DOUGLAS COUNTY — Douglas County Commissioners held a town hall meeting Thursday night, Dec. 9, to get public feedback on how to spend the $68.2 million the county received from the American Rescue Plan.
Despite being 200 miles away, people in the San Luis Valley tuned in to hear what the commissioners had to say, thanks to a Thursday morning alert from Cleave Simpson, state senator and general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
Renewable Water Resources (RWR), the Denver-based group attempting to purchase water rights in the San Luis Valley to export to Douglas County on the Front Range, submitted a request to Douglas County Commissioners to spend $20 million of COVID relief funds in advancing their plan to export water.
“I am reaching out to you as a key stakeholder who has joined us in opposing this detrimental water export plan,” Simpson’s alert read. “RWR continues to communicate that their plan has the support in the valley through the manipulation of a survey they conducted. I assure you this is not the case. We are organizing to fight this proposal. Please share this information with your network. We have worked together to successfully stop similar plans and we will do it again.”
RWR is up against some stiff competition. Not only are they requesting nearly a third of all money Douglas County received in COVID relief funding, but they are also only one of 17 proposals that, collectively, are requesting $247 million. And water is only one of five areas of priority the commissioners have set for funding.
But even within that field, the topic of water solicited the most comments from participants, both in person and online, and the most substantive comments from two of the three commissioners.
Commissioner Abe Laydon described himself as a Latino who has family roots in the San Luis Valley that go back five generations and said he would not want to do anything that would be harmful to the communities here.
“But I’m also not a fan of policies that would purport to keep people from the American Dream,” he said, “and there are members of my family who, frankly, struggle in southern Colorado. So, I would like to see people I know and people I don’t know be able to achieve that, if they choose to do so.”
Commissioner George Teal was slightly more definitive, stating he has interest in any project that brings water to Douglas County.
“Our job is to provide for the people in Douglas County. But I also grew up in Greeley County and spent summers working on irrigation, so I know how important water is,” he said. “But I want to take a look and see what the impacts actually are in the San Luis Valley and make sure we put together a win-win.”
The third commissioner, Lora Thomas, did not weigh in on the water one way or the other but has indicated that, without qualifying the statement, she is not in favor of taking action that would be injurious to another community.
San Luis Valley residents, both former and current, also made their sentiments known.
Jared Romero, a native of the San Luis Valley, said, “I believe if you approve the RWR proposal, you will be doing detrimental things to fellow Coloradoans. I ask you to consider the residents who live in the San Luis Valley and consider the current state of water in that region. The RWR proposal is in direct contradiction with the Colorado State Water Plan and will have detrimental effects on the three U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges, the Sand Dunes, national parks, wildlife, agriculture and tourism in the region. Additionally, the authors of this proposal appear to be taking water from a water-stressed, rural, Hispanic population and sending it to a predominately white, affluent, Front Range community.”
Another participant, who attended the meeting in person, said she had spent 20 years in the San Luis Valley with experience in land use and had worked to stop the last tran-basin diversion effort. She spoke about the importance of water in the aquifer supporting the Great Sand Dunes and how the Sand Dunes and other sites are national treasures, not just state or local.
“These are really important decisions you’re making and I ask you to make them with the state and the nation in mind,” she said.
Simpson sees significant problems with the proposal, not the least of which include blatantly false and misleading statements. But he and others are not taking it lightly.
“They have a lot of obstacles and challenges to do what they propose to do,” Simpson said. “This isn’t a new threat. They’ve been around trying to get this done for about three years and their premise directly contradicts everything we’ve been working to accomplish in the Valley. But we’re taking this seriously. And if this proposal advances any further, we’re prepared to meet them every step of the way. Until then, I strongly recommend the Douglas County Commissioners hire a third neutral party to examine the RWR proposal to see how many claims they’re making are inaccurate and how many others are just false.”
When asked for a comment on the proposal, Conor Cahill, press secretary for Governor Jared Polis, issued this statement on the governor’s behalf.
“The Governor continues to oppose the diversion of precious water resources from western Colorado,” the governor’s office stated. “The San Luis Valley has experienced some of the most severe drought conditions in the state. When we look at water in the West, and how we have adapted to the lack of it, and seasonality of it — the state has created a large, interconnected network where someone owns just about every drop. The Governor understands that solving this water shortage isn’t just an individual challenge, but it becomes a challenge involving many states, localities, tribes and individuals who have to work together. We are monitoring this situation, working to get more details, and would urge all involved to work together to protect our most precious resource.”