by Carol Dunn
LA VETA– As the Huerfano County Water Conservancy District embarks on an effort to increase its mill levy to assure Huerfano County’s water future, it is drawing on expertise from other regions who have been through the process. At its meeting last month, the board heard from Jim Culichia, a Colorado Springs water attorney who worked in Park County to form the Center of Colorado Water Conservancy District in 1997. The effort in Park County was so well received by the public that the taxpayers gave resounding approval of a mill levy to fund its work, which included purchasing water rights and building water storage.
Monday night, Jay Winner, General Manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, attended the HCWCD meeting to offer some insight and assistance.
After being briefed on the precarious augmentation plan situation in Huerfano County, Winner told the board, “You need to buy water.” Winner is also chair of the Needs Assessment Committee of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, which recommends projects to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for funding. CWCB has a water supply reserve account from which it makes grants for structural and non-structural water projects or activities. HCWCD may be able to obtain a grant to pay 80% of the cost of engineering required to prepare the court case to change the historically agricultural water to a municipal and industrial classification for augmentation use.
“Your engineering needs to start immediately,” Winner told the board. Although the HCWCD Enterprise only has leased water at this time for augmentation, Winner encouraged the board to proceed and offered to help procure the grant for engineering. “I just need a cost estimate,” he said.
The board appointed Kent Mace to an open position on the Ark Basin Roundtable board. Al Tucker told the board, “It’s important we have a say on water efforts that affect this community.” Attendee Lonnie Brown added, “It’s critical to be there and fill your positions – to be represented.”
The line between HCWCD and its Water Activity Enterprise naturally blurs. HCWCD, as a government entity, cannot operate as a business. So, as is common practice, it formed the Water Activity Enterprise in 2009 to acquire water and lease it to the entities that urgently required augmentation for out-of-priority water uses, for instance, Gardner, which uses two wells for residential water.
The enterprise has been operating on a temporary five-year augmentation plan for about three and a half years. The immediate need is to acquire a permanent water right for the Gardner area, and the state engineer’s office is pushing hard on that.
Besides funding the purchase of water, the proposed mill levy increase will play a key part in the augmentation plan going forward, and eventually through water court. Board member Mace mentioned two major expenses: $3,000-$4,000 per acre-foot for water rights; $55,000 per acre-foot of reservoir storage. The first goal of the enterprise is to obtain about 15 acre-feet of prime water rights on the Huerfano River and build a reservoir to store it.
According to one board member, there is some push-back from taxpayers around the county because the main area involved at this time is Gardner. “Some people say they got themselves into this mess, and now they want taxpayers to help them out,” said Dawson Jordan, chair of the Enterprise. “But you can’t look at it that way. You’ve gotta work for the good of the entire community.” And Mace added, “This is good for the county. We can be a bond between Walsenburg and La Veta.”
If the mill levy increase does not pass, the enterprise, as board member Erin Jerant put it, “Will be done.” Engineering and especially legal expenses have been much higher than originally anticipated. Jordan elaborated, “Gardner will not have any water. Paradise Acres Association will not have water. Malachite Spring will shut down if the state wants to shut it down. And this new development we’ve been working with, CO61, won’t have any water.”
Huerfano County is also a party to the augmentation plan because of its road and bridge department needs. All of them would need to find their own water for augmentation separately and work through water court or go without.
The discussion about Huerfano County’s water future is even more significant based on information provided by Sandy Borthick with Citizens for Huerfano County. Borthick described the immediate needs for water to take care of people, ranches and agriculture and asked, “How do we make sure there is enough water for new projects too?” Borthick said the CWCB Statewide Water Supply Initiative has estimated that current Huerfano water needs amount to 1,000 acre-feet per year, or about 155 gallons per person per day. The Initiative calculated that, in 2050, the estimated need could three times that.
“There is this increasing demand for water, and the need has to be met,” she said. “There still isn’t enough to do everything we want to do.”
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