by Lisa Cyriacks

Edward Tower of Sustainable Water Resources (SWR) of Denver met with Saguache County Commissioners in October to revisit the plan proposed to allow water to be piped from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range.

The SWR Project is located on privately owned ranches in the northern part of the valley. Gary Boyce, a private landowner, came before the commissioners in July of 2014 to outline the proposed plan.

SWR is proposing to annually develop 35,000 acre feet of water from the confined aquifer. State law requires that this water be augmented with purchased water on a one-for-one basis. The project is also required to meet the sustainability requirements of the new rules and cannot injure senior water rights owners.

The proposal provides for owners of water rights to willingly sell their water rights and cap the wells or retire them from pumping. The proposal does not include surface water rights.

According to their website, SWR currently owns 25,000 acres of deeded ranch lands with senior water rights, and will purchase remaining water rights from other individuals to reach 35,000 acre feet.  The developed water will then become a trans-basin diversion into the Platte River Basin, if so decreed by the water court.

The water court is mandated to use the state engineer’s RGDSS Groundwater Model to determine that the correct science is applied to the project.

Commissioner Jason Anderson brought up past failed attempts by Gary Boyce to export water. The continuing threat to San Luis Valley water actually goes back to the 1980s when Canadian billionaire Maurice Strong formed American Water Development, Inc. (infamously known as AWDI) to exploit the groundwater under the Baca Ranch—now protected as the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

Shortly after AWDI’s defeat in water court, Gary Boyce made his own attempt to sell the water under the Baca Ranch, doing business as Stockman’s Water in the mid-1990s. Boyce lost then. Now he’s back under a new name, Sustainable Water Resources.

When challenged about what made this proposal different than historical attempts to export water, Tower responded that a few things were different. First, the scale of the project is much smaller and is capped at 35,000 acre feet. It is also more community-friendly, since the plan also hinges on 35,000 acre feet in water being acquired and the corresponding wells being capped—which will require the cooperation of neighbors to agree to participate. Thirdly, the plan allows that people can sell their water and profit from that sale.

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District board made its position clear at its meeting on July 22, 2014, however. “The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is not interested in accepting his [Boyce] $150 million offer to buy their cooperation and the Valley’s cooperation in the 35,000-acre-foot export proposal,” attorney David Robbins said. “We will wait and see how it develops, and the board should expect to meet in special meetings if/ when an application is filed in water court.” The RGWCD Board voted unanimously to reject Boyce’s proposal.

At that time Robbins stated that although Boyce has not filed any application in water court to export 35,000 acre feet of water           from the valley in a trans-basin diversion, he has filed a series of change cases in which he is trying to move around his water rights on the ranches he owns in the Villa Grove area.

The Saguache County Commissioners asked Tower if the Douglas County Commissioners were on board with the project. During the meeting it came to light that Saguache County Chair Ken Anderson had met with Douglas County Commissioner Jill Repella to discuss Douglas County’s interest in the water.

This was after Jill Repella told the Rio Grande Water Conservation District representatives in 2014 that her county was interested in sustainable water supplies but not if it would ruin another part of the state.

Tower clarified that at this time, he is not asking the commissioners to support the project, only not to oppose it. He suggested language phrased as “no specific opposition at this time”.

Tower also reiterated caveats to the proposal: not binding on any future board of county commissioners, only willing sellers, the water export would be capped at 35,000 acre feet, a local board would be established to manage the community fund, and the entire agreement would be adjudicated through water court.

The community fund would receive $50 million or $2 million dollars year.  Uses for that money would be established by a local board, and could be used for schools and kids, money to entice companies into the county for the economy, renewable energy and energy independence.

Commissioner Jason Anderson told Tower that commissioners would take what he said under advisement and discuss the matter. They did not express interest in supporting the project. No decision was made at the October 13 meeting as it was a work session. At this time no additional discussion has been scheduled on the commissioners’ agendas.