Legal concerns for Douglas County remain unchanged, water attorney says
THE water attorney Douglas County hired to advise it on the proposed San Luis Valley water exportation project by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and his Renewable Water Resources group said “many hurdles” remain and that his legal concerns are unchanged.
Stephen Leonhardt, Douglas County’s lead water attorney consultant, made his concerns known in a Sept. 13 closed-door meeting with the three Douglas County commissioners. An executive summary of that meeting was made available to Alamosa Citizen on Friday following a Colorado Open Records request.
Leonhardt, engineer Bruce Lytle and water attorney Glenn Porzak – all Douglas County consultants – met with John Kim of Renewable Water Resources on July 26, according to the memo, as a follow up to an outline of issues and concerns Leonhardt earlier presented to Douglas County following a “deep dive” into the RWR proposal.
“While it was a good meeting, the discussion did not alter my initial analysis and conclusions and there remain many hurdles to a successful project, which are not resolved at this time,” Leonhardt wrote in a Sept. 28 executive summary released to The Citizen. “The legal concerns with the project remain unchanged.”
Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas has been pushing her fellow commissioners, Abe Laydon and George Teal, to release more details from their executive session meetings with Leonhardt. She said Friday on Twitter, “I remain OPPOSED for @douglascounty continuing to spend time and resources on taking water from the San Luis Valley when none of the water providers in Dougco are interested in participation with the concept.”
Laydon is facing re-election against challenger Kari Solberg in November. For Douglas County to continue showing interest in the Owens-led plan, RWR needs Laydon to earn a second term in the commissioners’ chambers.
But even then, the RWR water exportation concept faces major barriers, not the least of which is complying with state groundwater pumping rules that govern water in the San Luis Valley and the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa is already gearing up to knock back any legislative push Renewable Water Resources attempts to make in an effort to amend state rules governing groundwater pumping. He said RWR has lobbyists in place, and he expects the group to begin a lobbying process.
“I’ve always said they’ll be at the legislature at some point, going, ‘This is so important to the state we shouldn’t have to follow the same rules and regs,’” Simpson said.
He said he’s heard recently that RWR might approach the legislature with this plan in the 2023 session, which would align with RWR telling Leonhardt that it was developing a “legislative strategy” when he first outlined the problems.
“Why would they do that? They have zero chance of being successful, but that’s why they’ve hired lobbyists,” Simpson said.
“They don’t need a lobbyist if they’re just going to follow the rules as written,” Simpson said, alluding to RWR’s own statements in its proposal.
Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, said, “The last line of the memo says it all. The Douglas County Commissioners should take the extensive review provided by their independent water counsel to heart and move on from RWR. The legal issues with RWR’s proposal are insurmountable. In my opinion, any continued discussions or study of the RWR proposal is simply a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
The plan Douglas County has been reviewing would pump 22,000-acre feet a year from the northern end of the Valley in Saguache County and Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
One monumental task RWR faces is getting a state water court-approved augmentation plan in place that would demonstrate to the court that RWR has a portfolio of replacement water on the injured streams under a worst-case scenario.
How water augmentation works in the San Luis Valley
Leonhardt has raised the required augmentation plan as a major barrier. “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,” he wrote in his bulleted May memorandum to Douglas County Commissioners.
“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 back in May that 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 Response Area.”
He hasn’t changed his mind.
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