Environmental review session highlights
how water sustains the habitat of Valley’s intertwined recreation and ag economies
By cvlopez | firstname.lastname@example.org
THEY heard about efforts to recover the Rio Grande sucker and chub fish, and they learned the San Luis Valley is home to a critical 250,000-bat colony, all in the northeastern corridor of the San Luis Valley where Renewable Water Resources proposes a wellfield to pump groundwater north to Douglas County.
They learned that there are nearly 350,000 acres and associated water rights in conservation in the San Luis Valley, and they heard not from Valley farmers but from people who live in Douglas County and metro Denver of the herculean efforts by the Valley’s agricultural community to restore the aquifers of the Rio Grande – an effort that should be commended and supported, not threatened with a water exportation plan, they were told.
In the end, it was questions around the fact Renewable Water Resources has yet to identify an end user for its water exportation proposal – RWR said the end users will be identified during a later stage – and RWR’s insistence to Douglas County
commissioners that it is only in state water court that its proposal to pump 22,000-acre-feet of groundwater in perpetuity can get a fair hearing that punctuated the nearly three-and-a-half-hour Douglas County work session held Wednesday.
“If there’s no water, then why are there so many irrigated acres and farms in the area?” said John Kim, a partner in the Renewable Water Resources project.
He said it’s not true that the San Luis Valley doesn’t have water that can be exported to Douglas County, as the commissioners have heard repeatedly from state water officials and San Luis Valley water managers.
“There’s water to be had,” said Kim, “it’s just a question of who uses it and for what purposes.”
Kim’s comments came after leading environmentalists, conservationists and cattle and crop producers all implored the Douglas County commissioners to pass on the idea of investing in the Renewable Water Resources plan because it’s rife with problems and omissions, would cause extensive damage to the Valley’s natural habitats, and will get tied up for years in water court through various legal defense funds.
Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas restated her opposition to the Renewable Water Resources proposal. Instead, she said, Douglas County should focus on another water project, closer to Douglas County, that also has been pitched to the commissioners for investment.
The Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District has submitted a proposal to Douglas County for investment using the same American Rescue Plan Act federal funding that RWR seeks. Thomas said Douglas County commissioners would be wise to spend more time understanding that proposal rather than battling all the forces in the San Luis Valley and statewide on a concept that has no end users identified, the full costs of the project undetermined, and little to no support outside of Renewable Water Resources itself.
“This county has a choice to make,” said Sarah Parmer, director of conservation for Colorado Open Lands, who also encouraged the commissioners to focus on the Lower South Platte plan. “It can invest in the paper water rights being sold by Renewable Water Resources or it can invest in a really collaborative proposal like the Platte Valley Water plan that brings real wet water to Douglas County.”
The environmental review that Douglas County requested included presentations from Trout Unlimited, Colorado Open Lands, Orient Land Trust, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, and the Colorado Ag Water Alliance.
Presenters told about the nearly $500 million water-based recreation economy that the Valley experiences annually which is dependent on healthy rivers and streams; the $100 million plus of federal and state money that has been invested in restoring and protecting critical habitats and open space to nurture the Valley’s complex ecosystem; and the “world-class” landscapes for fishing, birding, big-game hunting, and other outdoor recreation that Coloradans, New Mexicans, Texans and other visitors to the San Luis Valley have come to enjoy.
“Conservation and agriculture work well together, and we have spent the last 30 years on law and policy building this,” said Chris Canaly, executive director of the SLV Ecosystems Council. “Pumping water out of this area is not where we are going as a valley.”
Greg Peterson, executive director of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance, said he travels across the state helping farmers and ranchers conserve water by pumping less groundwater and retiring water wells. The efforts by the San Luis Valley farmers to cover crops, rotate crops, fallow fields, temporarily and permanently retire water wells all to recover declining aquifers is beyond comparison.
“This is unheard of in the West,” Peterson said. The Valley, he said, “is one of our bread baskets in the country. We ask you to prioritize food production.”
For Renewable Water Resources it was all a show.
Kevin Kinnear, attorney for RWR, said there is a “fundamental misunderstanding of what this project is.”
“The misconception,” he said, “is that we’re taking 22,000-acre-feet away from the environment and away from the streams and that simply is not the case.”
As Kinnear and Kim made their case for Douglas County to get involved and to allow the proposal to find its way into state water court for review, questions of legal fees arose.
Kim said RWR would cover its legal costs. After the meeting Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon was asked if he thought RWR would also cover Douglas County’s legal fees if it decided to get involved.
“Sounded like it,” he said, “but definitely a follow up question.”
Of the three commissioners, Laydon is the one who will cast the deciding vote. Asked how he’ll decide, he said, “Super-simple really, although I recognize the issues are complex: objective, expert-driven recommendations that have digested all study sessions and public comment to the truth, devoid of propaganda and political rhetoric.”
Asked who he thought the “experts” in this case were, he said: “Water lawyers and hydrologists.”
The Douglas County commissioners plan to hold a community meeting in the San Luis Valley on March 26.
TOP PHOTO: Collage of slides used in Wednesday’s presentation.
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