Parties ponder Dry Gulch decision

While you can forget about a new 35,000-acre-foot reservoir near Pagosa Springs, you might expect a significantly smaller one … sometime well beyond the year 2020.

As The SUN recently reported, on Sept. 11, Judge Gregory G. Lyman of District Court, Water Division 7, State of Colorado, decreed water and storage rights to two local water districts sufficient to accommodate a future Dry Gulch Reservoir of a maximum 25,300 acre feet in size. The decree includes maximum fill and refill diversions from the San Juan River of 150 cubic feet per second (cfs).

In effect, the decree reduced the judge’s earlier ruling that would have allowed a maximum impoundment of 35,300 acre feet two miles northeast of town, with fill and refill diversions from the San Juan River totaling 180 cfs. In late 2006, Trout Unlimited (TU) appealed that decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, which reversed Lyman’s findings and remanded the case back to him for reevaluation of the districts’ future water needs.

After four years of litigation since the districts’ original application for the rights, the boards and staff at the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) and San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) appear satisfied with the court’s latest decree.

“We’re generally very happy to have a decision,” said PAWSD Assistant Manager Gene Tautges. “We’ve been waiting for one for many months.”

According to Steve Harris, PAWSD’s water engineering consultant, “If it doesn’t get appealed, this allows us to do all the planning work to help us decide what the size should be when the time comes.

“We hope it sticks,” he added.

Now, the obvious questions are, will TU appeal the latest decree, and how will a smaller reservoir affect an unpopular impact fee?

In a Wednesday phone interview, TU attorney Drew Peternell said, “Trout Unlimited is still reviewing the decision. While the judge’s first decision was totally unfounded, this one is closer to where we think it should be.”

Peternell said the judge made appropriate improvements, “but there are still flaws in his reasoning, and the diversion and storage rights are still excessive.”

“At this point,” Peternell said, “we’re considering our options and may still appeal it back to the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, PAWSD Assistant Finance Manager Michelle Tressler said, “Everyone at the districts is fairly satisfied (with the latest decree), but we don’t know what TU will do. If they appeal again, it’ll be really expensive and not a happy thing.”

Otherwise, Tressler said, the districts will continue project planning, including retaining MWH Americas, Inc. of Broomfield, Colo., to calculate expenses associated with developing three different reservoirs of 12,500 acre feet, 20,000 acre feet and 25,300 in size.

Additional cost elements include diversion pump stations, a Park Ditch siphon, pipelines from the San Juan River to the reservoir, and pipelines from the reservoir to a new treatment plant.

The district board has also contracted Briliam Engineering Services of Pagosa Springs to analyze cost estimates for developing a new Dry Gulch Water Treatment Plant, and improving the existing San Juan Water Treatment Plant. Davis Engineering is working to develop costs for a total distribution system.

These studies will update Dry Gulch cost estimates in 2008 dollars, and will aid PAWSD officials in determining what, if any, adjustments are needed in its unpopular and controversial water resource fee.

While some project opponents believe a smaller reservoir should cost less than originally anticipated, previous estimates were calculated in 2006 dollars. According to district officials, the current $7,210 water resource fee (per EU) assessed against new construction within the district may rise or fall, depending on updated costs and revised future use projections.

For now, at least two things are certain: The future Dry Gulch Reservoir will be no larger than 25,300 acre feet in size, and whatever the water resource fee, it will likely remain controversial.

chuck@pagosasun.com