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Politics and Government

Renewable Water Resources wants Douglas County as the first customer for its San Luis Valley water export plan

The start up led by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and his former deputy chief of staff Sean Tonner, proposed a $20 million investment of COVID recovery money to lock in future water for Douglas County at rates cheaper than Front Range cities pay today

Gary Boyce's property Rancho Rosado sold to Sean Tonner of Renewable Water Resources after Boyce died. Tonner's company is planning a $600 million pipeline to bring water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By Chris Lopez,  Alamosa Citizen

For an initial payment of $20 million, Douglas County can become a partner of Renewable Water Resources in its plan to export approximately 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the San Luis Valley, according to an RWR proposal to the Douglas County Commissioners.

In its proposal to Douglas County, RWR said it currently owns approximately 9,800 acres in the San Luis Valley and has options to purchase an estimated 8,000 additional acres. “The Parties will enter into one or more agreements (the “Contract(s)”) governing the adjudication of approximately 22,000 acre feet of water per year (the “Water Rights”) in Water Division No. 3 (the “Water Case”),” according to the terms of agreement presented to Douglas County.

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The proposal establishes terms of value for the water rights that Douglas County would own and how it would get a fixed per annual acre-foot rate below current water market rates that other Front Range communities are paying.

cover of the RWR proposal to Douglas County

Download the proposal HERE

“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.”

MORE: As metro Denver grows, another caller wants to tap the vast aquifer under the San Luis Valley

The three Douglas County Commissioners are split on the proposal, based on interviews Alamosa Citizen conducted Tuesday with the county commissioners.

“As a Douglas County Commissioner, any opportunity to bring water into the county I think does bear serious consideration,” Commissioner George Teal said.

Douglas County has been seeking community input on how to spend $68.2 million of federal funding received through the American Rescue Plan Act. Securing additional water rights to meet its growth is one of the priority areas Douglas County has identified for the federal funding. 

Douglas County will host a Town Hall on Thursday to hear from residents on how to prioritize spending of the American Rescue Plan Act. The water rights proposal from RWR is one of the proposals expected to be discussed at the meeting.

Douglas County’s population grows by 24 people per day and is projected to reach more than 460,000 by 2031, including additional development in towns such as Castle Rock. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“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.”

Thomas has been on the short end of 2-1 county commissioner votes in Douglas County.

Teal and Commissioner Abe Laydon were supportive of RWR presenting their proposal in executive session earlier this year. Thomas was not. Both Teal and Laydon have also appeared in a social media campaign created by RWR backers called “Douglas County Future Fund” that expresses the need for Douglas County to secure more water to meet its growth.

“One thing I can tell you with certainty is that I will not make any decision that impairs the present or future citizens of the San Luis Valley,” Laydon said in a statement to Alamosa Citizen.

Later, in a telephone interview, he said he has family in Blanca and plans to come to the San Luis Valley to talk to residents before he decides whether to support the RWR proposal.

“I have not made any decisions and neither has my board,” Laydon said.

Renewable Water Resources needs to find a customer like Douglas County to move its proposal forward. The plan relies on drawing water from the Upper Rio Grande Basin and exporting it to the Front Range. Without an identified end user for the exportation and sale of the water, RWR can’t file its plan in Colorado Water Court.

If Douglas County moves ahead with RWR, State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa said RWR would need to acquire the water rights and then file in district water court a change to the water rights decree to go from agricultural use to municipal use. He said land RWR owns doesn’t have irrigation well water rights and that RWR would need to buy wells and well permits for its exportation plan.

MORE: The water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before

RWR spokesperson Monica McCafferty couldn’t be reached for comment.

“I take it very seriously,” said Simpson of the proposal before Douglas County Commissioners. “They need the water without a doubt. Reliance on the Denver Basin Aquifer is problematic. It’s going to run out. The pressure mounts on us in the Valley to protect our limited resource.”

The San Luis Valley encompasses 80,000 square miles of high altitude desert in southern Colorado, ringed on three sides by mountain ranges and filled with artesian wells which have slowly been sucked dry. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Simpson has met with the commissioners. He said that Douglas County thinking it can use money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for the RWR proposal is a twist he didn’t see coming.

“I think it’s unconscionable to use those federal dollars to diminish one community in support of another community,” he said. In addition to representing the San Luis Valley in the Colorado Senate, Simpson is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which is leading the opposition to the RWR plan.

Teal and Thomas said they expect to take up the RWR proposal in January once they get feedback from residents about the American Rescue Plan money.

“We have created and drafted our proposal to meet all Water Court criteria and are prepared to go through Division 3 Water Court in Alamosa,” RWR said in its plan to Douglas County.

Spearheaded by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and his former deputy chief of staff Sean Tonner, Renewable Water Resources is pitching its San Luis Valley water exportation proposal as a way for Douglas County to meet its future water needs without continuing to rely on the Denver Aquifer and other water resources that cities in Douglas County secure to meet their growth.

“Right now virtually every drop of water that you’re pulling from a tap here in Castle Rock originates from the Colorado River basin and Arkansas River basin,” said Teal, seeing a water exportation plan from the San Luis Valley to meet Douglas County’s needs in a similar light.

“RWR’s project offers Douglas County the opportunity to secure a renewable water supply independent from the Denver Aquifer,” according to the proposal. It goes on to say, “Douglas County Commissioners have a long track record of doing the right thing at the right time and our Commissioners today have a unique opportunity to protect the quality of life we currently know in Douglas County by securing a renewable water supply large enough to benefit the entire county. … Providing all factors that threaten water security from climate change to population growth to a strain on the Denver Aquifer – the RWR project can bring a county-wide solution to a county-wide problem.”