWR plan, or what it actually gets for the money.
The work session also raised questions around Douglas County’s motivation, since it is not a water utility and doesn’t have water customers, and why Douglas County is intently focused on the RWR plan rather than other water projects closer to Douglas County that also have been submitted.
“Why are you doing this and not talking about the Platte Valley Water Partnership with as much gusto?” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservation District. She was referencing a proposal to Douglas County from neighboring Parker Water and Castle Rock Water on a renewable water supply through the Platte Valley Water Partnership.
“We are actively looking at all of the proposals,” said Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon.
Douglas County also received a letter from the San Luis Valley Board of County Commissioners voicing their opposition: “The proposal from RWR is a threat to the life we are already struggling to maintain. Frankly, we think the use of Federal funds to take the livelihood from an area whose median income is $37,663 to increase the population of Douglas County, median income $119,730, is insulting.”
The work session on the economic impact from the RWR proposal was similar to the previous work sessions covering other topics: Little agreement on the impact 70 years of groundwater pumping and 20 years of drought have had on the Upper Rio Grande Basin, and growing hostilities between RWR pitchmen and San Luis Valley farmers and water managers.
At one point, Douglas County Commissioner George Teal, who during his run for county commissioner benefited from RWR-related campaign donations and now supports the RWR plan, grew testy with Conejos County farmer James Henderson. Teal said he took offense at statements last week by Nathan Coombs, also from Conejos County, when Coombs said ag operations in the San Luis Valley were taking a back seat to unchecked growth in Douglas County.
“It’s almost like, ‘What makes the San Luis Valley more valuable than the agricultural interests in Douglas County?’” said Teal.
Tonner said the proposed community fund would bring a needed infusion of money to help address a myriad of problems he sees in the San Luis Valley, from the lack of restaurants and hotels to the distance he has to travel to find a gas station.
“I have to drive almost 40 minutes to get gas,” Tonner said. Finding a restaurant to eat at is another challenge of his, he said. “It gives you some context of what a community fund like this can do for everyone,” he said.
Henderson and Chad Cochran provided the commissioners with figures on the market value of the crops grown in the San Luis Valley to highlight the damage to the Valley’s ag economy that would come with exporting water from the drying Rio Grande.
“How does the value of land go up when there’s not water,” said Cochran, challenging RWR’s assumption that its plan won’t harm the Rio Grande. “It’s a dust bowl.”
He wasn’t at the meeting with Douglas County commissioners, but retiring 12th Judicial District Court Judge Martín Gonzales perfectly framed what’s at stake in the San Luis Valley’s latest battle to stop a water exportation plan when he talked earlier to AlamosaCitizen.com.
“In my mind the seminal struggle for the Valley is water,” Gonzales said. “I think it’s important to keep agriculture alive. I think it’s important to have the water to keep it alive, kept in the Valley. That’s in my mind the seminal struggle by which I define as ‘If you don’t win that, you may not win anything else.’”
As a part of their process to evaluate a multimillion-dollar proposal to pump water into Douglas County, the Douglas County commissioners on Jan. 31 heard presentations from advocates and farmers from the place the water would come from: the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado.
Speakers from the San Luis Valley Conservancy District, the Conejos Water Conservancy District and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District spoke to the commissioners with one main message: this plan would damage their community.
“We are struggling to keep our ship correct and to try to recover our aquifer and then here comes this seemingly predatory-natured entity to exacerbate our problem when we’re in the middle of a hardship,” said Nathan Coombs, the district manager for the Conejos Water Conservancy District.
Representatives from Renewable Water Resources, a water developer, also sat in the room, defending the proposal at times. One of the representatives, Jerry Berry, is a farmer from the San Luis Valley and spoke in support of the proposal, which would ask some valley residents to sell their water rights and promises to contribute $50 million to the community to use as they see fit.
The two-hour meeting was one of seven that the board plans to hold to evaluate the controversial proposal, which would use a portion of the $68 million in federal money given to the county from the American Rescue Plan Act. In March, commissioners plan to travel to the San Luis Valley to hear from locals about the plan.
While RWR originally proposed that the county pay an initial fee of $20 million for the project followed by a cost of $18,500 per acre-foot for water, they recently revised that request.
In a letter to commissioners dated Jan. 27, RWR said that their attoreys recently informed them that “the rules and regulations governing the use of ARPA funds may not allow the county to spend $20 million on projects that are not completed by 2026,” according to the document provided to Colorado Community Media by the county.
If those restrictions remain, RWR suggests that the county instead pay an initial amount of $10 million from the general fund for the project with a cost of $19,500 per acre-foot. They say they believe the county could then use $10 million from ARPA to backfill the general fund.
During the meetings evaluating the project, proponents and opponents have sparred over whether or not the plan would be harmful to the San Luis Valley, a huge area that relies on agriculture as a primary source for its local economy.
