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.
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.
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.
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.
Douglas County Commissioners hold work session as they decide on $20 million investment
DOUGLAS County Commissioners were told [January 18, 2022] that there is ample water in the San Luis Valley that can be exported to the Front Range and were shown a preliminary wellfield design for the northern end of the Valley.
Bruce Lytle, engineer for Renewable Water Resources’s proposal to move 20,000-acre feet of water a year to Douglas County, walked the three Douglas County commissioners through the Valley’s complex two-aquifer system and left them with the idea that there is water available for exportation.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s any controversy about the water being there. The water is there,” said Commissioner George Teal.
“I would agree with that,” said Lytle.
While Teal demonstrated interest in Douglas County partnering with Renewable Water Resources, Commissioner Lora Thomas voiced opposition to exporting water from the San Luis Valley. (You can read her letter to The Citizen explaining her position HERE.) That would leave Commissioner Abe Laydon as the deciding vote on whether Douglas County spends $20 million of its federal American Rescue Plan Act money, or COVID relief funds, to push the project forward into state water court.
Laydon said he’s planning to visit the San Luis Valley, including possibly having a community forum in mid-March at Adams State, to hear from Valley residents. RWR is dangling a $50 million community fund as part of its plan, and said it would also make a “$68 million investment to pay local San Luis Valley farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to retire their water rights above the market rate,” said spokesperson Monica McCafferty.
Colorado State Deputy Engineer Mike Sullivan offered the Douglas County Commissioners a starkly different picture of the Valley’s water situation.
“There’s no extra water,” Sullivan said, explaining that the groundwater supply is over-appropriated and actual Upper Rio Grande Basin streamflows in decline.
State Engineer Kevin Rein told AlamosaCitizen.com in an earlier story that RWR has misrepresented Douglas County’s reliance on the “Denver Aquifer” and a “proposed rule change” from the state engineer that RWR said would drastically affect Douglas County’s reliance on the Denver Basin.
“The cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts,” said Rein.
While Douglas County Commissioners were going through the RWR proposal in Castle Rock, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Directors was also in session. Board members heard little encouraging news about the Valley’s aquifers heading into the 2022 irrigation season:
The unconfined aquifer is at its lowest point since January 2013, with concerns that it hasn’t recharged as it typically does when there is little irrigation happening in the Valley.
Producers in Subdistrict 5 of the conservation district will likely face another irrigation season where groundwater wells are shut down.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park experienced its fourth hottest year on record and the SNOTEL station that measures the runoff expected from Medano Creek is at 50 percent of normal for the season.
RWR’s proposal neighbors the Great Sand Dunes on the northeastern end of the Valley. Lytle, the engineer for RWR, said they expect to have 22 to 25 groundwater wells pumping, with the well depth at 2,000 feet and wells spaced a mile apart.
The San Luis Creek runs through the middle of the wellfield and Rio Alto Creek through the southwestern side. “The orientation of the project is designed to take advantage of the rim recharge coming off Sangre de Cristos,” said Lytle.
Convinced that there is water available for Douglas County, commissioners Teal and Lytle played out the scenario.
“And so it would be the water court process that determines ‘Is that water available for us?’” said Teal.
“You have to follow the rules. To me, if we follow the rules, then you can get a decree augmentation plan,” said Lytle. “Now, there’s always issues. I’ve been in water court enough to know that nothing is a slam dunk in water court.
“But obviously your best chance of success is if there’s a set of rules, and you follow those rules, then it makes it more difficult for issues to be raised relative to injury.”
RENEWABLE Water Resources has made an “inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts” in its pitch to Douglas County to partner in exporting water from the San Luis Valley, State Engineer Kevin Rein said.
Rein, in an email response to a series of questions from AlamosaCitizen.com, said RWR misrepresents Douglas County’s reliance on the “Denver Aquifer” and how a “proposed rule change” from the state engineer would drastically affect Douglas County’s relationship with the aquifer.
“The cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts,” Rein said.
Rein said his office has not taken a position on the RWR proposal because the project, led by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, has not been formally submitted for regulatory review to the State Engineer’s Office. RWR is courting Douglas County as an investor in its efforts to export water from the San Luis Valley to Colorado’s Front Range. To move the project to formal review both by Rein’s office and state Division 3 Water Court, RWR needs to identify an end user for its effort to export water from the Valley.
