Senators Bennet, Hickenlooper, Gov. Polis oppose plan to export groundwater from San Luis Valley to Douglas County

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Colorado’s two U.S. senators will oppose a project being considered by Douglas County commissioners to import groundwater from the San Luis Valley. The senators announced their opposition to the proposal in a press release on Feb. 21, 2022.

Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper also asked the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to step in if they are asked to review the project.

“This export proposal continues to seek funding to move forward despite the fact it would exacerbate local water challenges, even with conservation efforts,” according to the joint statement. “In addition to concerns from the (Rio Grande Water Conservation District), five San Luis Valley counties are opposed to this proposal.”

Who is RWR?

RWR executives, which include former Governor Bill Owens and his former staff member Sean Tonner, are behind the plan to export water from the San Luis Valley. Their full list of partners is included in the proposal they submitted to Douglas County. The “team” includes former politicians, lobbyists, real estate and private equity investors who stand to make a lot of money. The company owns Rancho Rosado, just north of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, which is where they plan to install wells to pump the deep aquifer. The stated need for the water is to support population growth and development on the Front Range.

According to the proposal RWR is offering Douglas County a fixed per annual acre-foot rate below current water market rates:

In consideration for the Initial Payment, the Purchase Price for the water rights will be fixed at $18,500.00 per annual acre foot. At that Purchase Price, the Water Rights would be substantially below their current market value, especially for trans-basin water that can be used to extinction. Currently, metro districts and other water service providers in the Colorado Front Range are acquiring water rights for more than $40,000-$50,000 per acre foot for senior rights. With an early investment in RWR, the County can take a leadership role in securing renewable water rights at a significant discount.

Douglas County’s commissioners have been hosting “due diligence” meetings since Jan. 18 to consider if they will spend up to $20 million of their federal COVID relief dollars on the initial investment required under the proposal.

The three-person board is so far split over the topic with Commissioner George Teal in support and Commissioner Lora Thomas against:

“I think it’s irresponsible for the Front Range to take water from other communities,” Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas told Alamosa Citizen. “I know that everybody needs water, but we need to do this respectfully and we need to do this with people, not to people.”

The project proposes pumping 22,000 acre-feet of water out of the San Luis Valley’s confined aquifer every year and transferring it to Douglas County. RWR has said the plan wouldn’t cause any harm whatsoever but representatives from water conservation districts in the San Luis Valley have said the opposite.

“After hearing concerns from our San Luis Valley constituents about this proposal for months, the (Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s) letter from yesterday, and considering Colorado’s current exceptional drought, we both oppose this proposal,” wrote Bennet and Hickenlooper.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hickenlooper and Bennet pointed to Public Law 102-575, also known as the Wirth Amendment, which requires any project exporting water from the San Luis Valley not adversely affect public resources, according to the release. “We ask for your attention under the Wirth Amendment, if an opportunity for review comes before your agencies,” according to the letter.

The proposal has also had public opposition from Governor Jared Polis and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who wrote a joint op-ed with state Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa.

“We’ve seen this before — water is sold off, farms dry up, local economies contract, communities are forever harmed,” Simpson and Weiser wrote in a joint op-ed in the Alamosa Valley Courier. “In the case of the Valley, the RWR plan comes at a time when we are desperately working to manage a depleted aquifer and protect this community’s future.”

Water for Colorado, a coalition made up of advocacy groups like Conservation Colorado and The Nature Conservancy, also announced they will oppose the RWR project:

Our coalition urges collaborative solutions to Colorado’s water supply concerns that do not irrevocably harm one community in favor of another," according to a statement from the coalition.

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