So far, the commissioners have also heard presentations from RWR, the Colorado Division of Water Resources and from various water lawyers.
CALLING it a “carefully crafted plan,” former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens defended efforts by Renewable Water Resources to export water from the San Luis Valley in a pointed opinion published Sunday.
Owens is leading the RWR plan and called out “status-quo politicians who are stoking fear doubling down on one valid reality: the San Luis Valley is one of the most economically challenged areas of our state.”
“When the attorney general and state Sen. Cleave Simpson claim they will do all they can to stop the voluntary selling of water rights, they are saying to Coloradans that they know better than you do what to do with your private property,” Owens penned in the op/ed published in ColoradoPolitics.com.
Simpson responded during Monday’s Douglas County commissioners work session on the RWR plan. Douglas County is vetting the proposal for a $20 million investment, using its federal COVID relief money to potentially buy into the RWR plan and pump groundwater in perpetuity to Douglas County from the Valley.
“Myself and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District very intentionally have not tried to implement any type of rule or legislation that would interfere with private property rights,” Simpson said. “If folks are interested in selling water rights to Renewable Water Resources we’ve not stood in the way. We certainly would challenge that a change in the water right and the proposal as crafted isn’t good for the community, and likely our position would be ‘I’m not sure you can do it without injuring other water rights.’”
Simpson was joined by other Valley water managers who briefed Douglas County commissioners on the most current groundwater withdrawals and condition of the unconfined and confined aquifers in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. The RWR groundwater pumping and exportation plan draws from the confined aquifer in Saguache County and is in a part of the Rio Grande Basin considered not sustainable due to current withdrawals.
Owens, making a point in his opinion piece that there is water in the San Luis Valley available for exportation, said “the San Luis Valley pumps over 600,000 acre-feet of water from the aquifers every year.” Actual water flow meter readings show Valley farmers pumped 458,000 acre-feet in 2020, according to data presented to Douglas County commissioners.
The commissioners also saw figures that show the Rio Grande with an average flow of 550,000 acre-feet over the past 20 years, down 15 percent from the Rio Grande’s historical average going back to 1890 when water flows on the Rio Grande started to be measured.
“We’re not guessing at the numbers that we pump. We’re not guessing at the amount of water we’re withdrawing, and we’re not guessing at what it takes to farm in the San Luis Valley,” said Conejos County farmer Nathan Coombs. He is on the board of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 3.
“We don’t have different points of view on the same subject, we have different interests on the same subject,” Coombs said. “The San Luis Valley, we’re needing just to survive in our agriculture economy and with our neighbors. The Renewable Water proposal is just about money. It’s about an exportation of a cash commodity.
“We are struggling to keep our ship correct and to try to recover our aquifer, and then here comes this seemingly predatory-natured entity to exacerbate our problem when we’re in the middle of a hardship.”
Coombs showed Douglas County commissioners where he farms in Conejos County and how it’s 53 miles away from Renewable Water Resources’ proposed wellfield. He said it’s incomprehensible to think the RWR groundwater pumping and exportation of water to Douglas County wouldn’t impact his operations and farming operations in the Valley as a whole.
“Those of us who have voluntarily worked our tails off to become sustainable, it’s a slap in the face. Who am I? I’m expendable? Denver Basin aquifer should be sustained, San Luis Valley should not? We should import water so unsustained growth on the Front Range continues to expand, where I have to limit the size of my operation because I have to live within my means?
“Why are we trading one aquifer for the other? I think we all matter don’t we? Why can’t agriculture interests in the San Luis Valley matter as much as the Denver aquifer?”
For Owens, the former governor of Colorado, it’s a “false assertion that there is ‘no water’ available in the SLV.”
FromColorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
The project by Renewable Water Resources, a water developer, proposes to tap 25 new groundwater wells in a “confined” aquifer in the valley. That would bring 22,000 acre feet of water to the South Platte River and eventually to a yet-to-be unidentified water provider in Douglas County.
The Renewable Water Resources proposal, which has been underway since 2017, claims a billion acre-feet of water exists in the larger of two San Luis Valley aquifers, a figure disputed by San Luis Valley water experts…
Renewable Water Resources’ project wants to tap the confined aquifer, which is larger both by geographic footprint and by water volume. The company argued the project is needed to ensure water reliability for Douglas County, and maintained that the plan is sustainable — both for residents of the county and the valley.
Under the proposal, the wells would be situated on land either owned or controlled by RWR, which currently owns approximately 9,800 acres and has options to acquire approximately 8,000 additional acres.
The 22,000 acre-feet of water represents 2.5% of the aquifer’s annual recharge, defined as water pumped back into the aquifer through precipitation, and a volume that RWR claims would not affect diminish the base.
