Protecting the lifeblood of the valley

In Colorado, water is life, fueling our farming, our outdoor recreation, and more. But with persistent droughts and reduced snowpack, we face unprecedented water management challenges. 

There is a right way, and a wrong way, to manage our water. Piping water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range is the wrong way. That’s why we oppose plans pushed by Renewable Water Resources (RWR).

Colorado’s Water Plan rejects “buy and dry” schemes like those we saw earlier in the Arkansas Valley. The Plan promises to support our agricultural communities, not destroy them wholesale. 

But despite that commitment, the Valley must again defend itself against a buy-and-dry scheme.  Last month, the RWR proposal was floated to Douglas County, asking for $20 million of federal rescue plan funds to pipe water used to irrigate farming community crops in the San Luis Valley to the Denver suburbs. 

This plan is wrong for Colorado, for the San Luis Valley, and even for Douglas County. Here’s why.

First, the plan buys up water rights historically used for irrigation. We’ve seen this before—water is sold off, farms dry up, local economies contract, communities are forever harmed. 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.  

Second, the project cannot comply with rules adopted by the State Engineer and confirmed by the Colorado Supreme Court. Those rules protect other vested water rights from injury, ensuring that Colorado does not violate the Rio Grande Compact. The RWR project seeks to change those rules. That would damage greatly whatever water rights remain in the Valley—and could undermine Colorado’s compliance with the Compact

RWR’s plan threatens other rules as well. Notably, it offers no hint as to how it could comply with current rules that require water users to maintain the sustainability of the confined aquifer in the San Luis Valley.

Instead of wasting $20 million in federal rescue funds on an undertaking that would harm the Valley, Douglas County should invest that money in other solutions—ones that don’t pit Coloradans against each other.

Thankfully, Douglas County commissioners are skeptical about this plan. Commissioner Thomas recently called the plan “irresponsible.” And Commissioner Laydon said he won’t take actions that harm the San Luis Valley. It’s heartening to see local elected officials consider not only what is best for their areas, but also for other communities and the State as a whole. 

Colorado faces important water management challenges, including providing sustainable water sources for the Front Range. Addressing those challenges will take hard conversations and intergovernmental collaboration. But no solution to solve those needs should be done at the expense of our agricultural communities. And we certainly should not use federal rescue dollars—meant to rebuild local economies, not decimate them—to backfill such a plan. Let’s put this plan where it belongs—the dustbin.

Phil Weiser is attorney general of for the state Colorado.
Cleave Simpson is a Colorado state senator representing district 35 and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District General manager.