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|The Reservoir That Refuses to Die, Part Two|
|Bill Hudson | 7/19/12|
|Back to the News Summaries|
|Read Part One|
Fred W. Schmidt and I sat down to do an interview, six years ago, in the summer of 2006. Mr. Schmidt was, at that time, the president of a curious government entity: the San Juan Water Conservancy District. And he’d been its president for well over a decade, as I recall.
I knew absolutely nothing about the SJWCD as we sat down to begin the interview in the lobby of the San Juan Motel — the slightly run-down hostelry owned by Mr. Schmidt. And fact is, I still knew very little about the SJWCD at the end of our chat, other than these tidbits:
SJWCD had placed, on the November 2006 ballot, a request to the voters to “de-Bruce” the very modest mill levy collected by the district — a property tax assessment collected from the district’s property owners that, back in 2006, amounted to less than $80,000 per year, as I recall the conversation. As Mr. Schmidt explained the situation, the TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) amendment limited the amount of money that SJWCD could collect each year via property taxes, and the upcoming ballot measure would remove certain spending limits for the district.
But the motivation behind the 2006 ballot measure had very little to do with the amount of money SJWCD would collect from local taxpayers, Mr. Schmidt explained. No, SJWCD had bigger fish to fry; namely the State of Colorado. Mr. Schmidt assured me that Archuleta County sorely needed another large reservoir to store the water for the tens of thousands of people who would be moving to Pagosa Springs over the next few decades, and the upcoming 2006 de-Brucing measure, if approved by the local voters, would permit SJWCD to apply for a $1 million grant — not a loan, he assured me, but a grant — to help pay for that new reservoir. The grant would come from Denver, not from local taxpayers; I think Mr. Schmidt was smiling when he explained that part.
That $1 million grant would total more than a decade’s worth of property tax revenues for SJWCD, and would allow the purchase of certain real estate as the reservoir site, Mr. Schmidt explained. Without the reservoir, Pagosa Springs would never have enough drinking water to serve even its already-platted subdivisions, he told me. Growth would be stymied. The local economy would suffer.
Like many other voters, I believed Fred W. Schmidt’s story, and I voted to de-Bruce the SJWCD in 2006. The district’s mill levy had its TABOR limits removed, permanently — and shortly thereafter, Mr. Schmidt and his board announced a $1 million grant had been awarded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), to be used to build a new and much-needed reservoir in Archuleta County. The project would be a joint effort, with SJWCD basically kicking in its $1 million grant, and the ratepayers of the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District funding the rest of the project.
Mr. Schmidt did not mention the total cost of the new reservoir, as I recall, but he may have said something like, “We will only build as big a reservoir as we think we will need.”
A real estate purchase took place in January 2008 — a real estate purchase supervised by Mr. Schmidt himself. The purchase involved a 660-acre ranch just northeast of downtown Pagosa, in a valley appropriately named “Dry Gulch.”
There was so much I didn’t understand in January 2008.
And I assume that most Archuleta County taxpayers were also ignorant of the same facts. In January 2008, the main source of information about governmental activities in Pagosa Springs was a weekly newspaper called the Pagosa Springs SUN, edited by a gentleman named Karl Isberg. The SUN was making a generous income, back in 2008, from full-page real estate ads placed by Pagosa’s numerous and healthy real estate and construction companies. Life was good, and as far as anyone could tell, the Dry Gulch Reservoir project was only going to make things better.
At least, that’s what I had been reading in the newspaper. News reporter Chuck McGuire had been following the Dry Gulch story and keeping us updated on the latest developments. His regular SUN articles did an excellent job of sharing certain facts — certain facts — and spreading the story that Fred Schmidt and his SJWCD board wanted us all to believe.
In September, 2007, for example, Mr. McGuire informed us of the following in the pages of the SUN:
“Building a 35,000-acre-foot impoundment for the purpose of meeting future domestic water supply needs takes millions of dollars. Last week, two Pagosa area water districts took significant steps in financing land acquisition and the development of Dry Gulch Reservoir.
