By cvlopez | email@example.com
SOMETIMES playing defense can be your most effective offense.
Anticipating another eventual push to export water from the San Luis Valley aquifers and the headwaters of the Upper Rio Grande, officials in each of the six counties are drafting an intergovernmental agreement and specific planning regulations they hope will legally block any water exportation project.
Through an intergovernmental agreement, the counties would look to establish a “Joint Planning Area” to protect the Valley’s water resources and then adopt specific 1041 planning regulations that address protecting the Valley’s water resources from exportation.
“This might be our best opportunity to stop water exportation,” said Saguache County Commissioner Tom McCracken, who chairs the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments board. “I’m feeling really excited about it.”
It’s through the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments that county officials and city officials have been meeting to draft the intergovernmental agreement and eventually establish 1041 regulations specifically around water exportation proposals. Any proposal that would aim to take water out of the Valley, such as the Renewable Water Resources plan, would have to satisfy all the regulations in applying for the required county permits.
The city of Alamosa and the city of Monte Vista are expressing interest in being part of the water resources intergovernmental agreement as well.
In a speech last April where he addressed the RWR plan, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser encouraged the use of 1041 regulations so that communities have a “seat at the table in shaping the water projects that impact them.”
“Broadly speaking, a local government can use its 1041 powers to limit the negative impacts associated with the development of certain ‘areas’ or ‘activities of state interest.’ Such areas or activities might be related to everything from water infrastructure to buy-and-dry projects. Overall, these powers are intended to allow local governments to protect our lands, their value, and their use,” Weiser said.
“The only way a region like the San Luis Valley can be successful and have a real say in the water world is if it bands together.”
– attorney Barbara Green
CONVERSATIONS among county commissioners began in earnest early last summer following interest by Douglas County in the Renewable Water Resources proposal to pump 20,000 acre-feet every year out of the Valley to the Front Range bedroom community.
A visit by Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon last year to talk to RWR supporters in the San Luis Valley heightened concerns among county commissioners. Following Laydon’s visit, local county commissioners began conversations on how to counter both Douglas County’s interest and the ongoing efforts by Renewable Water Resources to export water from the Valley.
“I do still see a need and I feel good about the movement that’s been made,” said Alamosa County Commissioner Vern Heersink, who has been involved in the discussions from the beginning.
“I didn’t think we would have this much of a voice,” Heersink said, “and so it’s exciting to be working together with the other counties on a common goal.”
As headwater counties in the Upper Rio Grande Basin, there’s strength in numbers when it comes to battling water projects with smaller counties banding together to counter efforts by a large suburban county like Douglas County.
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments offers a template to the approach in how that region battled the Two Forks project in the 1990s.
“The only way a region like the San Luis Valley can be successful and have a real say in the water world is if it bands together,” said attorney Barbara Green. Her law firm, Sullivan Green Seavy, is advising the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments in the drafting of the intergovernmental agreement. The agreement itself has no regulatory effect but simply forms the “Joint Planning Area,” Green explained to commissioners at a meeting last week in Alamosa.
It’s the 1041 regulations that provide the teeth.
“I didn’t think we would have this much of a voice, and so it’s exciting to be working together with the other counties on a common goal.”
– Alamosa County Commissioner Vern Heersink
THE strategy could also provide a checkmate to Douglas County’s own interest to get into the business of being a water provider, which it currently is not.
At a recent Douglas County Commissioner work session, Laydon raised the idea of creating a volunteer water commission, similar to a county planning commission, to help Douglas County plan forward on securing water for its future needs.
“We know that the state does not have a concrete water plan. I think that’s to come,” Laydon said. “In the west and certainly in Douglas County we know that water is a top priority issue, a scarce resource that we need to have some long-range, thoughtful planning around.
“I think we’re overdue in Douglas County to really activate a water commission and have a comprehensive plan much like we do in transportation and our comprehensive master plan in land use.”
Bill Owens, former Republican governor of Colorado and RWR pitchman, has been courting Douglas County to buy into Renewable Water Resources. Attorneys hired by Douglas County have outlined the significant legal and logistical hurdles to the RWR proposal.
Having each of the San Luis Valley’s six counties adopt specific planning regulations around water exportation and enter into intergovernmental agreements adds another layer of local regulation around water projects.
The effort is not so Valley counties can meddle in each other’s business, said Heersink, but a specific response to any plans for water exportation.
“We want to prevent a diversion that takes the water out of the Valley,” he said.
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