Water proposal bad idea for region, Douglas County

As one of your Douglas County commissioners, I make daily decisions that impact the health, safety and welfare of more than 370,000 citizens of Douglas County. I always take each of those decisions seriously, but the pending decisions regarding American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are unprecedented in importance. The $68.2 million, spent appropriately, can improve lives and actually change the face of Douglas County. If misspent, we will squander a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity.

The county has received about $300 million in requests for ARPA funds, but one proposal, by Renewable Water Resources (RWR), requests $20 million (roughly a third of the total Douglas County allotment of ARPA funds) to bring water from Colorado’s San Luis Valley to Douglas County by securing the ability to purchase water rights. This proposal fails to identify how the water will be transported to Douglas County.

In Colorado, we have always faced the difficulties of living in an arid region. As scarcity of water becomes the norm, managing and distributing water for Colorado’s growing population is increasingly challenging, not only for Douglas County, but our neighbors in the San Luis Valley, who have been grappling with managing limited water resources for decades.

The San Luis Valley receives the least average amount of annual precipitation in Colorado. The valley’s robust agriculture economy is bolstered by water from rivers that flow from the surrounding mountains and a set of two aquifers below the valley’s surface. A portion of those river flows must be sent downstream to New Mexico under the requirements of the Rio Grande Compact; ditches and canals must be turned off throughout the growing season to ensure Colorado’s Compact obligations are met. Because water rights from rivers are inherently variable, the valley’s water users have turned to groundwater for agriculture, residential, municipal, and wildlife needs.

Unfortunately, groundwater supplies have become oversubscribed and can no longer keep up with use. While the streams that flow into the valley’s Closed Basin used to recharge the aquifer in wet years, those wet years haven’t been as prevalent in the last two decades as they were historically. Therefore, the groundwater supplies in the valley have declined to the point that Colorado’s State Engineer issued Rules and Regulations for Division 3 (the Upper Rio Grande Basin) that require well users to mitigate their impacts to streams and to find ways to collectively increase aquifer levels. If the community cannot restore the aquifers to sustainable levels, the state engineer will be forced to cap wells.

I provide this summary of San Luis Valley water use to emphasize that they have no available water to export to Douglas County or anywhere else. All valley water is earmarked. Any new uses must shortchange irrigated agriculture to make that water available. The claims in RWR’s proposal that there is unused water in the valley are flatly contradicted by numerous court rulings and the very need for the state engineer to issue rules strictly governing water use.

If RWR were to move forward with the project to export water from the San Luis Valley, tens of thousands of acres of productive agriculture ground would be sacrificed to make water available for Front Range users. This action would have far-reaching impacts on the economies, communities, and wildlife that depend on irrigated agriculture in the San Luis Valley.

I have been firmly opposed to RWR’s proposal since I learned of it and did the necessary research. Douglas County government is not a water provider — it has no water customers. I have spoken with each of the major water providers in the area, and RWR’s proposal is not part of any of their future strategies. ARPA guidelines preclude buying water rights and obtaining water for future population needs. Moreover, I believe it is morally and ethically wrong to take water from the valley under the circumstances described above.

It is time for the Douglas County commissioners to start evaluating numerous, serious and qualified applicants for ARPA funds, which include improving the county’s mental health system, investing in water and wastewater infrastructure along the Highway 85 corridor, increasing the renewable water supply for Douglas County’s existing and expanding customer base through the Platte Valley Water Partnership and investing in services to support our burgeoning older adult population.

Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas represents District 3.