Eight Years Before the Mast(head), Part Three
Bill Hudson | 11/29/12

Read Part One

"Growth is the life blood of Pagosa Springs. Real estate and construction is 50 percent of our economy. Tourism makes up the other half of the picture, and it relies on the construction industry as well.  Without secure access to water, there is no way Pagosa can continue to grow."

— Fred Weber Schmidt, in a December 2007 Daily Post interview.


To whom am I responsible?

That was the question heavy on my mind as a considered some words spoken to me by Pagosa entrepreneur J.R. Ford following a government presentation in November 2007.  The presentation had been given to our three County commissioners by the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District board and staff, and regarded the proposed Dry Gulch Reservoir.

I knew very little about the Dry Gulch project at that time; I’d attended one recent PAWSD board meeting (with a grand total of two other people in the audience) where a $22 million loan for the Dry Gulch property purchase was discussed.  The board seemed very unified on the issue at that meeting; I didn't hear a single serious question about the loan's advisability, despite the amount. 

Seemingly, any questions had been dealt with at previous meetings?

I’d also read a little, here and there: a flyer sent out to PAWSD customers, explaining the basics of the proposed project... and I'd reviewed a few explanations and charts posted on the San Juan Water Conservancy District’s website.  SJWCD was cooperating with PAWSD on the  proposed project — a 35,000 acre-foot reservoir about a mile northeast of downtown Pagosa Springs.

I’d also done an interview with PAWSD Manager Carrie Weiss a year earlier, and a more recent interview with PAWSD board member Windsor Chacey.

But I was taken by surprise at the passion in J.R. Ford’s presentation at the BOCC meeting.  You see, I had never heard anyone question the wisdom of the joint PAWSD-SJWCD project — or question the way it was being handled politically.

j.r. ford archuleta county renewable forest power plant
Local entrepreneur J.R. Ford making a 2012 grant presentation to the Board of County Commissioners — a different set of commissioners from the ones who supported PAWSD's purchase of the Weber Ranch in 2007.

I caught up with Mr. Ford in the hall after that hearing, and asked him if he’d like to do an interview, to clarify his position on Dry Gulch.

“No, I don’t think I want to do an interview,” he said.  “But I will tell you this, right now.  The press has really dropped the ball on this issue.  All of you guys; the SUN, the Post, the radio station.  Here we have a governmental district about to spend $22 million on a project, and they don’t even have voter approval. They went before the voters four years ago, asking for $10 million for this same project, and they were voted down.  Now they’re doing the same project behind everyone’s back... and the press isn’t even covering it.”

For the previous three years, I had been selling advertising on my Daily Post website, and posting articles that I thought were informing the public about local political decisions.  I had thought I was fulfilling my responsibilities as a journalist — my responsibilities to my advertisers, and to my readers.  But Mr. Ford was suggesting that my role required more than I had been giving.

To whom am I responsible?

I took Mr. Ford's comments to heart, and a month later I published a nine-part article in the Daily Post, entitled 'The Dry Gulch Puzzle.'  Along the way, I discovered that PAWSD and SJWCD had filed for water rights granting them 64,000 acre-feet of raw water per year — enough water to serve at least 300,000 residents — while their own (highly questionable) predictions stated that the district would have only 34,500 people in 2040.  I learned that Economic & Planning Systems had just published a report predicting about 17,000 people in 2040. 

The Dry Gulch story was really my first foray into the world of "investigative reporting" — and the beginning of a long and somewhat painful learning experience that left me with the conclusion that the entire project was a huge, unnecessary boondoggle being foisted on the taxpayers by — someone? — via exaggerated predictions and secret negotiations.

When I reported this story as I experienced it, I was publicly attacked by members of the PAWSD board — as was Glenn Walsh, a fine writer and researcher who was working as the Daily Post's assistant editor through much of this difficult period, and the person responsible for uncovering many of the most unsettling facts in the case.  Mr. Walsh summarized the controversy rather nicely just prior to the 2010 PAWSD election that saw Allan Bunch and Roy Vega overwhelmingly elected to the PAWSD board.  That election ultimately led to a complete change in the water district's long range planning — including a rejection of Dry Gulch as a feasible project, and the repeal of the "impact fees" that were supposed to help fund the massive project.

Many people contributed to the demise of PAWSD's Dry Gulch boondoggle. I played a small part, as did Glenn Walsh and the other candidates who ran for the PAWSD board in 2010 and 2012, and the volunteers who signed up for the Community Water Supply Work Group in 2010.

But the most important outcome of that four-year process, for me personally, was a recognition of my own responsibility as a news reporter.  I came to the conclusion that I am responsible — not to the elected officials and volunteer appointees who run our local governments, nor to the business people who keep our local economy afloat, nor to the taxpayers who log in to read the latest Daily Post article — but rather, to something larger than any of those groups: to the truth... the truth, as I experience it as a reporter. 

Of course, "the truth as I experience it as a reporter" is not the same thing as The Truth.  Many people embrace The Truth — believing that their personal perspective on whatever situation is The One and Only Valid View.  In my reality, The Truth is an idealized figment of someone's imagination.  There are always multiple versions of any story, and the journalist's version is only one of them.  But that's the version to which I am loyal, and that loyalty informs my responsibility.

My responsibility, however, goes a bit further. I am also responsible to share my version of the truth. I must to write openly and fearlessly about what I've seen and discovered. Many people are afraid to speak openly in a small town; they know they risk being vilified by their neighbors, and by the Powers That Be. The reporter can't be afraid of his neighbors and still fulfill his or her responsibilities.

While researching that first Dry Gulch article series back in 2007, I'd interviewed Fred Weber Schmidt, president of the San Juan Wayer Conservancy District, and I included a quote in my article:

"Growth is the life blood of Pagosa Springs. Real estate and construction is 50 percent of our economy. Tourism makes up the other half of the picture, and it relies on the construction industry as well.  Without secure access to water, there is no way Pagosa can continue to grow."

That short quote contained at least four faulty assertions.  "Growth" is not the life blood of Pagosa Springs; its residents are its life blood.  Real estate and construction, even in 2007 at the height of the housing bubble, accounted for only about 24 percent of our local economy; they account for less today.  Pagosa tourism does not rely on construction; it relies on scenic beauty; clean air; wide open spaces; and accommodating, attentive employees. And finally, in regards to "secure access to water" — Mr. Schmidt was hiding the fact that in 2007, PAWSD already had water storage amounting to more than 200 percent of its customer demand — while using only one-fifth of its West Fork water rights.

Using those faulty assertions and many others, Mr. Schmidt and his fellow board members nearly succeeded in placing an unnecessary, $357 million project onto the shoulders of the PAWSD customers.

So let me finish this, my final article series, by sharing why I think the title Eight Years Before the Mast(head) might be especially appropriate.

Read Part Four...

 
   

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