San Luis Valley water will not flow to thirsty Douglas County, at least for now

Douglas County offices in Castle Rock.

A proposed plan to pump farm water 200 miles from the San Luis Valley to Douglas County won’t move forward with the help of $10 million in federal COVID relief funds.

During a work session on Tuesday, Douglas County commissioner Abe Laydon voted against using the federal money to pursue a proposal from a private company to buy water from San Luis farmers and ranchers and pump it north to Douglas County. Laydon was the decisive vote and said the county faced “enormous hurdles” moving forward with the current proposal.

Upon Laydon’s vote, the commissioners released memos from Douglas County attorneys who listed various issues with the project. The lawyers concluded that the water export proposal was not eligible for federal COVID relief funds. They also suggested the deal would be hard to sell as a “win” for the San Luis Valley since it would permanently retire thousands of acres of irrigated farmland. The legal analysis does not recommend the commissioners accept the water diversion proposal at this time. 

Douglas County is the second-fastest-growing county in Colorado. Its primary water source is underground, pumped to the surface from aquifers that are drying up. The Douglas County commissioners say securing a sustainable water supply to ensure taps keep flowing in the future is their highest priority.

Renewable Water Resources, a company backed by Denver developers and former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, have offered the commissioners a possible solution: pay farmers and ranchers in the San Luis Valley south of the county a premium for their water, and pump billions of gallons 200 miles with a new pipeline to the Front Range.

The San Luis Valley has its own share of water woes. Communities in the region, made up of six counties surrounded by the San Juan and the Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges, are struggling to adapt to a warmer climate that’s fueling a 20-year drought across the Southwest.

Commissioner Laydon said he’s open to continuing working with Renewable Water Resources on the proposal. Still, he said the company would “have to do significant additional homework” on the items of concern listed in the legal council memo. 

Commissioner George Teal, who supports the water proposal, responded to Laydon’s “no” vote by saying climate change and drought mean the county should move forward on every possible plan to secure new water sources.

Commissioner Lora Thomas, who opposes the project, asked why the commission was pursuing this proposal when the county doesn’t provide water to the public directly. Teal responded by suggesting Douglas County should create its own water district since the commissioners have labeled water their No. 1 priority. 

The proposal to pump water to Douglas Country from the San Luis Valley has been met with strong opposition from local groups, to Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper. The two sent a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that calls for Haaland’s office to oppose the proposal if it comes up for federal review. 

In a statement, Republican State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa, who also works as the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in the San Luis Valley, said the commissioner’s decision not to use federal COVID relief funds is good news for a project that would hurt the valley. 

“We will remain vigilant to continue to monitor Douglas County’s ongoing discussions with [Renewable Water Resources] to ensure that we continue to fight this at every turn,” he said.

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