Local governments in the San Luis Valley have a new tool to protect their water resources: a regional review process for projects that propose taking the valley’s water and exporting it for use elsewhere.
Like in many communities around Colorado, local officials want to keep a tight grip on their water. Groundwater aquifers, rain, snow and rivers provide drinking water, support wildlife and keep the region’s primary economic engine, agriculture, running. But over the decades, several developers have proposed projects that would take water out of the valley and send it to places like water-short communities on the Front Range.
Communities in the valley say they don’t have water to spare. Local officials were left with a problem: They could review permit applications for water export projects within their jurisdiction — and they knew that what happens with one community’s water resources impacts others in the valley. Yet, they didn’t have a way to weigh in when a water export project was proposed to their neighbors.
That is, until September when — after months of negotiations — local governments finally signed on to an agreement that sets the foundation for a joint review process.
“I think everybody’s breathing a big sigh of relief that finally all the counties have signed,” Saguache County Commissioner Tom McCracken said. “I’m getting feedback from the public that everybody’s really happy about it.”
The San Luis Valley is a high-elevation desert in southern Colorado that is home to 46,000 people. It’s a flat expanse bordered by the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges to the east and west and by Poncha Pass to the north and the New Mexico border on the south.
Because of the dominance of agriculture in the region, local jobs and livelihoods are tied to the Rio Grande Basin’s rivers and streams or the underground aquifers that feed crops each year.
That water supply is shrinking. The San Luis Valley aquifer is missing about 1 million acre-feet, which is about the size of Blue Mesa, Colorado’s largest artificial reservoir, McCracken said. The depletion has impacted the flow of water through streams, irrigation ditches and from one farm to its neighbor. Acres of wetlands have dried and wildlife has disappeared, he said.
“So, yes, we’re facing serious issues with water,” McCracken said.
Once water leaves the basin, it doesn’t come back. Local economies and the sustainability of water resources were top of mind for officials as they considered a regional approach to reviewing water projects that proposed exporting water out of the valley.
“If there’s a dwindling supply of water in the region, it makes sense to want to keep it (water) in the region,” said Louis Fineberg, Creede’s town manager. There, the economy is driven more by tourism than agriculture. Houses draw water from wells that tap into the aquifer, he said.
“If the aquifer diminishes or if the levels drop, then in theory, people could be out of a water supply,” Fineberg said.
This summer, local officials held public hearings, debated and eventually approved the first step in that regional approach: an intergovernmental agreement that established a joint planning area and a joint planning board.
The geographic area covers six counties in the valley: Alamosa, Costilla, Conejos, Mineral, Saguache and Rio Grande. The planning board includes representatives from counties and local towns and cities.
When a town or county — one that is part of the intergovernmental agreement — receives a permit application for a project that proposes exporting water for use outside the valley, that triggers a joint planning board review. The joint review process does not apply to projects in which the water is used in the valley.
The joint planning board scrutinizes whether the project meets permitting regulations then makes a recommendation to either approve, deny or approve the proposal as long as certain conditions are met.
This regional review occurs simultaneously with the local review by the county or municipality with permitting authority. Those officials make the ultimate decision, but they have to take the joint board’s recommendation into consideration.
This level of regional collaboration on water issues is unique in Colorado, although communities in northwestern Colorado, near the headwaters of the Colorado River, have taken a similarly collaborative approach in managing their water resources.
It’s also an idea that’s gaining momentum. In fact, regional collaboration on water issues was one of the top recommendations in a 2022 analysis from the Common Sense Institute.
The joint agreement was designed to go into effect once all six counties officially agreed to join, although two towns, Creede and Hooper, also joined. Mineral County was the last of eight local governments to approve it, signing on in early September.
There are still several remaining steps in the process, including designating water export projects as “matters of state interest” under state statute and updating related regulations at the local level. Once a local government officially makes the designation, a pause on reviewing new export proposals goes into effect until the regulations are finalized.
“Over the last several decades there have been attempts to divert this resource to areas outside the Rio Grande Basin, and there have been few if any regulations to adequately protect this vital resource,” Alamosa County officials said in an emailed statement.
In the past, American Water Development Inc., the late Gary Boyce of Stockman’s Water, and Sean Tonner of Renewable Water Resources have explored projects that would export water from the valley.
Alamosa officials wrote that having these regulations in place provides an additional layer of protection for water resources.
“Our goal is to make sure that any project that proposes to divert water out of the area is properly vetted by everyone who will be impacted. Without a regional agreement, this would not be possible,” the county officials wrote.
Other local officials voiced similar sentiments. The underground aquifers are not divided by political lines, so it’s important for the valley to be able to work together on issues that affect each other, McCracken said.
The hoped-for outcome would be to limit the economic impact of water scarcity and to create a tool for sustainability, said Costilla County Commissioner Steven Romero, who farms and ranches in the area.
“At what point do you make the growth sustainable? Do you just put pipelines everywhere because that’s where the growth is happening?” he said. “Just from a sustainability standpoint, where do you draw the line? Do you just continue to pump until there’s nothing left, and then what happens?”
He thought back to how his family arrived in the area six generations ago and planned to provide for future generations.
“We’ve largely been disconnected from our roots and the way our ancestors provided this world for us. I think a lot of them would be ashamed of how we look at the world and how selfishly we live,” Romero said. “We need to think about things in a way that isn’t just about the here and now. … (The agreement) is just another tool in the toolbox to be able to maybe combat the shortsightedness and short-term thinking that our society is dominated by.”