DOUGLAS COUNTY– People were seated shoulder to shoulder for the meeting in the Douglas County Commissioners Hearing Room on Monday, the tables arranged in a square presumably to encourage a dialogue. Another ninety people were listening in online.
It was the third meeting in a series of six, all scheduled by the commissioners for a “due diligence” evaluation of a proposal by Denver water developer Renewable Water Resources (RWR) to receive $20 million of Covid relief money from Douglas County to fund the export of 22,000 acre feet of water every year from the San Luis Valley to the county on the Front Range.
“This is a conversation we have – almost like clockwork – about once a decade. Drill wells in the aquifer, and pipe water over the pass,” said Cleave Simpson, fourth generation farmer, rancher and general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in the San Luis Valley. “(RWR’s proposal) is an iteration of the same concept; this idea that there’s an ocean like aquifer of water largely unnoticed and untapped in the San Luis Valley. It’s a false premise on which to start the conversation.”
From RWR’s perspective, that conversation involves nothing but good news for all concerned. Douglas County, one of the wealthiest and fastest growing counties in Colorado, needs a new source of water to support their “economic growth, property value and way of life.” According to RWR’s proposal to Douglas County and their attorneys (some hired by RWR, others “referred”) who have been publicly speaking with the commissioners in the past two meetings, water in the San Luis Valley is the answer.
The valley, according to RWR, has an ample source of water stored in an “under-utilized” confined aquifer that is “only used for about 10% to 15%” of irrigation by farmers and ranchers. Via a “distinct pathway”, the confined aquifer will be recharged every year by precipitation and snowmelt, providing a “perpetual water supply” for Douglas County.
District 3 water rules – known as “one-for-one” - require RWR to replace as much water in the confined aquifer as they take out every year. But RWR proposes to go one better, claiming they will replace each acre foot extracted with 1.5 acre-feet of water, something that will help the San Luis Valley “heal” their aquifer and serve as “an alternative to water curtailment.” Colorado water court also mandates that “no harm, no injury” be caused to the environment, people or property – a provision that RWR attorneys and representatives unequivocally say is met by their project.
RWR’s side of the conversation paints a rosy scenario with no downside. Going one step further, in an editorial written by former governor and RWR associate Bill Owens published in Monday’s edition of Colorado Politics (Colorado’s water future demands facts, not fear | Opinion | coloradopolitics.com), and reprinted on today’s Courier page 4, opposition voiced by farmers, ranchers, water experts, conservationists and citizens is actually the work of “politicians” relying on “decades old, fear based talking points” and “worn out allegations” who “don’t value private property rights” and seek to “dismiss innovators.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Simpson, who also serves as state senator, who has publicly and repeatedly encouraged Douglas County Commissioners to hire a neutral third party to examine RWR’s proposal and report back on the accuracy of its claims. There is no evidence to suggest that neutral third-party review has been done.
On Monday, Simpson, along with other water experts from the San Luis Valley, reframed the conversation. “We need to start the discussion with facts,” he said.
Heather Dutton, a fourth generation native of the valley and manager of San Luis Water Conservancy District, laid out “notable events” with the intent to give “the whole picture” backed up by “data, science, case law and facts” so that commissioners can understand the “current state” of water resources in the valley.
Without directly saying so, Dutton’s refuted RWR’s premise that water in the SLV is in ample supply and has a reliable amount of annual recharge occurring from precipitation and snowmelt, that while varied, can be counted on to recharge the aquifers well in the future.
“The history of Colorado is written in water,” Dutton said, “and nowhere is that more apparent than in the San Luis Valley.” By 1890, surface water was over-appropriated, meaning there were more claims to the water in streams, tributaries and rivers than water available. By 1981, all water – including water in the confined and unconfined water both inside and outside of the closed basin – was over-appropriated.
Using histography that plots collected data measuring stream flows - a reflection of the precipitation and snowmelt that provides surface water and also recharges aquifers - Dutton illustrated “incredible variability” of water with huge shifts from year to year and place to place.
In the last 20 years, “stream flows have decreased dramatically” with an average loss per year of 89,000 acre feet and overall loss of 15%.
Likewise, in a Supreme Court ruling on the rules governing groundwater use – appealed and ultimately upheld by the higher court – a similar reality is reflected, as made clear in a statement by Judge John Kuenhold in the court’s 2004 ruling. The statement, which Dutton read aloud, appears to undermine RWR’s claim that recharge of the confined aquifer, while varied, is all but guaranteed into the future.
