RWR proposal to Douglas County is 'dead in the water'

DOUGLAS COUNTY — After months of “due diligence” meetings, including seven that were attended by water users, water organizations and water experts from the San Luis Valley, Douglas County Commissioners decided 2-1 to decline allocation of $10 million of ARPA funding to support water developer Renewable Water Resources’ proposal to export 11,000 acre-feet of water from the Valley to Douglas County.

The decision was made public in a work session on Tuesday, May 24, where Commissioner Abe Laydon, who had been the sole undecided vote of the three commissioners, indicated he would be voting against the proposal.

Laydon, who came to the Valley on April 23, had consistently said throughout the process that he would only support the proposal if it was a “win-win”. Yet, despite being presented with an abundance of data from numerous water experts with water conservation districts in the San Luis Valley that laid out the negative impact of exporting 22,000 acre-feet of water each year, Laydon still gave the appearance of being undecided.

Two memos the commissioners received addressed Laydon’s hesitation in making a decision.

The memos, both generated by Stephen Leonhardt — Douglas County’s legal counsel who attended the public meetings, including the one held April 23 — presented a 26-point list of significant obstacles the county would have to overcome if deciding to vote for the export, not the least of which involved the need to “develop a legislative strategy” to change state law and “numerous hurdles to obtain federal, state and county permits for the project”, including obtaining approval from the Secretary of the Department of Interior.

As the memo explains, that may be problematic in relation to the Wirth Amendment, which specifically applies, at the federal level, to conditions that must be met for any project to export water from the San Luis Valley.

The memo also suggests that that will be a solo effort, stating, “The RWR project is not consistent with the Colorado Water Plan so it likely will not qualify for any state assistance in meeting permit requirements.”

Many of the points also validated concerns raised numerous times by opponents throughout the meetings, such as “RWR has not yet developed an augmentation plan in sufficient detail”, “there is no unappropriated water available in the confined aquifer for RWR’s proposed pumping" and RWR is presenting an inaccurate picture of how much water is available.

Throughout the due diligence meetings — plus an op-ed written by former governor Bill Owens who was closely tied to the RWR effort — those concerns were either ignored or summarily dismissed as being invalid.

Given that RWR’s entire proposal was based on receiving $10 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds from Douglas County, point number 26 — the last point listed by Leonhardt — was significant in its own right: “The RWR proposal is not eligible for ARPA funds under current federal regulations.”

When asked for a comment about Commissioner Laydon’s announcement that he would be voting against the proposal, Commissioner Lora Thomas — who was a vocal opponent of supporting the project from the beginning — said, “I wrote an op-ed in January of this year opposing the plan to take water from the San Luis Valley after researching the issue. I’m pleased to, finally, after spending $40,000 on private water counsel and numerous hours and efforts by many others, get a second no vote to put an end to this matter.”

In a statement posted on the SLV Coalition “Save Our Water” website, Senator Cleave Simpson said, “This is good news for the San Luis Valley, and it speaks to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who spoke out against this unviable proposal. The San Luis Valley residents, water providers, environmental and conservation groups, agricultural interests, businesses and even many Douglas County residents submitted letters expressing opposition and attended numerous work sessions presenting a mountain of evidence why the RWR proposal is not a win for Douglas County nor the San Luis Valley. We greatly appreciate Governor Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser, Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, and Congresswoman Lauren Boebert and other leaders who joined us in this fight. We will remain vigilant to continue to monitor Douglas County’s ongoing discussions with RWR to ensure that we continue to fight this at every turn.”