Citizens pose water transport questions

Cleave Simpson, Rio Grande Water Conservation District general manager, addresses attendees at the public meeting held last week in Saguache to discuss water transport from the Valley.

SAGUACHE— For those who haven’t taken advantage of the ready availability of marijuana cash crops in Saguache County, there is always the prospect of selling their water for use by I-25 corridor inhabitants, in order to generate funds for retirement or that dream project.
But at what price?

That is what citizens attending a recent meeting at the Saguache County Road and Bridge Building were asking Renewable Water Resources (RWR) managing partner Sean Tonner and RWR engineer Bruce Lytle last Thursday. Once again, a good-sized crowd attended the public meeting, which was not advertised by the county as a public meeting on its website.  

Nevertheless, all of those signing up to speak were given their turn and several interesting issues were raised. Most of them concerned the environment and the renewability of the aquifer, which is not a given according to government studies.

Tonner began the meeting by reviewing his plan to export water to the southern portion of the Front Range. Currently he owns the 11,500-acre Gary Boyce ranch and leases grazing land in the same area. Tonner claims less than two percent of the annual confined aquifer recharge — 500,000 acre-feet — is needed by the southern Front Range. Farmers could sell all or a portion of their water rights to RWR for twice the going amount. A total of $60 million has been set aside to procure water rights.

Already enough Saguache County farmers and ranchers have agreed to sell their water rights to satisfy the proposed 22,000 acre-feet project, Tonner reported. The plan is said to be able to retire more than 30,000 acre-feet, reducing the overall usage from the basin. This would presumably lessen the pressure on existing rivers and streams now providing water to the Front Range.

A pipeline along Highway 285, restricted to a 22,000-acre-foot capacity, would carry the water up over Poncha Pass into Chaffee County and from there it would eventually make its way into the Platte River. There would be no adverse impact on wildlife, Tonner claims. The project would create a $50 million community fund for the county that could be used for a variety of purposes.
Citizens ask questions
Below, questions from last Thursday’s meeting will be listed by topic and most but not all names of those posing the questions will be mentioned.
How is this different from past projects?

Tonner: There wasn’t a community fund and it wasn’t one-for-one. If it was it was a lot smaller.

What about drought and climate change? (Lisa Rosen)
Tonner: No one can factor in [drought or] climate change; I can’t predict.

What does pumping
22,000 acre-feet do to upstream flow? (Bill McClure)
Lytle: When water comes down from the Sangres, very little water moves over the ground, so a lot of this recharge ends up in the aquifer.

You’ve already put out
$5-10 million on this so why isn’t a half million in a trust fund already? (Bill McClure)
Tonner: I love the idea — I’m open

Appropriated water can never be returned to owners.
Tonner: They can have a say in water court.

Will we have access to water models? (from a hydrologist)
Lytle: The basic format of the RGSS model won’t change.

How do you know the confined aquifer goes below sea level?
Lytle: U.S. Geological Survey studies have shown this for a long time. It goes down 2,000 to 3,000 feet, into saline water, then down to 12,000 feet.
Are commissioners ready to sell their water rights? (Skye Wright)
Ken Anderson: No, not well rights. Tim Lovato: No, not water rights.

Plants won’t survive and ranches will dry up; there’s no more standing water.
Lytle: The confined aquifer affects vegetation, not the unconfined aquifer. We are talking about the unconfined aquifer.

I’m against the project. We beat AWDI, Stockman’s and we’ll beat you. (John Werner)

I agree with John Werner. (Tom McCracken)

This is magic thinking. This place is very special, and I will work very hard to protect it. (Chris Canaly)

General comments
The studies done on the unconfined aquifer in the 1970s have been updated and show that the storage capacity today is much less. No one really knows how much water there is in the unconfined aquifer. Water is a global problem; if the water goes, we go.

Rep. Donald Valdez (D) said the project “will harm the environment and I am worried about fires.” He told commissioners he hopes they make a good decision, but indicated he is opposed to the project.
“No one else in the state has this complex of a (water) hydrology,” Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Cleave Simpson said at the end of the meeting. “We are not under a court order to shut off unconfined wells. Last year’s drought set us back five years. I expect there will be an opportunity to have a discussion.


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