Valley water export plan presented

At a Rio Grande Water Conservation District special meeting on Thursday from left are Sean Tonner, Kevin Kinnear and Jerry Berry, Renewable Water Resources, which is proposing to export 22,000 acre feet of water from the San Luis Valley to south Denver metro./Courier photo by Ruth Heide

ALAMOSA — Although the faces are new, the proposal is not.

As predecessors before them, Renewable Water Resources spokesmen on Thursday outlined plans for a 22,000-acre-foot water export project stemming from the northern San Luis Valley to customers in the south metro Denver area.

“This will be a win-win,” Sean Tonner told the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) board during a special meeting Thursday morning.

Tonner is a managing partner with Renewable Water Resources (RWR), a Colorado company with support from former Governor Bill Owens (for whom Tonner worked as deputy chief of staff when he was governor), former State Senator Greg Brophy, Greg Kolomitz and others. Tonner said he purchased the former Gary Boyce holdings encompassing 11,500 acres in the northern part of the Valley. Boyce, who died of cancer in 2016, had proposed a similar water export project.

Accompanying Tonner were RWR attorney Kevin Kinnear and Jerry Berry, who manages the RWR property and has been farming in the northern part of the Valley since 1996. Berry said he has been part of the Moffat community most of his life, serving on the school board there and on the RGWCD Sub-district #4 board.

Tonner said RWR wants to partner with the water district in identifying the best sources of water to provide the one-for-one replacement for the 22,000-acre-foot export while meeting the water district’s goals of reducing irrigated acreage and bringing balance to the hydrology of the Valley. The project would budget $60 million for that water acquisition.

Tonner said RWR estimates water could be purchased at about $2,000 an acre foot, depending on the water rights. RWR will be purchasing both surface water and groundwater, he said.

Berry said there are local residents interested in selling their water.

RGWCD Board Member Peggy Godfrey added she would not be surprised that there were people in the northern part of the Valley willing to sell their water, because they have not been able to use it to the full extent they should have been able to, and what RWR could offer them might help them afford to continue doing what they love to do.

Tonner said RWR would rather work with the water district than have an adversarial relationship. He said this project would return “one for one plus”, making up for the 22,000 acre feet that would be exported, “plus” for a total of 30,000-35,000 acre feet. In addition, RWR would set up a $50 million community fund.

“That money could be spent on everything from schools to law enforcement to conservation easements,” Tonner said.

Water would be piped from the Valley, with the buyers footing the bill for that pipeline, Tonner said. He added that RWR was requiring the buyers to limit the size of the pipe to no more capacity than the 22,000 acre feet.

He said currently the estimated cost of building the pipeline is $550-600 million.

RGWCD Board President Greg Higel said he doubted that Aurora and Castle Rock would want to build a pipeline just for 22,000 acre feet of water, and if it were constructed for more water, “that’s the beginning of the end.”

Tonner said the partners have been clear about the pipeline restrictions and the sellers are fine with it.

“Honestly, that’s hard for me to believe,” Higel said.

RGWCD Board Member Cory Off, who extensively questioned the RWR representatives, asked how long it would take to capitalize a project of this magnitude, and Tonner said “roughly five years.”

Regarding the project timeline, Tonner estimated close to 10 years “start to finish.”

Tonner said partners have been working on this proposal for about four years and hope to file something in water court in 2019 but would be fine with it taking longer if necessary. He said those involved have been working with individuals on both sides of the hill — potential waters sellers in the San Luis Valley and potential water buyers in the Denver metro area.

Communities on the Front Range have the wherewithal and the need to pay a premium for the water, Tonner said.

He said partners have had numerous community meetings in Saguache and nearly 150 one-on-one meetings across the Valley.

RGWCD Board Member Bill McClure from Saguache said he was not aware of any community meetings that had been held in the area, and Saguache County Commissioner Tim Lovato said the group had not yet visited with the commissioners, which he invited them to do.

RGWCD Board Member Armando Valdez said he was concerned about the impact this would have not only immediately but also in the long term to the entire San Luis Valley.

McClure also raised concerns about land being dried up in Saguache County. “We already have a lot of chico bushes in Saguache County,” he said. “We don’t need any more.”

Tonner said water rights would be retired as part of this proposal, but he understood that was something the water district was trying to do as well. He said RWR would work with willing sellers.

The water purchases would be throughout the Valley, he added so that not just one area would be affected, Tonner said.

Higel said the water district and Valley have been fighting this type of water export proposal for 40 or more years. “I am sitting up here shaking even listening to an export scheme,” he said. “It doesn’t sit right with me, I will be honest with you. I want to go out and work the cows so I can calm down a little bit.”

State Representative Donald Valdez said, “I am heartily against the export of water out of the San Luis Valley. It is the first step to diminish our communities and agricultural way of life here in the San Luis Valley.”