The Crestone Eagle • March, 2022

Governor opposes RWR water export plan, US Senators Bennet & Hickenlooper concur, invoking Wirth Amendment

by Lisa Cyriacks

Governor Polis joins other Colorado elected officials in opposing the proposed water export plan by Renewable Water Resources (RWR).

Polis has issued a statement that he is: “against any inter-basin transfer without local support of impacted communities. This is a proposed inter-basin transfer with deep concerns and opposition in the San Luis Valley and the governor is opposed.”

Polis joins Colorado Attorney General, Phil Weiser, who has already expressed strong opposition to the trans-basin export.

Last week, US Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper issued a statement opposing the RWR proposal and invoking Public Law 102-575, also known as the Wirth Amendment. The Amendment, named for former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth, provides for review by the Department of the Interior prior to approval of any export of water from the San Luis Valley.

Senator Bennet hand delivered the letter expressing their opposition to Secretary of the Interior Haaland during her recent visit to Colorado. “After hearing concerns from our San Luis Valley constituents about this proposal for months, the District’s letter from yesterday, and considering Colorado’s current exceptional drought, we both oppose this proposal,” wrote Bennet and Hickenlooper. The letter is addressed to Haaland and USDA Secretary Tim Vilsack.

The two US Senators chimed in after receiving a letter from the Rio Grande Conservation District, charged with management of water resources in the Rio Grande Basin and the five counties in the San Luis Valley.

Douglas County Commissioners have been approached by RWR to partner in a water export scheme taking water from the San Luis Valley aquifers via pipeline to supply water for housing developments in their county taking water from the San Luis Valley aquifers via pipeline to supply water for housing developments in their county.

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.

Renewable Water Resources’ proposal to Douglas County is requesting $20 million in COVID relief funds to advance its plan to export agricultural water from the San Luis Valley.

The project by Renewable Water Resources, a water developer, proposes to tap 25 new groundwater wells in a “confined” aquifer in the valley. That would bring 22,000 acre-feet of water to the South Platte River and eventually to a yet-to-be unidentified water provider in Douglas County.

Struggling with water scarcity, changing climate, and aquifer depletion, many San Luis Valley residents object to the proposal. Farmers, ranchers and water managers in the San Luis Valley are gearing up for the fourth legal fight in as many decades to keep their water in its aquifer.

What’s at stake?

One need only look to eastern Colorado to see the dangers of buy-and-dry. From 1968 to 1985 farmers and ranchers in Crowley County sold over 90% of their shares in the Colorado Canal operations—the main source of water for irrigation in that county—to pay off debts following the collapse of the sugar beet industry. The sale retired over 90% of irrigated land in Crowley County and led to enormous ecological and social consequences. The resulting lack of water in the Colorado Canal system made it extremely difficult to deliver water to the remaining farmers who were legally entitled to it. Other consequences included dry lands, weeds, range fires, dust storms, population decline, and the loss of employment, resources and skills. Today, Crowley County is home to fewer than 30 farms. [Source: Water Exports and the SLV in Colorado, University of Colorado Law School, December 2020]

Colorado’s population has already ballooned and is projected to nearly double by 2050. One result is the growing demand for water on the Front Range.

The San Luis Valley is described as one of the most arid regions in Colorado, receiving less than 9 inches of precipitation annually. In recent years snowfall on the Sangre de Cristos has been perceptibly less, resulting in reduced stream flows and reduced recharge of the two aquifers below the valley floor.

Water in the San Luis Valley has already been determined by the Colorado Supreme Court to be over-appropriated resulting in legal presumption that any further diversion of water would harm senior water rights users. The result is that any further withdrawals must be replaced 100% by the new appropriator.

Since 2005, water users in the San Luis Valley have joined together in a massive effort to manage the total amount of water withdrawn from the aquifers to ensure a sustainable resource for future generations and the environment.