“At a special joint session Thursday, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) and San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) boards of directors met and executed an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) necessary to borrow $22,372,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB)...
"The proposed reservoir site is approximately two miles northeast of town, and includes a dam approximately 3,000 feet long and 160 feet high... To facilitate an impoundment of that size, the districts must purchase several parcels of land, and are currently negotiating contracts on sites totaling approximately 700 acres. The largest, at 666 acres, is owned by Running Iron Ranch, LLC and the Weber family. Weber Ranches of Pagosa, LLC owns another 40 acres, and another five-acre parcel is currently held by Kathryn and Donald Weber, the Kathryn L. Weber Trust and the Donald L. Weber Trust..”
Those were indeed true facts related to Dry Gulch, in September 2007. But the SUN article would have been so much more interesting if Mr. McGuire had included some fascinating background information.
For example, he could have mentioned that the “W” in Fred W. Schmidt’s name stood for “Weber.” He could have mentioned that a 35,000-acre-foot “impoundment” would, all by itself, contain enough water to serve about 160,000 people — and that PAWSD, in 2007, was serving about 8,000 people and had a current demand of about 1,300 acre-feet. He could have noted that PAWSD already had reservoirs in place capable of storing about 5,000 acre-feet of water — more than enough for Pagosa’s population even if the community tripled in size.
He could have mentioned that the fully half the SJWCD board of directors — who were never elected or appointed by anyone in Pagosa Springs — also sat on the PAWSD board of directors or worked for PAWSD. He could have mentioned that both SJWCD and PAWSD used the same office and staff, and shared the same Denver law firm, Collins Cockrel & Cole.
He could have mentioned that one single PAWSD pipeline accessing the legally-secure water rights at the pristine West Fork Diversion was allowed to deliver 5 CFS (cubic feet per second) to PAWSD customers, but that PAWSD was using only about 1 CFS. He could have mentioned that 5 CFS equals about 3,600 acre-feet per year; that’s three times the current water demand from PAWSD customers.
Mr. McGuire could have noted that, between the West Fork Diversion and the existing PAWSD reservoirs and other PAWSD water rights, our water district in 2007 already had annual access to about 10 times the water it needed to serve its customers.
None of those interesting facts were mentioned in Mr. McGuire’s September 2007 article. Nor were they mentioned in any of Mr. McGuire’s other well-composed and articulate SUN articles during 2007 or 2008 or 2009. We might want to remember that all those articles were edited by Karl Isberg; I'm not sure how important that fact might be.
For many years, Fred W. Schmidt and his SJWCD board — in conjunction with PAWSD — had been pursuing an outrageous water reservoir policy right under our noses. And we’d known very little about it.
But we do know some of these things today, in 2012. In two successive elections, the taxpayers have elected outspoken opponents of the Dry Gulch Reservoir to the PAWSD board of directors. From what I can tell, all five of the current PAWSD board members have rejected Dry Gulch as a necessary or sensible water project.
Now SJWCD has a couple of problems. The board expended a $1 million grant to help purchase some Dry Gulch real estate, but the real estate basically belongs to PAWSD (which invested $9 million in the purchase.) And all five members of the current PAWSD board have expressed opposition to the Dry Gulch project.
But if SJWCD doesn’t build a Dry Gulch Reservoir by 2025, they will apparently have to refund the $1 million grant to the CWCB.
To whom would you run, if you were the SJWCD board? To the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners, perhaps?
Yesterday, in Part One, I compared SJWCD to a teenager who’d had his allowance revoked... and who had a car payment to make.
In no sense do I mean to imply that the individual members of the SJWCD board are immature or childish; indeed, the individual members of that board are all fine, upstanding volunteers. It’s the organization itself that poses a problem to the taxpayers of Archuleta County — a problem all the more confounding because we, the responsible taxpayers, have no right to elect or appoint the members of the SJWCD board.
We are blessed with the choices made by Durango water court judge Greg Lyman.
Read Part Three...
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