The project has created an uproar, with city officials from Monte Vista the latest to blast it as a “scheme to transport our valuable water resources out of the San Luis Valley.”
“The idea that there is an abundance of water for Douglas County suburbia to continue to sprawl at the San Luis Valley’s expense is shameless,” Monte Vista officials said in a letter to AlamosaCitizen.com. The full letter is here.
In its pitch, Renewable Water Resources said Douglas County is overly dependent on the Denver Aquifer as its main water supply, and remaining dependent on it threatens the Denver suburb’s property values, economic growth and quality of life.
“Additionally, a proposed rule change could drastically impact Douglas County’s relationship with the Denver Aquifer,” RWR states in its pitch to Douglas County for money. “Colorado’s State Water Engineer recently urged Denver Metro water providers, including those located in Douglas County, to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer. This new guidance will limit the use of the Denver Aquifer and essentially maintain the Aquifer as a ‘preserve.’”
Rein, when asked about the accuracy of RWR’s statements, said, “First, as a matter of hydrogeology, there is one hydrogeologic feature known by scientists and water users as the ‘Denver Basin.’ It stretches from approximately Greeley to Colorado Springs and from the foothills to Limon. Within the Denver Basin is a layering of discrete aquifers that for administration purposes are treated as separate sources. Those aquifers, from the top layer to the bottom layer are: the Dawson Aquifer, the Upper Dawson Aquifer, the Lower Dawson Aquifer, the Denver Aquifer, the Arapahoe Aquifer, the Upper Arapahoe Aquifer, the Lower Arapahoe Aquifer, and the Laramie-Fox Hills Aquifer.
“This information is relevant because the (RWR) report states that ‘Douglas County is currently overly dependent on the Denver Aquifer as its principal water supply…’ However, I know that Douglas County municipal water suppliers and private well owners rely on nearly all of the aquifers I’ve listed, from the Dawson to the Laramie-Fox Hills. Their reliance is not on only the Denver Aquifer.
“Second, the (RWR) Report states, ‘Additionally, a proposed rule change could drastically impact Douglas County’s relationship with the Denver Aquifer.’
“The Report does not cite the claimed ‘rule change.’ For your information, the Division of Water Resources recently proposed amended Statewide Nontributary Ground Water Rules, which rules we regard as consistent with the General Assembly’s statutorily-described allocation of nontributary ground water (see SB73-213; section 37-90-137(4), C.R.S.). To my knowledge, neither RWR nor those Douglas County entities have shown evidence that the State Engineer has ever shown a different application of the General Assembly’s intended allocation. Therefore, I find no support for RWR’s claim that ‘a proposed rule change could drastically impact Douglas County’s relationship with the Denver Aquifer.’ As the State Engineer I believe that RWR should account for this claim since it appears to have no basis.
“In summary, there has been no rule change. If RWR believes the State Engineer’s long-standing application of state statute ‘drastically impacts’ Douglas County, they should also be aware that the State Engineer has not changed its application of the statute in the last 48 years. I am not aware of any evidence to the contrary.”
Renewable Water Resources said it relied on information from a January 2021 environmental law and policy alert on a call for public comment around the proposed amended statewide nontributary groundwater rules.
“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. And, why water providers in the Front Range are scrambling to find non-Denver aquifer sources,” said spokesperson Monica McCafferty. “This is a known fact in the Front Range and likely to be discussed more in the Douglas County public hearings.”
Rein had a third rebuttal to RWR when the group said in the proposal to Douglas County that Rein had recently urged Denver Metro water providers “to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer,” and called it “new guidance” from the State Engineer.
“I see no basis for this claim,” Rein told Alamosa Citizen. “Since 1996, the State Engineer’s Office has included notes on our correspondence to Douglas County regarding subdivision water supplies that remind the county of the non-renewable nature of the Denver Basin as a water supply. We include the same information on Denver Basin well permits that we issue. We provide this information as a courtesy since we are an agency that knows the science and administrative aspects of the Denver Basin.
“The next statement in the report states that ‘(f)or Douglas County, this ruling is an imminent and practical challenge and catalyst for necessary change.’ The basis of this statement is confusing since there has been no ‘ruling.’ The non-renewable nature of the Denver Basin is the result of hydrogeologic events that occurred millions of years ago. Allocation directives that were put in statute in 1973 reflect that nature of the Denver Basin. Nothing that the State Engineer has done has made the challenge any more ‘imminent.’
