The Dry Gulch Puzzle, Part One
Bill Hudson | 12/17/07
While listening last month to a public discussion of the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District's request for an exemption from the normal subdivision process in relation to their proposed purchase of the Dry Gulch Reservoir property, I was struck by local developer J.R. Ford’s obvious displeasure with the whole water district project.  Ford’s basic message at that meeting was: the water district is doing all this behind the voters' backs — so the least the County Commissioners could do is require a full subdivision process and finally allow the public a chance to make its voice heard, even if it’s only at a subdivision hearing.

I knew a little about the Dry Gulch project.  I’d attended one PAWSD board meeting (with a grand total of two other people in the audience) where a $22 million loan for the Dry Gulch purchase was discussed.  The board seemed very unified on the issue at that meeting; I don’t believe I heard 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 a few explanations and charts posted on the San Juan Water Conservancy District’s web site.  The SJWCD is cooperating with PAWSD on the  proposed project — a 12,000 to 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.  I guess I had never heard anyone question the wisdom of the joint PAWSD-SJWCD project — or question the way it was being handled politically.

I caught J.R 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.”

Well, of course, Ford was exactly right.  At least in the case of the Post, we had done very little reporting on Dry Gulch, despite some important political events which had taken place.  The Durango Herald had run a front page story when Trout Unlimited had won their case at the Colorado Supreme Court to have a Dry Gulch water rights decision sent  back to water court judge Greg Lyman — but at the Post, we had not even been aware of the appeal trial until we read the Herald’s article.

We had indeed been slacking on a very important issue.

I walked out of the Courthouse and headed back to the office, thinking about what Ford had said.  Yes, I needed to learn more about Dry Gulch.  Why were the two water districts borrowing $22 million without getting voter approval?  Didn’t TABOR require voter approval for that kind of financial obligation?  What about the controversy between the developers of Hidden Valley and the water districts?  Was the reservoir really being planned for a population of 300,000 — thirty times our current population — as some were claiming?  Was Commissioner Bob Moomaw ignoring a conflict of interest, as a member of the SJWCD board — as Ford had suggested at the BOCC meeting?

My first stop was a phone call to Carrie Weiss.  I had enjoyed my interview with her a year earlier; she had struck me as knowledgeable and forthright during that interview.  I knew she would be busy, right in the middle of helping negotiate a $22 million loan, a huge land purchase, and the now-controversial issue of a subdivision exemption from the County Commissioners.

Weiss, it turned out, did indeed have time to talk, between rushing off to various meetings.  A few days later she presented me with a hefty packet of documents which gave background on the questions we had discussed.  That same day, I was able to sit down with Steve Harris, of Harris Engineering in Durango, the 'numbers' guy who had put together the population and water needs projections that lay back of the water districts’ push for increased water rights — the case that the Colorado Supreme Court had remanded to Judge Lyman — and  behind the still-conceptual design of the Dry Gulch Reservoir.

As the story unfolded, I admit I had a hard time keeping track of the myriad of issues surrounding the Dry Gulch controversy.  Apparently, the two water districts — which share clearly-overlapping boards and management personnel — are working very much in harmony on an enormously complex juggling act.  Knowing that the development of a reservoir typically requires twenty years of ongoing permits and approvals, PAWSD and SJWCD have decided to plow ahead and purchase the site of a reservoir which might potentially never be built — which might never have enough water rights, might never have voter approval, might never meet the environmental regulations that happen to be in place 20 years from today — which might simply not be needed, even, due to the failure of Pagosa Springs to thrive and grow over the next 20 years.

Even the relatively straightforward property purchase of the Dry Gulch site, now scheduled to close on December 28, has been problematic.

Over the next few days, I will share a few pieces of the Dry Gulch puzzle that I have been able to more or less fit together.  The puzzle pieces include new impact fees which have angered local builders, water rights requests that have attracted a law suit from Trout Unlimited, and questions about climate change, taxpayer rights, lack of public participation, enterprise funds and, perhaps most important of all, who will end up paying the bill, and who will reap the rewards.

Read Part Two

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