EDITORIAL: Old Enough to Change Her Name, Part One

Old enough now, to change your name
When so many love you, is it the same?
It’s the woman in you that makes you want to play this game…

— ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ by Neil Young

In a funny little email exchange yesterday, I mentioned to San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) president Rod Proffitt that I was doing some research into the unpopular and controversial project known as Dry Gulch.

Mr. Proffitt wrote back with a two-word query:

“Dry Gulch?”

I presume Mr. Proffitt wanted me to use the ‘new name’ of his proposed reservoir — the name recently approved by the SJWCD board: the ‘San Juan River Headwaters Project.’

I wrote back:

“My ex-wife changed her name a couple of times… but she was still basically the same person. And Dry Gulch will always be Dry Gulch to me.” I included a smiling ‘emoticon.’

Mr. Proffitt responded that he also knew a woman who had changed her name. Then he continued:

“I used your statement ‘It was a bad idea in 2004 and it’s a bad idea now’ in a presentation to the Realtors today, to show that you have been unable to distinguish the Dry Gulch Project from the new project – San Juan River Headwaters Project.”

I’d expressed that ‘bad idea’ opinion in a Daily Post editorial in 2016 — that a bad idea is still a bad idea, even if you change your name.  To wit:

In 2004, PAWSD submitted a request for water rights for a new reservoir, to be built in the Dry Gulch valley — and to be funded through “fees” exacted from PAWSD customers. A few short years later, PAWSD — working hand-in-hand with the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) — negotiated the purchase of about half the land in the Dry Gulch valley.

No taxpayers were allowed to approve (or deny) the $10 million purchase.

Fast forward to 2016. PAWSD and SWJCD still owe about $9 million on that purchase, but a succession of subsequent PAWSD boards have rejected to idea that a reservoir in Dry Gulch is a smart investment. Those PAWSD board members have been elected and re-elected by the PAWSD customers, so we might assume that the customers share this same opinion about Dry Gulch.

A bad idea in 2003. A bad idea in 2008. A bad idea in 2016.

Apparently, Mr. Proffitt is made it his goal, during this tax increase campaign season, to discredit some of the folks — like myself — who are skeptical about the SJWCD ballot measure that would essentially triple the property taxes paid to his water district. The money would be used, I understand, to continue promoting the unpopular and controversial project formerly known as “Dry Gulch.”

She changed her name, but she can’t change her face. Nor her reputation.

In fact, the proposed reservoir that Mr. Proffitt has been promoting — mostly unsuccessfully — is nearly identical to the reservoir that SJWCD and its partner water district, Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD), had to settle for… back in December 2010.

Let’s refresh our memory about that settlement.

December 6, 2010.  The Durango Herald had just published a story with the following headline:

Pagosa Reservoir Closer to Reality

The article, written by reporter Patrick Young, summarized the water rights settlement agreement approved by the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation (PAWSD) board of directors on December 1 — and by the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) at the same joint meeting.

Mr. Young’s article appeared to be well-researched, and his facts aligned well with a presentation given at the December 1 meeting by legal counsel for the two water districts, Evan Ela, of Denver law firm Collins Cockrel & Cole. One of the numbers mentioned in that settlement agreement was “11,000.”  That’s the maximum number of acre-feet that would be allowed, under the settlement agreement, in a future Dry Gulch Reservoir, when combining an existing 6,300 acre-foot SJWCD storage right with a new 4,700 acre-foot storage right.

For seven years, PAWSD and SJWCD had been promoting the idea that Archuleta County population would expand dramatically over the next 30 years, from about 10,000 to maybe 50,000 people, and would be desperate for drinking water. 14 years later, the community has added about 2,500 new residents, and the population has seemingly stagnated at about 12,500.

In 2004, PAWSD and SJWCD — two water district boards sharing many of the same members — applied for 64,000 acre-feet worth of water rights to service a 35,000 acre-foot reservoir proposed for Dry Gulch, and were decreed those rights by District Court Judge Greg Lyman.

Six years and $145,000 worth of legal fees later, PAWSD and SJWCD settled out of court with national fishing organization Trout Unlimited on a 4,700 acre-foot water right.

The 2010 settlement did not actually allow PAWSD and SJWCD to store 11,000 acre-feet of water in Dry Gulch, however. 11,000 is only the maximum that can be stored in one single year. As we all know, the amount of water available in the San Juan River is greatly variable — and the TU settlement required that the water districts stop pumping water into their proposed reservoir if the San Juan’s flow drops below 100 CFS (cubic feet per second) during the summer months — or below 60 CFS during the winter. These are known as “in-stream flow rights” and are intended to keep our river biologically viable.

The 2010 settlement allows only 9,300 acre-feet of storage as a ten-year average.

Even though the two water districts publicly announced that they were satisfied with a total 11,000 acre-foot right, the real number is 9,300.

The Colorado Supreme Court had rejected the original SJWCD-PAWSD plan for a 35,000-acre-foot reservoir as “speculative.” Public and private water users are not allowed, here in Colorado, to acquire water rights that they cannot actually put to beneficial use. So the Supreme Court remanded that excessive water rights application back to Judge Lyman.

Just so we’re clear, the Supreme Court did not endorse a 11,000-acre-foot reservoir. That was an out-of-court settlement between Trout Unlimited and the two Archuleta County water districts.

PAWSD customers then elected a series of new board members who unanimously rejected the idea of even the smaller 11,000-acre-foot project. The Dry Gulch project was completely removed from PAWSD’s long-term capital plans.  But, unfortunately, PAWSD had already purchased part of the Dry Gulch valley for $10 million — and its customers have been paying on that loan ever since.

For whatever reason, Mr. Proffitt and his friends on the SJWCD board continue to cling to the idea of a 11,000 acre-foot reservoir in the same location:

Dry Gulch.

Other facts also remain the same.

SJWCD still has no money to build such a reservoir, and no significant public support for the project.

SJWCD still has no means to deliver the water from a reservoir to Archuleta County residents.

SJWCD still does not own enough vacant land to build even the smaller 11,000-acre-foot version.

Perhaps most importantly, SJWCD is a “water conservancy.” We already have a local “water district” with a mandate to deliver drinking water and to meet the Pagosa Fire District’s need for water: PAWSD. In that capacity, PAWSD has developed and improved several local reservoirs and built miles of delivery pipeline to insure a steady water supply to local taxpayers, even under drought conditions.

Our local “water conservancy” was never intended to provide water to residents. SJWCD’s service plan — and its level of tax funding — have always been intended for minor water-related project such as administering conditional water rights and writing grants for steam improvement projects.

So we have to ask ourselves. Why is Mr. Proffitt trying so hard to promote a reservoir — and a property tax increase — that no one wants, and that SJWCD has no mandate to pursue?

Read Part Two…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.