The proposal noted that Colorado’s water law mandates that, in order to develop water, it must be “retired at the same rate,” a doctrine informally known as the “one-for-one” law in the water community. That means every drop of water removed must be replaced by the same amount.
As it turns out, Division 3 Water Court in in Alamosa, where RWR plans to submit its proposal, is the only water court that uses that law…
Under the plan, Douglas County would kick in $20 million from American Rescue Plan federal money, which is already raising questions about whether that’s a legitimate use of the federal relief funds, and whether years of legal battles would run out the clock for using those dollars, which, under federal guidelines, must be spent by December 2024…
Bruce Lytle of Lytle Water Resources, who is working with RWR, told commissioners the aquifer has the water needed for the project. That’s in stark contrast to what they heard from State Deputy Engineer Mike Sullivan, who told the commissioners the aquifer’s water is over-appropriated, meaning there’s nothing left for Douglas County…
Colorado Politics asked most of the 47 water districts, including the dozen largest ones, whether they intend to participate in the project, either as the end user, or, in the case of Denver, allow the reservoirs the county manages to hold that water.
The answer was “no” from all but one potential end-user. Denver Water, which manages the reservoirs, also shot down the idea…
Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora water, answered similarly: RWR has not engaged in discussions with Aurora Water regarding storage or conveyance and does not plan to participate in the RWR acquisition…
That Dominion and Sterling Ranch could be the end users — both entities vigorously deny any interest in San Luis Valley water and maintain their supply is sufficient to meet needs — is bolstered by RWR’s proposal, which says the project “will maximize use of existing infrastructures, ultimately supporting the county’s goals of enhancing solutions along the I-85 corridor.”
Teal said it could be Sterling Ranch, Castle Rock or Parker Water. Regarding Castle Rock, Teal explained that the town provides water to customers outside of its boundaries, part of an I-85 partnership between Castle Rock and Dominion.
The Smethills, in a Jan. 24 letter to Colorado Politics, disputed the story, saying any depiction of Sterling Ranch as a recipient of water from the RWR project or that it is short on water is factually inaccurate…
Castle Rock Water spokeswoman Mary Jo Woodrick said in an email that “at this time, we do not intend to acquire water from RWR’s San Luis Valley project.”
The state engineer
Among RWR’s claims in its proposal is that State Engineer Kevin Rein “recently urged Denver Metro water providers, including those located in Douglas County, to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer.”
That comes as news to Rein. He told Colorado Politics there have been no new rulings that apply to what RWR describes.
“We are a regulatory agency but we have made no ruling relevant to what the report describes,” Rein said in an email.
The advice to limit the use of the Denver aquifer, he pointed out, came out in 1996, although a memo in 2020 provided guidance to the staff of the engineer’s office that is “a recitation” of the 1996 memo…
RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”
RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”
In addition, Weiser and Simpson wrote, the proposal will not comply with rules from the State Engineer or the state Supreme Court. The RWR proposal seeks to change the rules, which would undermine Colorado’s compliance with the Rio Grande compact, they said.
ON Instagram Karen Lundquist asks, “Other than locally voting, what else can be done to oppose this horrible proposal?”
“What a crock,” writes Don Richmond on Facebook.
You can say the Valley is gearing up for another fight over its water.
“This fight has now come to the forefront in what would seem to be a David vs. Goliath scenario,” said Alamosa City Councilman Mike Carson, who used last week’s meeting to rally his fellow city council members to the urgent matter of the day – beating back the latest effort to move water out of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the San Luis Valley. (Read his full statement HERE.)
“The current proposal ‘threat’ to the water security challenges in the San Luis Valley presented by Renewable Water Resources is once again a demonstration of self-serving financial speculation at the expense of others,” said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and state senator representing the San Luis Valley and counties east of the Valley.
This past week Renewable Water Resources engineer Bruce Lytle presented the RWR plan to Douglas County commissioners. They’re weighing whether to use $20 million of Douglas County’s federal COVID relief funding to invest in the RWR plan as a way to bring additional water to the growing Denver-metro county.
Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon, who holds what appears to be the deciding vote on the three-member county commission, emphasized Douglas County’s growth and the importance of positioning Douglas County for the future as a basis for any decision he makes on whether to support the RWR plan.
“I have not made any decision whatsoever, nor will I without the input of the community and water experts,” Laydon told AlamosaCitizen.com. “We still have a lot to learn but I hope everyone that is interested will join us in these public meetings and provide their input along the way.
“What I can assure you of is that I will not do anything that is not a clear win/win for both our citizens and the people of the San Luis Valley. That is my commitment, on the record, and I will not deviate from that.”
Laydon is in a position to decide whether the RWR plan moves forward to a formal state review after one his colleagues, Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, voiced opposition to taking water from the San Luis Valley and another, Commissioner George Teal, leaned to supporting it.
