SAGUACHE — Sean Tonner with Renewable Water Resources (RWR), who is peddling a water export plan he says is finding support among farmers and ranchers in the Valley, presented his plan to the town of Saguache last month during a town board meeting.
A former chief of staff for Gov. Bill Owen, who supported the plan, Tonner also worked with former State Senator Greg Brophy and other government officials on the project. Currently Tonner owns the 11,500-acre Gary Boyce ranch, purchased from Boyce’s wife following his death. He also leases grazing land in the same area. Tonner says he will retire the water rights for 3,000 of those acres.
He also said he could possibly retire the water rights to, for example, North Star Farms, and other area farms and ranches.
Tonner claims less than two percent of the annual confined aquifer recharge — 500,000 acre-feet — is needed by the 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 including education, law enforcement, tourism, economic development, conservation and other worthy cause. The county would manage the fund. Just the interest would generate $3-4 million annually, twice the amount of the county’s sales tax grants.
The board just happened to have a resolution on its agenda that evening to oppose the export plan, and following Tonner’s presentation, informed him of the upcoming vote. But before the vote was taken, a guest in the crowd asked to speak. He had flown in all the way from California just to attend the meeting.
Opposition to the plan
Case Vandereyk. addressing Tonner, announced that he was the owner of North Star Farms and told those attending the meeting he had “no interest” in selling his water rights and was basically opposed to the plan. “I never talked to anyone about selling my water rights,” he concluded. His statement was met with resounding applause from the audience.
In his first appearance in the Valley following the 2018 election, Attorney General Phil Weiser cautioned Valley residents to view RWR’s proposals to pump water from the Valley “very skeptically” citing legal, economic, and ecological concerns. Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, whose family has farmed in the Valley for generations, also strongly opposes the plan.
Cleave Simpson, with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, formally opposes the plan and has stated that no matter what farmers and ranchers are offered for their water, he believes they will not sell.
Later on in the meeting, following Tonner’s presentation, the Saguache Town Board passed a resolution opposing the water transport project.
But Tonner continues his promotional campaign, touring the Valley to talk with SLV town boards and pitch his plan. So far he has made his presentation at 1,000 meetings Valley-wide, he reported to the Saguache Town Board. And he plans to continue to hold meetings until 2020.
Then he will begin his trek through the water courts. That, he estimates, will take about three to five years, so the journey is just beginning.
An article in the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that Tonner is making the rounds further north, too. In the little town of Henry, just outside of Colorado Springs, some farmers confirm they would consider selling their water to keep from losing their farms. Colorado Springs, however, has not met with RWR and city officials told the Gazette they have no intention of participating in export project.
The Gazette quotes Saguache County Commissioner Jason Anderson as saying he is trying “to keep an open mind” about the project, while admitting he has not talked to many who support the plan. Saguache County Commissioners Ken Anderson and Tim Lovato stated at a previous meeting they do not intend to sell their water, but to date the county has not passed a resolution against the plan.