“Each of these items may seem small,” Rein said, “but the cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts.
“I have only commented on the aspects of the letter that portray the State Engineer and our actions in a way that I believe is inaccurate. I will not comment on RWR’s opinions or judgments of Douglas County’s ongoing efforts.”
RWR also misrepresents a Dec. 2018 letter from Rein to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Rein said. At that time, Rein had sent correspondence to General Manager Cleave Simpson on the amended Plan of Water Management for Subdistrict 1, and the legal authority he has to curtail groundwater diversions from Subdistrict 1 wells if the conservation district isn’t making progress toward restoring the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level as ordered by the state water court.
RWR said in its proposal to Douglas County that Rein would shut down wells in the subdistrict for a minimum of three years, boosting its project since its efforts do not rely on the unconfined aquifer.
“Regarding RWR’s reference to my December 2018 letter, if the State Engineer is put in a position of curtailing wells, it would not be ‘…so the objective of the Subdistrict 1 groundwater management plan can be achieved…’ as I read in the proposal. Rather, it would be the result of a regulatory decision that would be necessary due to the fact that the Subdistrict’s Annual Replacement Plan does not meet the objectives of the Rules and the Groundwater Management Plan. This is stated in the December 2018 letter. My letter did not address the amount of time the wells would be curtailed and I don’t know the basis of RWR’s claim that the wells would be curtailed for a minimum of three years.
“As I noted earlier, for RWR’s concept to operate, among other things, they would need to demonstrate through a detailed court approved plan that they would have no impact on the basin as a whole. That is yet to be seen.”
RWR’s proposal to Douglas County is, for an initial payment of $20 million, to build a pipeline that would bring 22,000 acre-feet of water from the San Luis Valley aquifer to the Front Range. If Douglas County agrees, the $20 million would come from ARPS stimulus money.
Struggling with water scarcity, changing climate, and aquifer depletion, San Luis Valley residents object to the proposal. A formidable group has organized around the belief that there is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.
Protect Our Water–San Luis Valley lists as members: 15 local water districts and entities; 22 cities and towns; 22 conservation and environmental groups; and two farm groups. On its website local governments in opposition to RWR’s proposal include the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Towns of Crestone and Saguache.
Despite their marketing assertions, RWR’s plan to export water from the San Luis Valley was not devised by locals nor will it benefit the entire valley.
RWR needs to find a customer like Douglas County to move its proposal forward. The plan relies on drawing water from the Upper Rio Grande Basin and exporting it to the Front Range. Without an identified end user for the exportation and sale of the water, RWR can’t file its plan in Colorado Water Court.
While the project has been in the works for some time, many questions remain unanswered.
RWR does not own municipal water rights, and RWR would need to buy wells and well rights before filing in court to convert irrigation water rights to municipal water rights.
Until recently, RWR executives asserted specifics about project locations, timetables, or costs were uncertain because they are focused on winning valley support and filing a legal case in Colorado’s water court, which could take three to five years to process. That case would help determine whether the San Luis Valley has enough water for RWR to legally export without hurting existing users.
In general, the proposal before Douglas County Commissioners reveals that RWR would build a wellfield northeast of Moffat. A pipeline would carry water north along state Highway 17, more than 1,000 feet up and over Poncha Pass to two access points along the South Platte River Basin, one at Antero Reservoir and another Elevenmile Reservoir, both in Park County.
In addition, a $50 million “community fund” would be developed under the RWR proposal to assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training. 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.”
Those dollars will come from long-time private investors, according to Sean Duffy, a spokesman for RWR.
An agreement using stimulus money would give Douglas County access to needed water at less than half the typical rate of $40,000 to $50,000 per acre-foot, said RWR spokesman Sean Duffy…
Duffy also pointed out that both the water and economic status quo in the valley are not currently sustainable. Critics say the RWR project will only make the situation worse, while supporters argue it offers a more sustainable solution to the state’s water woes.
The San Luis Valley is described as one of the most arid regions in Colorado, receiving less than 9 inches of precipitation annually. In recent years snowfall on the Sangre de Cristos has been perceptibly less, resulting in reduced stream flows and reduced recharge of the two aquifers below the valley floor.