“The current rates of withdrawal from the [confined and unconfined] aquifers exceed their long-term rates of recharge, the result of which is a groundwater overdraft or groundwater mining of the entire aquifer system,” Kuenhold wrote.
In 2004, when that ruling was written, the San Luis Valley was in just the second year of a drought that continues to persist almost twenty years later.
Using a map of the 14,000 wells in the valley, Dutton reminded the commissioners that wells are not just for irrigation but also to provide “drinking water to homes, all of the towns in the valley and water for wildlife refuges, wetland complexes and other important natural resources.”
Monday’s conversation went beyond a historical perspective when water engineer Clinton Phillips narrowed in on specific areas where RWR hopes to extract 22,000 acre-feet.
The San Luis Valley is divided into response areas, a grouping of wells based on common hydrogeologic data created by the Rio Grande Decision Support System (RGDSS), the dynamic model that informs and guides valley water management.
In their proposal, RWR states that they will be pumping water from the “under-utilized” confined aquifer that, across the valley, is only responsible for providing 10% to 15% of water used for irrigation, a claim that Simpson has previously described as “false and misleading.”
A 2020 memorandum from the Division of Water Resources, Division 3, refutes RWR’s claim with a table showing that, in 2019, a total of 129,602 acre feet of water were pumped from the confined aquifers within the four response areas. In comparison, meters show that withdrawals in Subdistrict No. 1 – the unconfined area – show that, also during 2019 - 211,118 acre-feet were pumped, not accounting for recharge.
RWR’s well field, where they propose to install twenty-five wells, is located in the San Luis Creek Response Area. Phillips presented data showing that, over a five-year average, the San Luis Creek Response Area has been pumping 11,427 acre feet of water.
RWR hopes to almost double the amount of water extracted from the San Luis Creek Response Area each year. Phillips told the commissioners that the San Luis Creek Response Area is the only confined aquifer system that currently does not meet the prescribed pumping level outlined in the groundwater rules and regulations, further making it the only confined response area that is considered unsustainable.
Their five-year pumping average – again, 11,427 acre feet - is already 10% to 15% percent higher than it needs to be. Irrigators have several years to come into compliance and are currently working on solutions. That is before RWR begins, if successful in their bid, to double the amount of water being extracted.
For the first time in the conversation, Phillips posed questions specifically directed at RWR’s claims. “RWR has said they will replace water one-for-one, but it’s unclear how they will do that. How many tens of thousands of acres will they have to dry up to augment that much water?” Phillips also questioned their claim of “no harm, no injury” when they have not provided enough information to determine that is the case.
A different voice with a different perspective on the conversation came from Nathan Coombs, a farmer who fills a multitude of roles with water organizations in the valley. However, he chose to speak as a fifth generation farmer in Monday’s meeting.
“This isn’t a case of different views, it’s a case of different interests. Withdrawal will affect everyone on the confined aquifer. It will affect families, farms, the hospital, the school. Five generations of people have been looking for water and there is no ‘golden bullet’. We recognize we have so much more to work with so much less.
“But we imposed the rules on ourselves. We didn’t like it, but we agreed to put these rules and regulations on ourselves. And we’ve transcended political differences. We’ve all come together to work on this. We’re struggling to keep ourselves alive and here comes this predatory factor.“
Coombs then related advice he was given while on a mission trip earlier in his life. It’s advice he has since followed and suggests others might do the same. “You’re going to hear a lot of things, a lot of rhetoric. The most important thing is to consider the source and their motive.”
“These are emotional conversations,” Simpson said, wrapping up the presentations. “I have deep ties to the San Luis Valley. I’m the fourth generation in my family to farm, and I’m thinking about what the future holds for my son and my grandson. We suffer from an imbalance. Our demand exceeds our supply. We’ve spent the better of a decade trying to restore that balance with temporary fallowing, partnering with NRCS in recognition of water practices that are helpful and many other efforts all to improve our position.
“But when you look across the valley, there has been a continual degradation of our wetlands, both manmade and natural. There are declining river flows. Less irrigated agriculture. Declining aquifers. We know the efforts we’re taking have moved us in the right direction, even though mother nature hasn’t helped us. And we continue to come together as communities with voluntary efforts.
“We’ve not yet forced anyone to reduce. Last December, I signed $5 million in checks from funds raised by farmers to buy well permits. Producers tell me, ‘I don’t want my water rights to go someplace else. I want to be compensated but I want to benefit my community.’ This proposal won’t do that. This proposal will be harmful to our community.”