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Bigger political guns are joining the water battle in the San Luis Valley, which could lose 22,000 acre feet a year from its confined aquifer to Douglas County, outlined in the current proposal pushed by Renewable Water Resources (RWR).

Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet issued a letter Feb. 19 to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, denouncing the plan as worsening water shortages in the drought-ridden valley.

Gov. Jared Polis announced his opposition to the plan earlier this month.

Bennet hand-delivered the letter on Saturday to Haaland, who was in Granada for a roundtable for survivors of Camp Amache, the former Japanese-American internment camp in southeast Colorado.

“… we have been alerted to a proposal called Renewable Water Resources which would transfer groundwater out of the basin from the confined aquifer beneath the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and Closed Basin Project. After hearing concerns from our San Luis Valley constituents about this proposal for months, the District’s letter from yesterday, and considering Colorado’s current exceptional drought, we both oppose this proposal,” the senators wrote, citing a Feb. 18 letter from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District as impetus.

Pointing to past “speculative schemes to export our water out of this Valley,” the Conservation District said it was once again facing a “scheme to transfer significant and valuable water resources from the San Luis Valley’s confined aquifer to the growing metropolitan area…”

RWR’s principals include former Gov. Bill Owens and his former deputy chief of staff Sean Tonner, and numerous investors. The current plan is for Douglas County to pay RWR to deliver the water using $20 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“Because the citizens of the San Luis Valley are already involved with a massive effort to actually reduce the total amount of water withdrawn from the aquifers underlying the alley to ensure that the resource is sustainable for both future generations and the environment for all time, it seems particularly inappropriate for anyone to entertain a new scheme to increase the use of this resource, when the opposite reaction would seem more appropriate,” the Conservation District wrote. “Prompt action is necessary as Mr. Owens and RWR continue their quest to move a proposal into the Colorado water law process.”

In their letter, Hickenlooper and Bennet told the Secretaries that their agencies could play a key role in the matter under the 1992 Public Law 102-575, better known as the “Wirth Amendment.”

The measure provides legal framework and a standard of environmental review for the transfer of groundwater from the basin that may adversely affect those public resources.

“We highlight this law because of its relevance in the San Luis Valley and an elevated standard of review for any project that might adversely affect the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Closed Basin Project and Baca National Wildlife Refuge,” wrote the Colorado senators. “On behalf of our San Luis Valley constituents and the water resources so critical to their economic future, we must oppose the Renewable Water Resources proposal.”

Since Jan. 18, Douglas County’s commissioners have been holding due-diligence meetings to evaluate spending the $20 million of their federal COVID relief dollars on the RWR plan. So far the commissioners are in a three-way split on the matter. Lora Thomas is against the RWR proposal, George Teal is in support and Abe Laydon is undecided.

The next meeting takes place at 9:00 a.m., Wednesday, Feb. 23 and will examine environmental impacts.

Featured image: An irrigation pivot stands outside of Saguache in the San Luis Valley, where the economy depends on agriculture and an increasingly endangered aquifer. Photo by Tara Flanagan