The shallow unconfined aquifer has been tapped with wells for crop irrigation for several generations and is over-appropriated. Below lies the confined aquifer which Renewable Water Resources believes holds a billion-acre foot of water.
That one-billion-acre foot estimate is highly disputed by local water managers, farmers and ranchers.
Since 2012 many farms and ranches in the valley have already made self-imposed cuts in irrigation to try and prevent further depletion of the shallow aquifer. A number of subdistricts have been formed as local farmers’ only way of buying more time to solve depletions to the aquifer in their own way. Each subdistrict has until 2031 to replenish water to a predetermined level. Failure to meet those targets could result in the State Engineer’s office shutting down wells until the aquifer reaches that target through unimpeded recharge with no groundwater pumping.
RWR’s proposal is offering very similar benefits to those proposed by Stockman’s Water in 1998, a project that ultimately failed.
Stockman’s Water proposed to export at least 100,000 acrefeet annually, mitigating any water losses by offering, in exchange, 25,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of senior water rights.
Gary Boyce, the manager/ owner of Stockman’s Water, also promised a $3 million trust fund to be administered by Saguache County, and environmental benefits—more riparian and wetland habitat. Renewable Water Resources offers the potential opportunity to add over 3,000 acres to the Baca Wildlife Refuge located off of County Road T.
Cleave Simpson has met with the Douglas County Commissioners. Using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for the RWR proposal is a twist he didn’t see coming.
“I think it’s unconscionable to use those federal dollars to diminish one community in support of another community,” he said. In addition to representing the San Luis Valley in the Colorado Senate, Simpson is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which is leading the opposition to the RWR plan.
Simpson reminds us that there is a long history of legal fights over water export claims in the San Luis Valley. The Rio Grande Water Conservancy District already had money set aside to challenge the RWR proposal after the court awarded valley residents legal fees from a previous failed export case involving a developer in the 1970s, called American Water Development Incorporated.
Big Colorado water diversion projects itching to get going on long-sought dam and pipeline dreams are rushing to get first in line for thirsty Douglas County’s $68.2 million in federal stimulus money.
Drinking water dams and pipelines have joined smaller-scale local water treatment and sewage projects, for totaling $247 million of the $280 million in overall stimulus requests in Douglas County so far, a county spokeswoman said. The other categories making up the remainder of the $280 million in proposals include broadband, economic recovery and mental health delivery.
Some of the biggest requests for Douglas County’s share of American Rescue Plan Act spending come from drinking water developers looking to jumpstart projects that can take decades to complete.
An $828 million, two-reservoir, 125-miles-of-pipeline project led by Parker’s water department wants $20 to 30 million of Douglas County’s stimulus to jumpstart the engineering and environmental work. The project would pull junior water rights off the South Platte River near Sterling in high runoff years, fill the new reservoirs, and pipe drinking water down to high-growth cities such as Parker, Castle Rock and others…
A second big request on Douglas County’s plate is a $20 million bid from Renewable Water Resources, which has raised near-unanimous opposition to its proposal to buy up San Luis Valley groundwater, pipe it over the Front Range, and sell it to drinking water providers in Douglas County and other growing communities…
Douglas County held the first of a planned series of live and streamed town halls discussing the American Rescue Plan requests [December 9, 2021], with staff providing information on each of the $280 million in proposals so far. More town halls are planned for early 2022, county spokeswoman Wendy Manitta Holmes said. County commissioners have months of deliberations to go before they allocate the $68.2 million.
The ambitious, multi-county water projects could be in for disappointment. County officials are not sure yet what restrictions the U.S. Treasury could put on stimulus spending, Holmes said. County staff has asked the Treasury department to provide more guidance on, for example, whether DougCo’s share of the stimulus could be spent in other counties for sprawling projects like the water diversions.
Other, simpler water projects making up the bulk of the $247 million in category requests include water treatment, reservoir and pipeline capacity, and sewage disposal, from Highlands Ranch to Sedalia. Seeking citizen input on the biggest priorities is exactly the reason for the extended town halls, Holmes said…
Parker’s proposal, a joint project with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District and Castle Rock’s water department, notes that population growth in Parker alone will balloon the city from 60,000 residents to 160,000 in coming years. The South Platte diversions would fill two new reservoirs to be built in farm and ranch country straddling Interstate 76, one called Iliff and the other, in a Phase 2, called Fremont Butte…
As for competition from the San Luis Valley pipeline, Redd said, “We’re not real fans of the project.” There are too many political hurdles to the proposal, and the valley is already suffering from water depletion, Redd said.
