Both of Colorado’s U.S. Senators will oppose a project currently being considered by Douglas County commissioners to import groundwater from the San Luis Valley. The senators announced they would oppose the proposal in a joint press release on Feb. 21.
Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, both Democrats, also asked the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to step in if they are asked to review the project.
“This export proposal continues to seek funding to move forward despite the fact it would exacerbate local water challenges, even with conservation efforts,” according to the joint statement. “In addition to concerns from the (Rio Grande Water Conservation District), five San Luis Valley counties are opposed to this proposal.”
The water proposal comes from Renewable Water Resources, which is headed by former Gov. Bill Owens and Sean Tonner, who served as Owens’ deputy chief of staff.
Douglas County’s commissioners have been hosting “due diligence” meetings since Jan. 18 to consider if they will spend up to $20 million of their federal COVID relief dollars on the initial investment required under the proposal.
The three-person board is so far split over the topic with Commissioner George Teal in support and Commissioner Lora Thomas against. Commissioner Abe Laydon has said he’s not yet decided and he’s only interested in a win-win solution for Douglas County and the San Luis Valley.
The project proposes pumping 22,000 acre-feet of water out of the San Luis Valley’s confined aquifer every year and transfer it to Douglas County. RWR has said the plan wouldn’t cause any harm whatsoever but representatives from water conservation districts in the San Luis Valley have said the opposite.
“After hearing concerns from our San Luis Valley constituents about this proposal for months, the (Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s) letter from yesterday, and considering Colorado’s current exceptional drought, we both oppose this proposal,” wrote Bennet and Hickenlooper.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hickenlooper and Bennet pointed to Public Law 102-575, also known as the Wirth Amendment, which requires any project exporting water from the San Luis Valley not adversely affect public resources, according to the release.
“We ask for your attention under the Wirth Amendment, if an opportunity for review comes before your agencies,” according to the letter.
The proposal has also had public opposition from Governor Jared Polios and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who wrote a joint op-ed with state Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa.
“We’ve seen this before — water is sold off, farms dry up, local economies contract, communities are forever harmed,” Simpson and Weiser wrote in a joint op-ed in the Alamosa Valley Courier. “In the case of the Valley, the RWR plan comes at a time when we are desperately working to manage a depleted aquifer and protect this community’s future.”
Polis says he's against inter-basin transfers that don't have local support in the impacted communities, according a statement emailed through a spokesperson.
"This is a proposed inter-basin transfer with deep concerns and opposition in the San Luis Valley and the Governor is opposed," according to the statement.
Water for Colorado, a coalition made up of advocacy groups like Conservation Colorado and The Nature Conservancy, also announced they will oppose the RWR project.
"Our coalition urges collaborative solutions to Colorado’s water supply concerns that do not irrevocably harm one community in favor of another," according to a statement from the coalition.
(Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Governor Jared Polis.)
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