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Water Conservancy District studies mill levy increase

by Carol Dunn
WALSENBURG — The Board of the Huerfano County Water Conservancy District held a workshop on May 14 in Walsenburg to gather information about a possible mill levy increase election in November.
HCWCD is in the business of ensuring that water rights transactions do not harm other water rights holders in Huerfano County, but it has other mandates that have been dormant since the 1970s. In 2009, it established a Water Activity Enterprise to help several entities with an augmentation plan for out-of-priority water uses. Recent activities of Two Rivers Water Company have sent up a red flag to most residents that the County’s water is in jeopardy of being sold to the highest bidder, and HCWCD could be the ideal entity to come to the rescue.
The cash-strapped Water Activity Enterprise has had a difficult time procuring a permanent source of augmentation water, and time is running out on the temporary five-year plan. Not only does the HCWCD Board see the need to purchase water for augmentation but also to safeguard the future of the County’s economy. Kent Mace said, “We need to keep our water in Huerfano County. If it leaves the county, it’s not coming back.” Mace said if the residents of Huerfano County do not make the move of buying water to keep it here, “I think in ten years you will see our county will be locked off – we will have our current water consumption with absolutely no possibility of growth. We need to come to grips with what we can do to help ourselves in the water situation.” Raymond Harriman added, “We need to protect the water for the future.”
Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte told the group there are three pieces to the water situation: the maintenance piece, where residents keep doing what they’ve been doing; the growth/development piece, considering the lost opportunities because there is not a ready supply of water for industry or businesses; and maintaining a way of life by opposing those who seek to change water rights inconsistent with that vision. Witte said, “Water is funny stuff, legally. The Constitution says the waters of the State belong to the people, subject to appropriation. It’s a public thing, but people have property rights in its use.” Witte pointed out that HCWCD gives people in Walsenburg and La Veta the voice they need in water court.
According to County Administrator John Galusha, 70% of income in Huerfano County is agricultural income, and the ag economy supports the county. Galusha said if there is a desire to change from ag-based to an industrial-based economy, “We’ve got to have the water so we can convert it to industrial use locally.” This concern was echoed by county Commissioner Roger Cain: “We’re approaching a period now where we’re getting older. The next 10-12 years will be a big change. The water’s going to go one way or another. I don’t know if we can keep it on the land … but we can’t afford not to.”
Water attorney Jim Culichia, who has worked side by side with Center of Colorado Water Conservancy District since 1996, said Park County has lost 57 ranches in the past 16 years. When the City of Aurora and others filed a water court application to export thousands of acre-feet of water from Park County, local citizens “finally woke up” to what was happening. He said their Conservancy District passed a tax levy of one mill which currently brings in about $400,000 a year. He said the fight against Aurora continues in court and has cost millions of dollars.
Using Park County as an example, he said, “The water is going to leave Huerfano County if you do not protect it.” He reminded everyone that water is a property right that can be conveyed away from the land. “If the district is not in a position with capital and ability, the water will leave. If you don’t get ahead of the curve, if you don’t acquire it, someone else will. Huerfano County has been lucky up till now,” he added. “There’s water out there. Either buy it or let it go downstream. If you want to control your own destiny, buy water.”
With only a .128 mill tax levy right now, HCWCD is not in the position to do that. The board is going to decide if it can convince a tax-shy public in a down economy to vote for the levy as a means of controlling the destiny of Huerfano County.