The Douglas County commissioners will no longer host a March 26 live town hall for residents of the San Luis Valley regarding a proposal to pump water from the valley to the Front Range.
The decision to cancel the event came during a March 9 work session in which county staff told the commissioners they were expecting 300 to 400 people to attend and that it appeared a protest was planned to take place.
The project, proposed by Renewable Water Resources, has received wide opposition in the valley and around the state, from valley elected officials and water districts to U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, Gov. Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser and both of Colorado's U.S. senators.
“What we’re hearing from RWR is that they don’t anticipate generating substantial supporters at the event,” county staff member Dan Avery told commissioners.
Commissioner George Teal, who has voiced his support for the project, said was in favor of canceling the meeting, adding that he had initially hoped to have “actual conversations” with residents and “get past the visceral, emotional aspects of this project.”
He said he’s heard from people in the valley who support the RWR project but feel they are being intimidated to remain quiet. He went on to compare the situation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“They feel like they're being silenced, they feel like they’re being intimidated and were they to express their actual opinions, they would have consequences,” he said. “Probably not tanks running through their streets and being beaten for expressing their opinion, but certainly financial.”
Commissioner Abe Laydon, who has said he hasn’t yet decided if he supports the project, said he still wants to go to the valley but said the event had been “hijacked by a group of folks” and said he didn’t want to be part of it.
“I’m 100% determined to put my focus on substantive fact-based dialogue with the good people on both sides of this proposal in the San Luis Valley as we determine if the Douglas County group will move forward with the RWR proposal,” he said.
Teal said he also still wants to go to the valley to see the well field and speak with elected officials.
Commissioner Lora Thomas, who has vocally opposed the plan, said she’s not interested in going to the valley.
The county is looking for other opportunities for “authentic community engagement” but has not yet announced details of that new process, according to a statement from a spokesperson.
"The Board of Douglas County Commissioners is committed to the continuation of our substantial and authentic stakeholder engagement process regarding the Renewable Water Resources proposal for the County’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds,” according to the statement. “The objective of the process is to ensure that all voices may be heard without intimidation nor retribution.”
When asked where the county learned of reports of intimidation, a county spokesperson referenced comments from a speaker during one of the commissioners work sessions on the topic — Jerry Berry, who is a farmer in the San Luis Valley and a representative for RWR.
The commissioners have hosted six meetings, each lasting at least two hours and all held in Douglas County, to hear from various stakeholders on the proposal. They’ve heard from RWR, the state engineer's office, water conservancy districts in the valley, water attorneys, environmental groups and local water providers, among others, regarding the project.
The proposal, which seeks to pump 22,000 acre-feet of water annually out of the valley to Douglas County, would require an initial investment from the commissioners of at least $10 million with a water rate of $19,500 per acre-foot. Because of regulations on the ARPA dollars, RWR has suggested the county use general fund dollars to pay the initial fee and then backfill the fund with the federal money.
Water conservation districts, farming advocacy groups and environmental advocates from the valley have said the proposal would have a profound negative impact on the valley community, both physically and economically.
Representatives from RWR have said the project wouldn’t cause any harm to the valley and have offered a $50 million community fund as part of their plan.
If commissioners approve the plan, it will then have to go through the state’s water court process, which requires an end user for the water.
In a Feb. 28 meeting, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority Lisa Darling told the commissioners that none of the major water districts in Douglas County are interested in the water from RWR.
“All of these individual municipalities and water providers have plans in place and what I’ve heard from my members is RWR's proposal is not part of their plans,” Darling said. “I do feel like they believe they have sustainable plans.”
For the project to be approved in court, RWR will have to prove that it will replace all the water it removes from the valley.