A body of water in the distance in Douglas County
One of the large bodies of water in Douglas County, pictured from near Havana Street and Castle Pines Parkway in August. The Rueter-Hess Reservoir is a drinking-water storage facility owned and operated by the Parker Water and Sanitation District, the entity that provides drinking water to much of Parker and some nearby areas. Credit: Ellis Arnold

Months of discussion on who will help decide the future of water supply in Douglas County have come to an end now that county leaders have chosen 11 members of a new volunteer board, including a name that one county leader especially objected to.

“I still have concerns with Sean Tonner” being placed on the board, said Commissioner Lora Thomas.

Thomas has pointed to Tonner’s connection to a proposed plan to pump water to Douglas County from Southern Colorado.

The forming of the new volunteer board — the Douglas County Water Commission — comes against the backdrop of a controversial proposal to pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley in the southern part of the state.

An acre-foot is the equivalent of a one-foot-deep pool about the size of a football field. Renewable Water Resources is the private company that proposed the project.

Last year, county leaders Abe Laydon and Thomas joined together in deciding not to move forward with that project, while elected leader George Teal has continued to support it.

Tonner, one of the principals of Renewable Water Resources, attracted news media attention for throwing his hat in the ring to serve on the water commission.

Laydon and Teal supported appointing Tonner, who appeared for a public interview Oct. 13 via videoconferencing.

“RWR has no project in front of the county at this time, and the commission doesn’t exist (yet), so obviously we don’t have anything in front of the commission,” Tonner said at the time.

He also said he would recuse himself — or remove himself from participation — if any plans were to be pushed regarding RWR.

Laydon said “it’s been much ado about nothing” that Tonner had brought a proposal to the county.

“I didn’t support it during the (American Rescue Plan Act) discussion, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for people with big ideas that (can) bring people together,” Laydon said during the Nov. 6 meeting.

Laydon appeared to be referencing the county leaders’ decision in 2022 not to use federal ARPA dollars on the RWR project.

At the time, Laydon said his decision was because the county’s outside legal counsel concluded that the project was not eligible for federal COVID relief funds and recommended the county not participate.

In the recent November meeting, Laydon said that anyone on the water commission “has to check conflicts at the door.”

County’s picks

More than 50 people applied to serve on the water commission. Many are current or former public officials, including some who serve on local water providers like the Parker Water District.

The county asked for applications by Aug. 11 but later waived that deadline.

The water commission is expected to help create a plan regarding water supply and conservation, among other aspects of water in the county. It’ll consist of unpaid volunteers, according to the county.

The three elected county leaders planned to appoint three members per each “district,” or area, of the county, along with two selected “at large,” meaning from the county as a whole. (They later decided to allow people who aren’t residents or landowners in Douglas County to serve on the commission.)

They also plan to appoint “alternates” to serve in place of any main members if needed.

On top of that, the county plans to appoint a “technical advisory committee” of people with water expertise to help the water commission do its job.

The main members of the water commission, named on Nov. 6, include the following.

Representing District I, or northeast Douglas County:

James Eklund, who had worked on the state’s water plan, according to county staff.(Removing the requirement for being a landowner or a resident of Douglas County allowed for choosing Eklund, who told county leaders he is “in the city and county of Denver.”)

• Jack Hilbert, formerly one of Douglas County’s elected leaders.

• Donald Langley, who serves on the Parker Water board.

Representing District II, including central and south Douglas County:

• Clark Hammelman, a former Castle Rock town councilmember.

• James Maras, a Perry Park Water and Sanitation District board member.

• Roger Hudson, a Castle Pines city councilmember.

Representing District III, or northwest Douglas County:

• Frank Johns, who said he has worked on various water plans for communities over the years. Johns serves on the board of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch.

• Evan Ela, a longtime water attorney.

• Harold Smethills, a member of the Dominion Water and Sanitation District board and a developer of the Sterling Ranch area in northwest Douglas County.

Appointees “at large,” meaning from the county as a whole, include Tonner and Tricia Bernhardt, who has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and management from the University of Denver, according to a LinkedIn page.

Details of votes

At the meeting, the motion — or proposal — to appoint the list of applicants passed 2-1 with Thomas opposed.

Thomas said she still preferred to appoint Kurt Walker instead of Smethills.

The motion to remove the requirement that all water commission members be residents or landowners in Douglas County passed unanimously.

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1 Comment

  1. This commission is an absolute farce. Besides the conflict of interest by appointing Tonner, the really blatant conflict was by appointing Smethills – the developer of Sterling Ranch. There has never been enough water for that project, but Smethills and company continue to appeal the rulings to loosen the requirements to suit their needs. Originally the development was stopped by a local group of small subdivisions because, at the time, developers had to prove that they had enough water for their entire buildout. Sterling Ranch did not. They then went ahead and proceeded to get the rules changed, and the development was then approved. Since then there have been several appeals on record regarding changes to the water requirements. Both Tonner and Smethills need to be replaced immediately. Otherwise this commission has no credibility.

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