The senses. Michael Bennett and John Hickenlooper, both Colorado Democrats, sent a letter to two federal agencies, registering their opposition to a Douglas County water project that aims to extract thousands of acre-feet of groundwater from the San Luis Valley.
They also reminded the two federal officials of a 1992 law that they said could allow the federal government to intervene under certain conditions.
Bennet delivered the letter by hand to US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Saturday, while she was in Grenada for a roundtable with Camp Amache survivors. The letter was also sent to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has close ties to Colorado.
“After months of hearing the concerns of our constituents in the San Luis Valley about this proposal, yesterday’s letter from the district, and given the current exceptional drought in Colorado, we both oppose this proposal,” Bennet and Hickenlooper wrote.
Bennet and Hickenlooper’s letter referred to a 1992 law, known as Public Law 102-575 or the “Wirth Amendment”, which they said “provides a legal framework and a high standard of environmental review for any transfer of groundwater out of the basin”. that may harm public resources, such as Great Sand Dunes National Park, Closed Basin Project, Baca National Wildlife Refuge.
This lawwhich contains a section specific to the San Luis Valley, defines the following requirements:
“No agency or instrument of the United States shall issue any permit, license, right of way, grant, loan, or other authorization or assistance for any project or element of a project intended to take water from the San Luis Valley, Colorado, for export to another basin in Colorado or to export to part of another State, unless the Secretary of the Interior determines, after having duly taken take into account all conclusions provided by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, that the project (1) will not increase costs or adversely affect the operation of the closed pond project (2) undermines the objectives of any National Wildlife Refuge or removal from a Federal Wildlife Habitat Area located in the San Luis Valley, Colorado; or (3) adversely affects the purposes of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.”
“This export proposal continues to seek funding to move forward despite the fact that it would exacerbate local water issues even with conservation efforts,” Bennet and Hickenlooper wrote.
The Renewable Water Resources (RWR) project, estimated to cost $600 million, would require the construction of a pipeline from a confined aquifer in the San Luis Valley to the Closed Basin Projectbetween Alamosa and the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Where this pipeline would end up now seems to be in flux; the original proposal suggested the pipeline would connect to one of several reservoirs in Park County, all owned by Denver Water.
Denver Water, however, made it clear that it wanted nothing to do with the project.
Two weeks ago, RWR manager Sean Tonner suggested another option – across the Lower Arkansas River and up to Douglas County via infrastructure owned by Aurora Water. But Aurora Water also rejected the idea, telling Colorado Politics that “RWR has not asked Aurora Water to be able to use our infrastructure and Aurora Water does not have the excess capacity in the system to move that water.” RWR also lowered its asking price for Douglas County’s participation from $20 million to $10 million, money that would come from American Rescue Plan Act funds, in part due to concerns about whether $20 million dollars would meet ARPA guidelines.
The project would develop 22.00 acre feet per year from 25 groundwater wells in the northern part of the San Luis Valley, according to the RWR proposal, although opponents believe the project would “buy and dry” up to 34,000 acres of agricultural production. land, about 5% of the total agricultural area of the valley. The total economic loss for the valley would be about $53 million a year, according to Chad Cochran, a banker with Farm Credit of Southern Colorado.
RWR is offering a one-time community fund of $50 million to meet a variety of needs, such as funding schools, reliable broadband, food banks, services for the elderly, or job training programs. RWR argues that its proposal is a win-win solution – it would economically benefit the San Luis Valley while ensuring water sustainability for Douglas County.
RWR’s proposal asserts that the aquifer would not be damaged by abstraction because groundwater would be replenished – called recharge – by precipitation. That doesn’t match what water experts with the state’s Water Availability Task Force recently reported on the valley’s drought, which is worse now than a year ago, according to the US DroughtMonitor. Additionally, state climatologist Russ Schumacher said the valley received just over half of its average rainfall through mid-February.
This is not the first time that Bennet has intervened to keep water in the valley. In 2014, with Senator Mark Udall, Rep. Scott Tipton, then Rep. Cory Gardner, Bennet wrote a letter to five Interior Department officials, opposing a plan to transfer groundwater between basins.
Bennet and Hickenlooper also noted the long-standing drought in the valley, which they said “has placed a severe strain on local water resources”.
“Residents of the valley, including farmers, ranchers and business owners, rely heavily on underground aquifers to support their economy and way of life. Since 2005, in response to this drought, local farmers have undertaken an ambitious and collaborative effort to reduce their own pumping in an effort to achieve sustainability.This export proposal continues to seek funding to move forward despite the fact that it would exacerbate local water problems, even with conservation efforts. In addition to District concerns, five counties in the San Luis Valley are opposed to this proposal,” they added.
The referenced Bennet and Hickenlooper letter from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District was sent to the two senators on Friday on behalf of the district’s board of directors.
Council Chairman Greg Higel asked the two senators to remind the federal government of its responsibilities under the Wirth Amendment. The RWR proposal is nearly identical to the 2014 proposal that Bennet, as a U.S. senator, and Hickenlooper, then-governor, opposed at the time, the letter says.
That 2014 project fell under Sustainable Water Resources, which was later renamed Renewable Water Resources, which is “a mix of the previous organization and new members,” according to a 2019 report in the Alamosa Valley Courier. The plan in 2014 was to “export 2.5% of the Valley’s SWR, estimated at 1.4 million acre-feet of excess water to the Denver area via pipeline and the river system.”
Last week, the project also drew opposition from Water for Colorado, a coalition of nine Colorado environmental groups that includes Conservation Colorado, Western Resource Advocates, Nature Conservancy, American Rivers and Environmental Defense Fund.
“This controversial proposal threatens the economy and way of life of those who live in the San Luis Valley and demonstrates a nefarious use of federal funds,” the coalition said in a statement released on February 17. “Water for Colorado and its nine partners from organizations representing diverse interests across the state join the people of the San Luis Valley and protect our water coalition and stand with state leaders, including Governor Jared Polis, in strong opposition to the proposal and encouraging Douglas County Commissioners to reject it. Collaborative solutions to Colorado’s water supply problems that do not irrevocably harm a community for the benefit of a other.”