County begins info sessions on water proposal

Meetings to cover environmental, economic, other impacts of plan to import from San Luis Valley

Elliott Wenzler
ewenzler@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 1/23/22

As the Douglas County commissioners consider whether or not to spend $20 million of federal funds on a proposal to import water from the San Luis Valley, the county is conducting several public …

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County begins info sessions on water proposal

Meetings to cover environmental, economic, other impacts of plan to import from San Luis Valley

Posted

As the Douglas County commissioners consider whether or not to spend $20 million of federal funds on a proposal to import water from the San Luis Valley, the county is conducting several public “due diligence” meetings to learn more about the divisive project.

In the first of these meetings, the Douglas County commissioners on Jan. 18 heard from a representative from Renewable Water Resources, or RWR, the Littleton-based company that submitted the proposal.

According to their proposal, RWR would pull about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year from 22 to 25 wells in the northern part of the San Luis Valley and would pump the water to the Front Range through a pipeline. The heavily agricultural San Luis Valley is in south central Colorado, stretching south from the small town of Villa Grove.

“The ultimate goal is to provide a reliable and sustainable water supply to Douglas County water users,” according to the proposal.

RWR, formed in 2018, is headed by former Gov. Bill Owens and Sean Tonner, who served as Owens’ deputy chief of staff.

The proposal would use nearly a third of the $68 million that Douglas County is set to receive in American Rescue Plan Act funding. After the initial investment, the purchase price for the water rights would be fixed at $18,500 per annual acre-foot, according to the proposal. An acre-foot is the equivalent of a football field covered with water one foot deep.

The project has been met with strong disapproval from some in the San Luis Valley, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, headed by state Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. These groups say that the project would deplete already-thin water resources in a drought-ridden community that relies on water for agriculture and its economy.

The project has also been met with disagreement among the Douglas County commissioners. In a guest column for Colorado Community Media newspapers, Commissioner George Teal supported the proposal, saying the project could help “meet our county’s needs for decades to come.” 

“The RWR plan would allow us to purchase primary water rights; not junior water rights that could be interrupted during dry years, when we need that water the most,” he wrote.

Commissioner Lora Thomas also wrote a guest column on the topic, but she opposed the project. 

“If RWR were to move forward with the project to export water from the San Luis Valley, tens of thousands of acres of productive agriculture ground would be sacrificed to make water available for Front Range users,” she wrote. “This action would have far-reaching impacts on the economies, communities and wildlife that depend on irrigated agriculture in the San Luis Valley.”

Now, the county is conducting a series of meetings to explore various aspects of the proposal.

“There are significant questions of fact being presented by various stakeholders so the goal of the board is to engage experts on all sides of this particular issue to provide objective, truthful, accurate information,” Commissioner Abe Laydon said in the meeting.

The meetings will take place through March and will end with the commissioners traveling to the valley for a tour and discussion there. As of Jan. 21, the next meeting was scheduled to take place Jan. 24.

Each work session will be about two hours and will explore different topics related to the project including Colorado water policy and law, San Luis Valley water impacts, San Luis Valley economic development impacts, environmental impacts and metro area impacts. The commissioners will also hear from local elected officials from the San Luis Valley.

Residents interested in tuning into the meetings can do so by checking the weekly commissioner work session schedule at douglas.co.us/commissioners-weekly-schedule. The county also recently decided to begin recording work sessions after questions on the practice from Colorado Community Media. Those records are available upon request by contacting the commissioner’s office at 303-660-7401 or via email at bocc@douglas.co.us.

In the Jan. 18 meeting, Bruce Lytle, an engineer and consultant for RWR, spoke about the company’s analysis of the hydrogeological makeup of the San Luis Valley, providing diagrams and simulations on the project’s expected impact.

The board also heard a presentation from Mike Sullivan, the deputy state engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

Sullivan gave a presentation on the physical aspects of the region, the history of court decisions related to water there and various legal requirements for the region.

While work sessions typically don’t include interaction with the public, Laydon opened up this first meeting to questions from those in attendance. About 90 people joined the virtual meeting.

The ARPA funds the county will receive can be used for public health expenditures, economic impacts from the pandemic, government services reduced by the pandemic, pay for essential workers and infrastructure such as water and broadband. The Department of the Treasury will later release more details on the allowable uses of the money.

The board of commissioners has said they will use the money to fund water and wastewater investments, mental and behavioral health, economic recovery, community recovery and broadband. 

The county has received more than a dozen other water and wastewater-related proposals, including one from Parker Water & Sanitation District, Castle Rock Water and the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. That plan also asked commissioners to contribute at least $20 million to a renewable water project. 

More information on the other proposals is available at douglas.co.us/ARPA.

water, Douglas County Colorado, San Luis Valley, Renewable Water Resources

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