An overhead view of the South Platte as it meanders across northeastern Colorado on March 16. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Douglas County still wants to use some of its COVID relief funds to secure future water, but may spend it to store unused South Platte River flow after dropping a controversial proposal to buy water from the San Luis Valley.

The Douglas County Commissioners indicated they may help fund the major water proposal from Parker Water and Sanitation on July 11 when they unanimously directed staff to continue work on the project and asked them to provide options for how much funding they could supply.

“I think this is a good project for us to support with our ARPA dollars, it makes good sense for our citizens into the future,” Commissioner Lora Thomas said.

Commissioners George Teal and Abe Laydon both agreed. 

Parker Water’s project, the Platte Valley Water Partnership, would provide water for more than 300,000 people in Douglas County, including in Parker, Castle Rock and portions of Castle Pines and Lone Tree. It would also get the district to 75% renewable supplies, according to the project proposal.

To do so, they plan to partner with a water conservancy district in Sterling to capture excess South Platte River water in northeastern Colorado in high runoff years, store it and pipe it back to Parker. 

The proposal would capture about 20,000 acre-feet of renewable water per year that would otherwise flow from the state. The project won’t impact existing water rights and won’t allow buy-and-dry of nearby agriculture, said Ron Redd, Parker Water’s district manager.

In order to meet the district’s projected water demands, the project will need to be complete by 2040, Redd said.

Castle Rock Water is a partner in the project.

Parker Water estimates the overall cost of that project to be about $828 million. They asked commissioners to contribute $20 million of ARPA money for it. 

The water district was notified July 22 they’re a finalist for a portion of the funding and were asked to gather additional information for another presentation to the commissioners in about two months, Parker Water spokesperson Deirdre Mueller said. 

The commissioners have decided to focus their $68.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funding on seven areas: water and wastewater, homelessness, broadband, mental and behavioral health, wildfire suppression, economic investments and the intellectual and developmental disabilities community.

Douglas County needs more water to support about 300,000 people living in its cities, including Castle Rock. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

San Luis Valley project

At one point, the commissioners were considering using ARPA funds on a proposal from Renewable Water Resources, which would have pumped about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley, permanently drying up wells there. 

The project was heavily opposed by water conservancy districts, residents and environmental groups in the valley who said their agricultural community is already in a drought and can’t afford to lose more water.

Douglas County water providers all said they were not interested in using the San Luis water, in part because they have already heavily invested in other projects.

Teal was in support of the San Luis Valley plan and Thomas was opposed. Laydon remained undecided for many months while the county conducted informational meetings with various stakeholders about the project.

In May, Laydon announced he would vote against the county using ARPA dollars on the proposal after the county’s legal counsel concluded the project wasn’t eligible for the federal dollars.

“Right now there are simply too significant and enormous of hurdles for us to move forward on this project,” Laydon said at the time. “That’s not to say that we can’t explore this in the future, I think we certainly can, but RWR will have to do significant additional homework on all of these fronts to accomplish that.”

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter in Douglas County for Colorado Community Media. She has won awards for her reporting and photography. Elliott graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in editorial journalism and minors in both business and Spanish. She is also an avid rock climber, snowboarder and hiker. Twitter: @ElliottWenzler