If water flows to money, in Colorado, it flows to the Front Range. There, a booming population has strained municipal governments, which are actively looking elsewhere for new water sources. This is nothing new: In recent decades, locals have fended off several schemes to export the San Luis Valley’s water east over the mountains. The latest of these is Renewable Water Resources, a venture backed by Denver metro money and former Republican Gov. Bill Owens. Worsening drought, poor commodity prices, economic trends towards consolidation and the ever-present threat of state intervention in local water management have some people worried — and others sensing an opportunity.
Sean Tonner, a businessman and longtime state Republican operative who worked for Owens, is behind the current water export scheme. Tonner exudes salesmanship, the sort of person who calls you by your first name the second he meets you. His plan reworks one that was pushed by the late Gary Boyce, a notorious water export advocate. Tonner, who now owns Boyce’s 11,500-acre property at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, proposes a 22,000-acre-foot pipeline to carry water from the northern end of the valley over Poncha Pass to Douglas County in the southern Denver metro area. His company would buy and remove from irrigation about 30,000 acre-feet of San Luis Valley water, paying local farmers for the water rights that would offset the export.
Tonner uses the phrase “win-win” to describe the project. The front page of the project’s website reads: “Best for the San Luis Valley. Best for the environment. Best for Colorado.” Few in the valley see it that way. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District rejected the proposal in January 2019, and the board has told Tonner it would fight any attempt to export water from the valley. Several town governments oppose the plan, as well. If it goes to court, the exporters would have to prove that the plan would not injure Rio Grande water rights, the aquifer or the protected areas that rely on the aquifer, including Great Sand Dunes National Park.
At a February water conference at Adams State University, former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — the most public member of the well-known Salazar family, which has farmed in the southern part of the valley since the 1850s — declared that “water will flow out of this valley to the North only over my dead body,” drawing a raucous cheer from the audience of farmers and ranchers.
Even so, it is easy to imagine the valley’s economic plight making it possible for Tonner’s proposal to catch on. His plan offers incentives that previous plans lacked, including a $50 million fund for local governments to use in the community. If the valley’s financial woes worsen — or if the state were to shut off thousands of wells in Subdistrict 1 — that cash could sway some desperate local officials.
Tonner claims he has local support. At a community meeting in Saguache on May 23, he told the large crowd that he had enough water users interested in selling to obtain 22,000 acre-feet of water. Few farmers and ranchers want to admit this, but the valley’s grim circumstances are pushing some to sell.
Ron Bartee and his son, Dale Bartee, work on modifying a grain combine from the 1970s to harvest their new crop of flax seed, a less water-dependent grain. Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
Tyler, age 12, and Kolby Bartee, 8, move their herd of sheep out to pasture. Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
Deanna Bartee, a professor at Adam’s State University, goes through Kolby’s morning lesson before he works on the farm in the afternoon. Deanna and Dale homeschool their sons because the boys wanted to be more involved on the farm. Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
I put the question to rancher Dale Bartee in August: What would happen if the drought returns next year, the valley’s pumping fee is higher, and the export company shows up with ready money?
“If the price is right, it would be very hard to say no,” he said with a sigh, sitting at his kitchen table. It’s an admission he does not like making out loud. Like many here, Bartee sees the export advocates as turncoats, exploiting the imbalance of economic and political power concentrated on the other side of the mountains to extract rural resources. Repeated attempts to export the valley’s water make the people feel dispensable.
“For me, I will probably be one of the last ones to say yes to it, because of my boys,” Bartee said, whose two sons work the farm with him.
“They both say they want to come back, they want to farm,” their father said. “And if I sell out, what do they have left?”
If the valley’s water use were corrected, Rio Grande Water Conservation District Manager Cleave Simpson believes, the export schemes would evaporate. “Buy and dry” proposals, as they are known, seem less appealing when water supply and demand are in better balance, he said. The subdistrict model is an attempt to allow current farms to carry on at slightly diminished capacity, rather than face the “draconian” decision of either selling to exporters to get what money they can or risk having pumping rights suspended by the state engineer.
“I don’t think producers should have to make that choice,” Simpson said.
Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at email@example.com.