On Monday [January 24, 2022], the Douglas County commissioners are scheduled to meet with three attorneys who will talk to them about Colorado water law as it relates to the RWR plan. The attorneys are James Eklund of Eklund Hanlon LLC; John Lubitz, partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP; and Glen Porzak, managing partner with Porzak, Browning & Bushong LLP.
The backdrop for the RWR push to transfer 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin is an over-appropriated, drought-stricken San Luis Valley that has fewer wetlands, lower stream flows, diminishing natural spring flows, and fewer irrigated acres as the result.
The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council is raising concerns about damage to the Blanca Wildlife Habitat, among other environmental concerns. RWR’s proposal neighbors the Great Sand Dunes National Park on the northeastern end of the Valley, and RWR’s engineer Bruce Lytle emphasized in his presentation to Douglas County that the plan is “designed to take advantage of the rim recharge coming off the Sangre de Cristos.”
“It’s difficult to get your mind wrapped around the potential environmental impacts of the Renewable Water Resources proposal because effects are so numerous and far-reaching that to quantify on any practical level, we’d have to also keep in mind the exponential affects, because this RWR proposal is asking for perpetuity of ground water withdrawal, so the aquifers potentially won’t ever be able to recharge once the pumps are turned on,” said Chris Canaly, director of the SLV Ecosystem Council.
The San Luis Creek and Rio Alto Creek move through the preliminary wellfield of 22 to 25 groundwater wells that RWR showed to Douglas County.
“The environment in this area has already been changing over time,” said Canaly. “This area is now struggling, in terms of desertification, so RWR’s proposal is just adding fuel to an already burning fire.”
Just southwest of the RWR proposed wellfield is the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, where biologists for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have been working to conserve two native Rio Grande fish, according to Canaly. The Baca refuge is also home to one of only two aboriginal populations of Rio Grande sucker and Rio Grande chub in the state. Important fish habitat also resides in Crestone Creek, which runs through the refuge, and work in 2017 replaced old culverts to restore fish passage and enhance connectivity in the stream.
“This is the type of restoration work that the RWR project would likely undermine and dismantle,” Canaly said. She said, “if you look at the ‘impact maps’ that RWR Engineer Bruce Lytle displayed, that entire area of the Sangre de Cristo foothills watershed/alluvial fan will be impacted.”
Whether or not RWR makes it to the phase of well drilling and exportation, what remains is the growth of Colorado’s Front Range from Colorado Springs north and concerns with the Denver Basin.
“Many conversations have and are taking place as to why Front Range cities and towns are going to need to depend less on the Denver Aquifer,” said Monica McCafferty with Renewable Water Resources. “And, why water providers in the Front Range are scrambling to find non-Denver aquifer sources.”
In a world where water is becoming an even more scarce and sought-after natural resource, water exportation proposals like RWR’s only need to win one time in court to sink wells in the ground and pump water north. The San Luis Valley, on the other hand, has to win each and every time to protect one of the most unique ecosystems in North America.
It seems to be a striking proposal: That Nebraska could use eminent domain in Colorado and build a canal that diverts water from the South Platte River for irrigation in Nebraska.
But the idea — floated earlier this month by Gov. Pete Ricketts and other Nebraska officials — is laid out in a compact agreed to by the two states and approved by Congress almost 100 years ago.
Nebraska officials want to invoke the 1923 South Platte River Compact to build that canal and a reservoir system, and ensure Nebraska continues receiving water that they say is at risk as the population on Colorado’s Front Range booms.
But with a $500 million estimated price tag, a history of failed attempts, confusion from Colorado, the potential for lawsuits and a stream of unknown details, one fundamental question hangs over the proposal: Would it be worth it?
Canal idea predates compact
Even in communications between Delph Carpenter, who negotiated the compact for Colorado, and then-Nebraska Gov. Samuel McKelvie, the canal project was referred to as “old.”
“The old Perkins County canal was projected in the early (1890s) with the object of diverting water from the South Platte some miles above Julesburg, within the State of Colorado, for the irrigation of lands in Nebraska lying south of the river and particularly of that beautiful area of land in Perkins County between Ogallala (sic) and Grant,” a 1921 letter from Carpenter reads.
Construction efforts had started in 1891, according to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. But it was abandoned due to financial troubles.
Remnants of the abandoned ditch are still visible near Julesburg.
Another effort to pursue the canal, this time by the North Platte-based Twin Platte Natural Resources District, was derailed in the 1980s because it didn’t comply with requirements of the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.
The compact, borne out of a desire to resolve litigation, is more than the canal…
Current director Tom Riley told The World-Herald that flows drop below 120 cfs nearly every year at times during that time period. When it happens, Nebraska calls Colorado and it addresses the issue by limiting its users who are subject to the compact.
Another part of the compact would allow Nebraska to also claim water outside that growing season — provided there’s a canal.