by Lisa Cyriacks

Seeking community support, Renewable Water Resources managing partner Sean Tonner spoke to a crowded room at the Saguache County Road & Bridge meeting room on April 9. 

The meeting was primarily a pitch to Saguache County about the benefits the project could provide to the residents. Central to that pitch is a $50 Million Community Fund that could be used for much-needed services. 

In exchange, Renewable Water Resources is hoping for, if not outright support, then no opposition as The San Luis Valley Project wends it way through the courts. 

Tonner opened with a timeline that extends years into the future. Yet he balanced that with the growing urgency for water on the (lower) Front Range—as much as one-half the annual recharge to the San Luis Valley Aquifer. 

A former chief of staff for Governor Bill Owen, Tonner also worked with former State Senator Greg Brophy and other government officials on the project. Currently Tonner owns the 11,500-acre Rancho Rosado Ranch, purchased from Gary Boyce’s wife following his death. 

The plan is to export 22,000 acre-feet of water. Tonner’s PowerPoint presentation outlines the following benefits to the San Luis Valley:

  • Development of >2% of the annual recharge of the Aquifer (confined) would provide a significant new renewable source of water for the Front Range
  • Farmers and ranchers could voluntarily sell a portion or all of their water rights at 2x market prices in the SLV. Over $60m has been set for retiring water rights
  • The 22k acre foot project will retire more than 30K acre feet, creating a much needed benefit of reducing overall use on the Basin
  • The project would lessen the pressure on existing rivers and streams that currently provide water to the Front Range.
  • The project is working within the goals set out by the Statewide Water Supply Plan
  • No negative impacts to wildlife as the water will come from over 600 feet below ground.

Tonner reported at the meeting that already enough Saguache County farmers and ranchers have agreed to sell their water rights to satisfy the 22,000 acre-feet project. 

Are the promises made too good to be true? 

Renewable Water Resources is offering very similar benefits as those proposed by Stockman’s Water in 1998, a project that ultimately failed. 

Stockman’s Water proposed to export at least 100,000 acrefeet annually, mitigating any water losses by offering, in exchange, 25,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of senior water rights. 

Gary Boyce, the manager/ owner of Stockman’s Water, also promised a $3 million trust fund to be administered by Saguache County, and environmental benefits: more riparian and wetland habitat. Renewable Water Resources offers the potential opportunity to add over 3,000 acres to the Baca Wildlife Refuge located off of County Road T. 

As with previous export proposals (AWDI and Stockman’s Water), the question remains: How much water is really in the aquifer? There are two aquifers that lie beneath the valley floor. One is the confined aquifer that is trapped below a series of clay lenses deep beneath the valley floor. The other is the unconfined aquifer that is generally found within the first 100 feet of the surface. 

The water of the unconfined aquifer functions very much like surface water. The recharge of this important commodity comes from runoff from the mountain snowpack. The unconfined aquifer supplies 85% of agricultural well water. 

The aquifers and well levels have been monitored since 1970, when accurate measurements were first available. Since that time, there have been notable trends in the increase and decrease of the aquifer and well levels. The water table itself has seen a significant and steady decline, partly due to the sheer number of wells that have been drilled. More water has been taken than replaced. The worst decrease was the extreme drought that began in 2002. Historically speaking, demand has simply outweighed supply. 

Much has changed for water users since the days of AWDI and Stockman’s Water. In an effort to replace depletions and rebuild the aquifer, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District implemented the creation of sub-districts in the valley. Under this model of water management, farmers agreed to levy fees on themselves for water consumed and provide themselves “credits” for water added to the system through surface water. 

The future of water in the San Luis Valley remains uncertain. More certain is that valley citizens are banding together to meet the challenge of water export and oppose “yet another” plan to pump water out of the basin. Many of the same players are still present, like Chris Canaly of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council who isn’t buying the idea that water is a renewable resource or that this water export plan is offering anything new. 

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District in January 2019 passed a resolution opposing the proposal from Renewable Water Resources, challenging the legality of whether or not water should leave the Rio Grande Closed Basin. Saguache County representatives on the District Board, Peggy Godfrey and Bill McClure, both voted in favor of the resolution. 

At a recent water symposium held at Adams State College, newly elected Attorney General Phil Weiser advised valley residents to view proposals currently being developed to pump water from the valley “very skeptically” from legal, economic, and ecological perspectives. 

There is certainly a great deal of importance to consider when it comes to water for agriculture, the people and the future of the San Luis Valley. 

Water in the San Luis Valley is a unique situation that will require a unique solution. So far, Renewable Water Resources does not appear to be offering anything new