MONTE VISTA — During a two-hour conversation that was cordial, elected officials and stakeholders nonetheless did not mince their words when describing to Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon the tremendous impact exporting 22,000-acre feet of water each year in perpetuity would have on the farmers, ranchers and communities of the San Luis Valley.
After an on-again-off-again promised appearance to speak with residents of the San Luis Valley, Laydon, along with water attorney Steve Leonhardt, were at Nino’s Mexican Family Restaurant in Monte Vista on Saturday, April 23, to meet and discuss with a small group of invited elected officials and others Renewal Water Resource’s water export proposal.
In his opening comments, Laydon said Douglas County had received water proposals totaling more than $240 million, but they chose to do a “deep dive” on RWR because its facts were “180 percent different” from facts presented by water experts in the Valley.
“It’s been challenging,” he said.
Laydon told the group he had met with a group of farmers earlier in the day who had expressed concerns about the lack of transparency in the subdistricts where they were located and potential backlash from other farmers if they expressed support for RWR’s proposal.
“I heard from people wanting to succeed,” he said, adding that farmers on smaller farms feel they’re out of options, implying that the RWR purchase of water rights would give them options “to move away and trying something different” that they don’t currently have.
Laydon also repeated a claim made by RWR that the San Luis Valley is experiencing a “net migration” with more people leaving the Valley than are moving to the area.
2020 Census data does not support RWR’s claim as two of the six SLV counties reported a loss of population while the remaining four reported an increase.
Laydon then followed up by asking how much the $50 million community fund proposed by RWR would help local county budgets?
Before opening the conversation up to those present, Laydon reminded the group of his family’s roots in the SLV, adding, “I have a commitment to do no harm to people or a community. I would resign before I’d do harm to others.”
State Representative Donald Valdez (D-District 62) opened the comments by thanking Laydon for his visit and willingness to see issues from “the Valley perspective,” emphasizing challenges presented by low levels in the aquifers and watersheds impacted by climate change.
“We want to see the next generation be able to farm in the San Luis Valley,” Valdez said.
Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman picked up on Laydon’s stated commitment.
“If your intention is to do no harm…” Coleman began, “then it’s important to know water is crucial here. It’s crucial. If that water is depleted, it will have a significant negative impact on our communities and our economy."
Alamosa City Council member Michael Carson addressed the comments Laydon heard about tensions in the community, countering with a description of how the people in the Valley come together in “incredible ways” whenever a crisis occurs.
“Any animosity stems from the lack of resource,” he said.
Karla Schriver, president of the Subdistrict 2 board, addressed the concerns expressed about district transparency, saying that she knows from experience how hard districts work in communicating with farmers with meeting dates posted well in advance on the RGWCD website. “Farmers sometimes don’t check things like that as well as we should,” she said.
She then took on a salient point in the entire discussion — farmers being able to sell their water rights and what that sale could mean to their families.
“The bill, SB22-028, that just passed will provide money for that and for those mom-and-pop farmers that may be on the outskirts,” Shriver said.
SB22-028, sponsored by Senator Cleave Simpson (R-District 35), will bring $30 million of one-time American Rescue Act Plan funding to the San Luis Valley specifically to buy and retire well permits and irrigated acreage.
“How is that not buy and dry?” Laydon asked.
“Because the water will stay in the Valley,” was the response from several at the same time.
Rio Grande Commissioner John Noffsker was a little more confronting in his comments.
“This project is taking from somebody to benefit yourself. That’s all it is, and it’s wrong. The water belongs here — ecologically, environmentally and economically. Economic growth here won’t happen without water. Go to Las Animas County, go to Ordway. Look at those places — they’re some of the poorest in the state. That’s what happens when cities take water.
“I don’t care if Douglas County grows,” he continued. “This is us being dictated to us by the Front Range. Taking our water displaces our authority. But I’ll tell you what. You give us all your tax revenue off Park Meadows and we’ll give you some water,” he said, equating the entitlement in asking for tax revenue of a hugely profitable mega shopping wall with asking for water from the San Luis Valley.
Alamosa Commissioner Lori Laske was one of the last to speak, starting with a letter written on behalf of all three county commissioners.
“As commissioners… we would be very hesitant to expend time, money, and other county resources to pursue a project which is not only detrimental to a neighboring community but also unlikely to produce any fruit," Laske said.
“While we understand the desire to do something impactful and beneficial for your constituents, we don’t understand why, after opposition from the entire San Luis Valley, the Governor, the Attorney General, the Ag Commissioner, multiple State Senators and Representatives, and others…that you would gamble Douglas County’s ARPA funding on the RWR plan,” Laske said.
Laske then addressed Laydon directly.
“Honestly, we’re offended at the money and using it to sway people’s opinions," Laske said. "To dangle money in front of a community that needs it…it’s offensive and will cause irreparable damage. Sure, it will be good for two or three years but what will happen 10 years from now? This is a moral question and it requires a moral compass to make the right decision. What legacy do you want to have in the Valley? Because that’s what this is. This is a legacy. And it’s a moral question that requires a moral compass.”
Marisa Fricke wrapped up the comments with a simple statement.
“This is going to destroy our way of life. We have a lot of next-generation farmers — farmers in their 30s who want to farm in the Valley. If you do this, they won’t have a chance,” Fricke said.
Laydon thanked all in attendance and then wrapped up the meeting by saying, “I think the winner in all this is the process. And I don’t care about politics.”
With that, Laydon brought the seventh of seven due diligence meetings to a conclusion.