County hears from San Luis Valley advocates about water plan

Water districts say proposed water project would hurt valley

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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.  

“There’s no other project, no other thing that’s going to put money back into the community that could benefit everybody,” Berry said. “There has to be some semblance of gaining back what we’ve lost.”

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.

RWR has claimed the plan to pump 22,000 acre-feet out of the valley per year wouldn’t cause any harm whatsoever. Glenn Porzak, a water lawyer with clients including Vail Resorts and the City of Golden, told commissioners that “Maybe it’s harm from the standpoint that some people won’t feel as good about it” regarding the RWR proposal.

Porzak added that he’s not involved with the project but would likely be compensated by RWR for speaking to commissioners. 

Those who have spoken against the plan, including state Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, and Attorney General Phil Weiser, say water in the valley has historically been over-appropriated and that there simply isn’t excess water available to pump elsewhere.

“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.”

Deputy state engineer Mike Sullivan told commissioners there have been “some droughty years” in the valley during a Jan. 18 work session. 

“Those kind of structural changes seem to be occurring in the valley where we’re just not seeing as much water coming in either through the streams or through the recharge areas,” he said.

James Eklund, a water lawyer who helped form the state’s strategic water plan and isn’t employed by any parties related to the RWR project, told commissioners Jan. 24 that “unequivocally, this proposal runs contrary to the plan.”

During his presentation in support of the plan, Porzak pointed to the growth in Douglas County as one reason to consider the project.

“I believe this project is the only realistic solution to meet Douglas County’s water needs,” Porzak said. “And I believe as controversial as it may be, it’s less controversial than any of the other options that I believe are out there. And you can’t shy away from controversy when it comes to water.”

The RWR plan says it would provide enough water for about 70,000 households in Douglas County. 

If commissioners choose to fund the project, it will have several legal hurdles to cross before it’s finalized. For the project to be approved in water court, RWR will have to prove that it will replace all the water it removes from the valley.

During the Jan. 31 meeting, RWR staff members posted comments in the chat, arguing with those raising questions about the proposal and in some situations, challenging the presenters.

While Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Conservancy District spoke, a commenter named Bryan Wright commented: “If this lady is trying to hoard all the water for a very small population to farm one of the highest demand crops … I’m lost as to why there is not a willingness to share a tiny amount of water that flows into the SLV every year for our water needs?”

Wright is identified as an investment consultant by RWR’s proposal. Wright did not identify himself as being affiliated with RWR as he responded to comments from other viewers.

“If I understand the RWR proposal, people get to choose if they want to sell some of their water rights to them,” he wrote in one comment. “If that’s the case, then why would someone let a government official (Mr. Simpson) tell them whether or not they can sell their own water?”

Wright also commented that the speakers from conservation districts seemed like “special interest groups wanting to protect their jobs” and asked someone in the chat who opposed the proposal who they work for. 

Another staff member, Hugh Bernadari, commented in support of the project, saying “buy and dry is better than get zero and dry,” referencing the proposal’s plan to ask residents to sell their water rights.

Comments also came from Monica McCafferty. McCafferty is listed by the RWR proposal as a communications and public affairs executive.

So far, commissioners are split on the issue, with Commissioner George Teal in support and Commissioner Lora Thomas against. Commissioner Abe Laydon has said he is looking for a win-win for Douglas County and the San Luis Valley.

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