Pagosa's Zombie Reservoir, Part Two
Bill Hudson | 8/22/13

Read Part One

Last week, following the recent San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) board meeting, reporter Randi Pierce posted an article on the Pagosa Springs SUN website, entitled, "Conservancy board OKs Dry Gulch Plan."  The article begins like this:

At its board of directors meeting on Aug. 12, the San Juan Water Conservation District Board voted to adopt a strategic plan concerning the proposed and contentious Dry Gulch Reservoir project.

The three-page plan includes the current status of the project, proposed short-term actions and proposed long-range actions.

Ms. Pierce's 1300 word article then goes on to summarize that three-page document, concluding with this quote from the plan:

“The Board is aware a ‘fail-safe’ moment is coming. Right now, it is still a question whether this project is feasible. If PAWSD causes the sale of the Running Iron Ranch, or if PAWSD causes the Dry Gulch Project be dropped from the IPP list of qualified projects in Southwest Colorado, or if SJWCD is unable to secure a viable partner to replace PAWSD in this project, this organization is likely incapable to move the Dry Gulch Project forward. The application provides the burden is on the applicant to show competence to and the wherewithal to successfully complete the project.

“After the U.S. Forest Service issues its determination to move forward, all elements need to be in place for us to not only determine this project is feasible, but also commit to completion of this project. In other words, our window of opportunity to be successful is no more than the next two (2) years.”

Click here to download the three-page document.

Unfortunately, Ms. Pierce had not actually attended the August 12 SJWCD meeting, where two notable elected leaders were in attendance and offered their input on the "strategic plan."  So her SUN article could do little more than summarize the document she had been sent, following the meeting. 

She didn't have a chance to hear, for example, the comments offered by Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) director Glenn Walsh, regarding the draft strategic plan.  Nor did she hear the comments offered by Democrat Mike McLachlan, our state representative from House District 59.

I believe I can easily summarize Rep. McLachlan's comments. 

It was pretty clear that Mr. McLachlan is still unaware that Dry Gulch is nothing more than a zombie project — an undead reservoir with no community backing, slated for a property that is owned by PAWSD and thus totally controlled, at this point, by a board of directors fundamentally opposed to Dry Gulch. 

Nevertheless, Rep. McLachlan told the SJWCD board, "You can always say 'no' to these kinds of [government projects]. It's easy to say 'no'.  And it's always hard to combat all the negatives that come up.  Because there are negatives; there's money involved, there's risk involved; you can put a lot of energy into it and end up in debt.  But I urge you to exhaust all your energy — and if it doesn't come together and it doesn't happen, all you've done is: you've done the best you could."

Rep. McLachlan indicated that he is a strong supporter of water projects — no matter if they are unpopular, and no matter if they are risky — because, Lord knows, Colorado needs to build more reservoirs whenever possible.  Even Governor Hickenlooper is now supporting additional reservoirs, Mr. McLachlan told the board.

Has Hickenlooper, like McLachlan, gone over to the dark side?

No one doubts that water use in Colorado and in the West will undergo some significant changes in the future.  Water allocations defined in the 1940s still govern our water uses here — but it has become apparent lately that those allocations were defined during a rather wet period in our history, and that the West cannot honestly expect 15 million acre-feet of water to flow down the Colorado River every year, as specified by a 1948 Colorado River agreement.

So there are two basic solutions being proposed to this problem... and, no, civil war is not one of the proposals. 

One solution is, we simply learn to use use less water.  That's really not such a hard thing to do; in some places on the world, a typical human consumes less than 10 gallons of water per day.  The typical Americans uses (wastes?) about 200 gallons per day... and that doesn't even include the water used to irrigate his golf course.

But there's a big, big problem with water conservation.  Conserving water doesn't earn a profit for any Colorado construction companies or engineering firms.

Only the second proposed solution to our imminent water shortages can generate those huge corporate profits:  building more, and more costly, reservoirs and water pipelines. That's the solution supported by Rep. McLachlan, it seems.

Reservoirs are nearly always government projects, because they rarely break even.  They don't break even financially... and they don't break even, concerning water production.  The reservoirs in the Colorado Basin collectively evaporate 2.5 million acre-feet of water annually.  (US Bureau of Reclamation report).  The Colorado Compact allocates 15 million acre-feet per year to all the Compact states, based on 1948 estimates.  The amount allocated to the state of Arizona, for example, is 2.8 million acre-feet.

Our remarkable reservoirs here in the West evaporate away, into thin air, nearly the same amount of water used from the Colorado River by the entire state of Arizona.

Here are a few quotes from a recent Denver Post article on the subject of new and expensive water storage projects:

Driven by drought, Gov. John Hickenlooper is urging President Obama and federal engineers to speed decisions on proposed water projects designed to sustain urban growth.

A letter to Obama seeks help spurring decisions on Denver Water's diversion of 18,000 acre-feet of Colorado River Basin water from the west side of the Continental Divide to an expanded Gross Reservoir west of Boulder. A separate letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asks that the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP) — which would siphon the Cache la Poudre River into new reservoirs storing 215,000 acre-feet of water — be given a high priority.

Colorado faces "a significant gap in our supplies to provide water for future growth — a gap that cannot be met by conservation and efficiencies alone," Hickenlooper began in a June 5 letter sent to the White House and copied to cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs.

That's a pretty daring claim: that Colorado cannot possibly solve its water problems through conservation.  Recent predictions suggest that Colorado's population, currently about 5.1 million, might increase to maybe 8.7 million by 2050.  If that's a realistic prediction, then — according to some experts — Colorado can easily meet its water issues through conservation and recycling.  The technology is already there: low flow toilets, drip irrigation, new water treatment techniques.  New and better technologies are already on the horizon.

What is not there: the political will to 'just say no' to more reservoirs.  What is not there: voters who understand that they will be sunk deeply into debt — debt that will last for decades — and that all this additional debt might simply add to the amount of water evaporated into thin air.

A couple more quotes from reporter Bruce Finley's Denver Post article:

Hickenlooper's quest for quicker decisions wins praise from water providers.

"Yes, we're going to keep doing conservation. But you cannot conserve your way to a future water supply," said Brian Werner, spokesman for the Northern Water Conservation District, which is driving the $490 million NISP project. "We're going to have to store more of it. We're optimistic that he gets that."

But it irks some conservationists.

"Water projects that further drain and destroy Colorado's rivers are a non-starter for us. The rivers already are in terrible shape," said Gary Wockner, director of Save the Poudre, a Fort Collins-based NISP opposition group.

Water conservation "is the faster, cheaper, better alternative" to ensuring adequate water supplies, said Drew Beckwith, a Water Resource Advocates policy expert and organizer of a campaign to cut daily per capita water consumption across the seven-state Colorado River Basin to less than 90 gallons.

The people of Colorado value their rivers, for so many reasons.  The reservoir lobby sees our rivers simply as a source of something wet, to fill bigger, more expensive reservoirs.

Read Part Three...


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