Douglas County Commissioners are currently considering two proposals to provide future water resources for the county. Because of our limited water resources in the state, communities across the state are connected by water.
In the past, some municipal water providers have obtained water resources by purchasing water from rural agricultural communities in a process called “buy and dry.” Buying and moving water resources from one community has devastating consequences on jobs, county income and services, property taxes, and the local environment. Crowley County is one case, and decades after “buy and dry” the county is still one of the poorest in the state and snowplows are used to move piles of tumbleweeds.
One of the projects being considered by Douglas County, The Platte Valley Water Partnership between Parker Water and Sanitation (PWSD) and the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District (LSPWCD), would build two new reservoirs in Northeastern Colorado, that would then pipe water to Douglas County. This project would provide 150,000 acre-feet (water for 300,000 houses per year) and the majority of the $800 million cost would come from PWSD’s long-term planning and rate structure.
Colorado shares water on the South Platte with Nebraska, and according to our river compact (agreement), Colorado usually delivers more water to the Nebraska border than necessary. On average, 300,000 acre-feet of surplus water flows into Nebraska every year. This project would divert water during high flows and storm events to fill the new reservoirs.
The LSPWCD is dominated by farmers and ranchers, and the belief is that this project will provide water to growing areas like Douglas County not at the expense of rural communities. The parties in this project have agreed that there will be no “buy and dry” of farms. In fact, the project includes opportunities to improve water management for farmers and ranchers.
The other project proposal is by Renewable Water Resources (RWR), a water development company, that proposes to pump groundwater from the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado, and build a pipeline to carry it to the Front Range. This project would provide 22,000 acre-feet (water for 44,000 houses per year) and RWR is asking for a $20 million “initial payment” from the county. RWR has not provided a cost for the infrastructure to move water to the Front Range or the project as a whole.
Currently, there is no unused water in the entire Rio Grande Basin, which includes the San Luis Valley. All surface and groundwater have already been allocated to other uses. There is no “extra” water available to export to Douglas County. RWR would have to purchase tens of thousands of acres of farmland and associated wells, and shut-off those wells in order to move water out of the valley. Agriculture is the economic lifeblood of the six counties in the Rio Grande Basin, providing almost $500 million annually to the local economy and producing potatoes, barley, alfalfa, beef, lettuce, canola, and quinoa. Understandably the prospect of removing water from the agricultural community in the valley has led to widespread opposition to RWR’s project, including all the local water districts, the City of Alamosa, Town of Del Norte, City of Monte Vista, Town of Saguache, nearby environmental groups, Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, and many local farmers and ranchers.
Many Front Range communities want to continue to provide houses for families, and ensure growth for their communities. I believe that many people in Douglas County, also want locally produced food and a strong rural economy throughout Colorado. We can do all of that, but it does require a commitment to more collaborative and creative projects.
Greg Peterson is the executive director of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance