Sterling Ranch, Douglas County

Officials from the Sterling Ranch housing development in Douglas County said it has no need for water from San Luis Valley, no interest in the Renewable Water Resources project, and the community has all the water it needs.

Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership represent thousands of hunters, anglers and outdoor recreationists in Colorado who support sensible approaches that balance the need to address the water supply-demand gap while sustaining rural communities and the environment.

The Renewable Water Resources (RWR) conceptual proposal to utilize federal American Rescue Plan funds to export water from the San Luis Valley is a risky long-term investment for Douglas County and arguably not eligible for federal funding. The RWR concept would have a significant impact on the economy, environment and culture of the San Luis Valley. This unique region is home to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and three national wildlife refuges. The San Luis Valley’s cities, farmers and residents universally oppose the RWR concept. The project would unnecessarily adversely impact local agriculture, which has led to the devastation of other rural communities in Colorado.

The socio-economic and environmental impacts of the RWR concept are numerous. The proposed RWR concept would impact fish and wildlife habitats on multiple fronts. Groundwater and surface water resources in the San Luis Valley are connected, with aquifers sustaining streamflow, supporting habitat for cold-water fisheries and outdoor recreation opportunities. Therefore, removing water from the aquifers could negatively affect aquatic ecosystems important to the region. For example, one of the proposed pumps for the RWR project would be placed near the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, potentially impacting the wetland and aquatic ecosystems that support breeding and feeding grounds of migratory birds and several threatened and endangered species. Baca is also home to the state’s most viable population of Rio Grande Chub, a state species of concern. Other potentially affected species include the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout. Pumping could also potentially impact the unique hydrology of Great Sand Dunes National Park, which attracts more than 600,000 annual visitors to the region’s unique landscape and waters. Overall, the RWR conceptual proposal puts the San Luis Valley’s unique environment and recreational economy at risk.

The RWR conceptual proposal would also impact the local community and a significant economic driver of the region — agriculture. The proposal requires the dry-up of 40,000 irrigated acres in the Valley, which would hurt local farmers and ranchers and the businesses that depend on them. Agriculture plays a vital economic role in the Valley, but it’s also intertwined in culture and about people’s connection to the land. The impacts of irrigated agriculture in the San Luis Valley from the RWR concept would also negatively affect fish and wildlife. The majority of the San Luis Valley’s wetlands occur on private property and are sustained through irrigation and water delivery.

The RWR conceptual proposal also seems ineligible for stimulus fund support considering the recently released final rule governing the use of Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. These federal stimulus rule permit the use of these funds for drinking water projects to support population growth. However, the federal stimulus also states that the proposal must be “cost-effective” and consider available alternatives. The rule also states that the proposed water source must be “sustainable over its estimated useful life.” The RWR concept fails on both counts. First, the RWR concept faces significant hurdles in breaking ground or delivering water to Douglas County. According to some water project experts, the project will likely cost more than $2 billion to pay for the water, federal and state permitting, water court, land acquisition and infrastructure expenses. Like other recent battles over proposed water developments in Colorado, protracted litigation will more than likely add to these costs and further delay the project.

Meanwhile, more cost-effective strategies do exist, including near-term investments in water conservation and efficiency. Water reuse and recycling is another viable water supply option, and several local water providers are submitting project proposals to Douglas County for federal stimulus consideration. Finally, there is no renewable water in the San Luis Valley to export. The San Luis Valley aquifers are over-appropriated and climatic trends point to less available water. Therefore, the RWR conceptual proposal presents a likely expensive, unpopular and risky approach to meeting the growing water needs of Douglas County.

Our organizations recognize that Douglas County is growing and reliant on an unsustainable groundwater resource. We encourage Douglas County to utilize federal stimulus funds to make investments to address water supply needs in a more viable water portfolio that prioritizes local water supplies, promotes conservation and reuse and creates jobs for the community rather than siphoning these funds to a speculative and costly water export proposal that will have significant impacts on rural Coloradans and the unique environment of the San Luis Valley.

Alexander Funk is the director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Kevin Terry is the Rio Grande Basin program director for the Western Water and Habitat Program of Trout Unlimited.

Alexander Funk is the director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Kevin Terry is the Rio Grande Basin program director for the Western Water and Habitat Program of Trout Unlimited.