Reviewing PAWSD actions of 2008

According to the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD), 2008 was the busiest of its 38 years providing water and wastewater services to constituents. A look back reveals many achievements ... with a few objections.

Certainly, the district’s purchase of 666 acres of ground two miles northeast of town was among its most significant “accomplishments” of the year. Using an $8.6 million “bridge loan” from Wells Fargo Brokerage Services, LLC and a million-dollar grant awarded to the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD), the districts jointly bought the land in early January, to accommodate a proposed Dry Gulch Reservoir of between 12,500 and 35,300-acre-feet in size. The purchase price was approximately $9.53 million.

Later in the month, PAWSD received approval of a $12.3 million long-term loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Once funded, the district actually received $11.1 million, paid off the bridge loan and will eventually purchase additional land for Dry Gulch.

The reservoir project has been the subject of controversy for some time. Many district residents and businesses have questioned its need, particularly with fluctuating population growth and an original plan that called for an impoundment of 35,300 acre feet. Dissension further heightened as residents expressed frustration with the district’s willingness to purchase the land — thereby increasing its debt by millions — without voter approval.

Meanwhile, Trout Unlimited filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, State of Colorado, challenging a July 2006 District Court, Water Division Seven decree extending the districts sufficient rights to water storage and two direct-flow appropriations from the San Juan River to Dry Gulch. The rights would have allowed a maximum 35,300-acre-foot impoundment and diversions totaling 280 cubic feet per second.

In the appeal, TU attorney Andrew Peternell said, “We just want the court to take another look at the project size and scope. We don’t have a problem with a new reservoir in Pagosa Springs, we just think this one is too big and takes too much water from the river.”

In October 2007, the Supreme Court reversed the District Court decision and remanded the case back to Judge Gregory G. Lyman for further review. In September 2008, Lyman reduced the maximum reservoir size to 25,300 acre feet and decreased the diversion rates to a maximum150 cubic feet per second.

Given the current economic downturn and relative decline in population growth, PAWSD and the SJWCD seemed satisfied with Lyman’s decree, but TU wasn’t so sure. On the final day of another appeal period, TU again appealed Lyman’s decision.

For now, both sides wait to hear from the Supreme Court again, at which point they’ll be allowed time to prepare and file additional briefs. Though the deadline for doing so isn’t yet known, the briefs will likely be due soon, with a final decision forthcoming sometime within the next year.

While few have expressed real opposition to a much smaller reservoir — say one of just 12,500 acre feet — district consultants suggest development costs would be about the same. In fact, size hasn’t stirred the public concern that associated “impact fees” have.

In August 2008, after a couple of rather vigorous, sometimes heated, public debates over such fees, the PAWSD board of directors adopted a resolution changing the district’s method of calculating Equivalent Units. EUs are a measure used in anticipating water demands by new residential and commercial customers.

Since imposing a “Water Resource Fee” (WRF) on all new construction in 2006, PAWSD considered all residential properties a single EU, while calculating the number of EUs for commercial properties through reference to a convoluted American Water Works Association work sheet. Results often led to grossly-inflated up-front fees that precluded some developers from continuing with planned projects.

In response, PAWSD eventually agreed to a five-year amortization schedule (at 5 percent interest) for those unable to pay large fees up front, and changed its method of calculating residential and commercial EUs to a system consistent with the Universal Plumbing code.

The system now relies on fixture count to determine appropriate meter size, which more accurately indicates the number of EUs necessary to service a particular property. Among other things, fixtures include sinks, toilets, domestic laundry hookups, hose bibbs, water heaters and showers.

In the meantime, PAWSD consultants are now recalculating projected reservoir costs (in 2008 dollars) and will likely adjust the WRF to more fairly place the burden of future raw water development onto new growth. Thus far, the district’s changes appear to have allayed public outcry.

Following 20 years of planning, permits, land acquisition and construction, the Stevens Reservoir enlargement is complete. The impoundment sits at the end of Paws Court (off Stevens Lake Road) near the old Humane Society site. Until drained for expansion last year, it held a maximum of 624 acre-feet of water, but with augmentation now final, its capacity has nearly tripled to approximately 1,775 acre-feet. With only wetland mitigation remaining, the district hopes Stevens will fill with this year’s spring snowmelt.

Typical of most water storage projects, the Stevens enlargement was anything but smooth sailing. Actual construction began in early 2008, even as land purchase and easement negotiations continued with neighboring property owners and developers, Thomas and Margie Smith.

In the 1990s, the Smiths purchased lands adjacent to the existing reservoir with hope of eventually subdividing them into smaller residential parcels. Over the years, the district realized a need to exchange specific parcels with the Smiths, while obtaining an easement on another and releasing a blanket easement on yet another.

Though the district also executed land purchases from other nearby property owners, mediating the Smith transactions proved to be the most time-consuming. In fact, as negotiations stalled for a time, the district eventually initiated the beginning stages of eminent domain. Before that process advanced far, however, attorneys for both sides reached an equitable solution. By July 3, the complex dealings closed and work advanced rapidly.

As always, it seems, PAWSD completed several capital improvements last year, including Chris Mountain Village water and sewer main line extensions, replacement of a Lakewood Village water line, and design for upgrading the Hatcher Water treatment Plant. Engineers finished a preliminary design for the elimination of the Highlands Lagoon.

The district initiated various system audits in hope of reducing wastewater treatment costs and potable water loss, while beginning installation of a state-of-the-art automated meter-reading system that will soon transmit water-use data from its more than 5,200 meters directly to the PAWSD office. Meanwhile, the district finished and adopted a new Water Conservation Plan, a Source Water Protection Plan and an Emergency Response Plan.

While 2008 was an active and productive year for the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District, it also presented challenges that have effectively reshaped the district’s approach to the future. In large part, the provocations came from involved citizens offering what they felt were more equitable solutions to community-wide concerns.

That’s how the system is supposed to work — public entities working with the general public to achieve mutually beneficial results.

chuck@pagosasun.com