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Conservancy board OKs Dry Gulch plan

Staff Writer

At its board of directors meeting on Aug. 12, the San Juan Water Conservation District Board voted to adopt a strategic plan concerning the proposed and contentious Dry Gulch Reservoir project.

The three-page plan includes the current status of the project, proposed short-term actions and proposed long-range actions.

The project proposes an 11,000 acre-foot reservoir to increase water storage capabilities. The project was originally a joint project between the SJWCD and the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District, but changes in the PAWSD board have led to PAWSD looking to be relieved of the project and its burdens.

The SJWCD, though, is seeking to move forward with the reservoir, which would use the district’s conditional water rights for the Park Ditch.

While no firm timeline exists for the elements within the strategic plan, SJWCD board chair Rod Proffitt said two general deadlines exist — a state water plan that is anticipated to be completed in 2016, and 2024, when the grant for the reservoir could be converted into a loan if no construction progress is made.

Current status

The strategic plan document lists 10 bullet points under the current status heading, among them that:

• The state water conservancy district approved a $25,000 no-match grant through the end of 2013 for NEPA costs associated with the SJWCD’s formal proposal to the U.S. Forest Service seeking a special use permit or an alternate land exchange.

According to Proffitt, the district filed that application on Jan. 7, and received a “next steps letter” from the USFS in February.

In light of receiving a letter concerning Dry Gulch from PAWSD, the district sought an extension in responding to the USFS letter, which was followed by an active fire season on the part of the USFS, with the SJWCD board approving the final draft of the letter this week, according to Proffitt.

Proffitt indicated that the USFS letter included that no decision will be made until 2016.

The strategic plan also states that: “A working relationship with Western Land Resources has been established to assist with and expedite possible land exchanges with the U.S. Forest Service, assist with and expedite land acquisitions that may be necessary with the Laverty Family, assist with and expedite the sales of surplus property.”

The SJWCD is currently looking at two land exchanges, the first being for the basin itself (about 300 acres), and the second for land on Park Ditch that is currently owned by the USFS (about seven acres).

• “A joint meeting with PAWSD resulted in the identification of surplus property to the project designated as ‘Ridge Parcel’ consisting of approximately +/- 213 acres.”

• Potential partners and interested parties in moving the project forward have been contacted.

“This community will not need all that water. We need to find a use for that water,” Proffitt said, adding that, because PAWSD has dropped out of the project, all 11,000 acre-feet are up for grabs.

Among those potential partners, Proffitt said, are the State of Colorado and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

Proffitt said he is scheduled to meet today (Thursday) with the new executive of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the governor’s specially appointed advisor on water issues. The strategic plan, Proffitt explained, is to help communicate and present a board consensus on the project.

Proffitt said the state is currently looking at several concepts involving water, including “water banking,” though that work is more preliminary.

“I have no idea what the state might utilize those waters for,” Proffitt said.

Work with the tribe looks to be further along.

“We’ve opened up very serious talks with the Southern Utes and we expect to make a specific proposal to them before the snow flies,” Proffitt said.

Each of the entities (SJWCD and SUIT) has been given a checklist from the other entity to respond to, and the SJWCD board has approved funding for Proffitt to work with water engineer Steve Harris to put together a specific proposal.

• Contact with the Laverty family has been made, and a working relationship renewed.

Proposed short-term

Some of the 13 proposed short-term actions included in the plan are:

• “Fill vacant board of director seats as soon as possible.”

There are currently seven directors on the board, and three vacancies. At Tuesday’s meeting, however, the board approved to recommend John Porco for the board. A district judge must now approve the appointment.

• Draft a letter to extend the $25,000 grant awarded to cover NEPA costs for another one-year period.

• “Support actions to develop a Colorado Water Plan that incorporates the Dry Gulch Project as a component for implementation of that Plan.”

• Develop contractual relationships with Trust For Public Land, Colorado Open Spaces, and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Land Trust as appropriate, and develop a contractual relationship with the Western Land Resources to complete acquisition of USFS land underlying Park Ditch.

• Complete a marking plan for the project.

• Re-establish a good working relationship with PAWSD and determine factors PAWSD wants in a buyout from the Dry Gulch Project, and identify funding/revenue sources to buy out PAWSD in Dry Gulch.

Proposed long-range

Included in the seven long-range actions identified in the plan are:

• “Identify funding/revenue sources to implement this project. Key on funding/revenue opportunities to mitigate or eliminate local taxpayer burdens that might occur as a result of the Dry Gulch Project.”

• “Make application for a designated ingress/egress point with C-DOT to replace existing access to the Dry Gulch site once the dam is in place. This access will also require a survey and other background efforts to complete.”

• “Identify non-consumptive uses compatible with the Dry Gulch Project that will create, expand or otherwise improve recreational, social and cultural opportunities. This includes development of hydro-electric power opportunities.”

• “Secure any necessary conditional water rights to implement the Dry Gulch Project.”

According to Proffitt, the water rights maintained by the SJWCD are conditional rights, with the district required to show progress toward a beneficial use. Under SB141, water storage is a beneficial use.

• “Develop a good public outreach program to educate constituents.”

• “Advance goals and expectations for progress on the Dry Gulch Project that will avoid conversion of the $1 million grant from the CWCB to a loan. This requires a timeline that works backwards from 2024 to assure this result.”

• “Advance goals and opportunities that reduce costs associated with filling the Dry Gulch Reservoir. Since this is an off-channel site, pumping water from the San Juan River, over the dam and into the reservoir could be prohibitive to the success of this project so it is important to evaluate opportunities like siphoning.”

Proffitt explained that, because the reservoir is only slated to be 11,000 acre-feet, the SJWCD will not have to pump water to fill the basin, but has, instead, looked at using hydroelectric power from the Park Ditch below the Dry Gulch dam to siphon water and put it over the dam, into the reservoir, thus offsetting costs.

At the end of the strategic plan document are several paragraphs that discuss the realities of the project, both budgetary (SJWCD receives $70,000 annually) and questions of feasibility.

“SJWCD has been able to make progress on a shoestring,” the document states. “It is anticipated the cost in time and money to SJWCD will only increase, and at some point, decisions will have to be made on hiring professionals to oversee progress and coordinate expanding responsibilities for this project. It is the Board’s expectation this decision will have to be made by December 2014 when the U.S. Forest Service gets serious on our proposal and makes a determination to proceed on a land exchange.

“The Board is aware a ‘fail-safe’ moment is coming. Right now, it is still a question whether this project is feasible. If PAWSD causes the sale of the Running Iron Ranch, or if PAWSD causes the Dry Gulch Project be dropped from the IPP list of qualified projects in Southwest Colorado, or if SJWCD is unable to secure a viable partner to replace PAWSD in this project, this organization is likely incapable to move the Dry Gulch Project forward. The application provides the burden is on the applicant to show competence to and the wherewithal to successfully complete the project.

“After the U.S. Forest Service issues its determination to move forward, all elements need to be in place for us to not only determine this project is feasible, but also commit to completion of this project. In other words, our window of opportunity to be successful is no more than the next two (2) years.”

randi@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on August 15, 2013.