Real estate developers interested in exporting water they own from the San Luis Valley to fast-growing, water-short Douglas County have contributed thousands of dollars to candidates for the Parker Water & Sanitation District Board, one of the largest water providers in the county.
Last month, Robert Kennah won a seat on the Parker water board and had received two donations from partners in Renewable Water Resources, a real estate development group whose principals include former Colorado Governor Bill Owens. The contributions were made by RWR principals John Kim and Hugh Bernardi, according to filings at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
A second RWR-backed candidate, Kory Nelson, also received $10,000 in donations from RWR, but did not win a seat on the Parker water board. Nelson is contesting the results of the election.
If Nelson had won, RWR would have ties to three members of the five-member board, according to Parker Water and Sanitation District Manager Ron Redd.
Parker board member Brooke Booth is related by marriage to RWR principal Sean Tonner, Redd said.
Neither Booth, Kennah nor RWR responded to a request for comment. Nelson could not be reached for comment.
Such large contributions are unusual in low-profile water district board elections, where candidates often provide their own funding for their campaigns of a few hundred dollars, rather than thousands, according to Redd.
“That’s a lot of money for a water board race,” Redd said.
The donations come after Douglas County Commissioners last year declined to invest in RWR’s controversial $400 million San Luis Valley pipeline proposal using COVID-19 relief funding. Douglas County Commissioners Lora Thomas and Abe Laydon voted against the funding, while Commissioner George Teal supported the proposal.
Among other objections, the county said that RWR’s claim that there was enough water in the San Luis Valley’s aquifers to support the export plan, was incorrect, based on hydrologic models presented over the course of several public work sessions.
The county’s attorneys also said the proposal did not comply with the Colorado Water Plan, which favors projects that don’t dry up productive farmland and which have local support.
Opposition to the proposal in the San Luis Valley is widespread. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa argues that no water should be taken from the San Luis Valley because it is already facing major water shortages due to the ongoing drought and over-pumping of its aquifers by growers. The valley faces a looming well shutdown if it can’t reduce its water use enough to bring its fragile water system back into balance.
Out of compliance
That lack of compliance means that Douglas County would likely not win any potential state funding for the export proposal.
Last year, after the county rejected the San Luis Valley proposal, RWR said it would continue to work with Douglas County to see if its objections could be overcome. It has also maintained that the agricultural water it owns in the San Luis Valley would be pulled from a portion of the valley’s aquifer system that is renewable, minimizing any damage that might occur from the project, and that even though farmlands would be dried up when the water is exported, the valley’s water situation would benefit from a reduction in agricultural water use.
RWR’s water rights, however, have not yet been converted to municipal use, as is required under Colorado law. That process could take years to complete and would likely be fiercely contested by farm interests in the San Luis Valley, as well as other opponents.
Still RWR continues to deepen its ties to Douglas County water districts. RWR principal John Kim, one of the contributors to the Parker water board elections, won a seat last year on the Roxborough Water and Sanitation District Board, according to the district’s website. Kim lives in that district. He declined a request for comment.
Douglas County government does not deliver water to its residents, but relies on more than a dozen individual communities and water districts to provide that service.
Fast-growing towns and water districts early on simply drilled wells into aquifers, but the aquifers have been declining and water districts have been forced to implement aggressive water conservation programs, water reuse programs, and use of local surface supplies to meet their needs.
Two of the largest water providers in Douglas County, Parker Water and Sanitation District and Castle Rock Water, have said they would not support the RWR proposal because they had already spent millions of dollars developing new, more sustainable, politically acceptable projects. Those projects include a South Platte River pipeline that is being developed in partnership with farmers in the northeastern corner of the state.
A host of politicians across the political spectrum came out against the RWR proposal as well, including Gov. Jared Polis and Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the San Luis Valley.
Still, Douglas County’s Teal, who has also received funding from RWR principals, said he believes the RWR water could have a role to play in helping ensure the county has enough water to grow over the next 50 years.
“I don’t know [if we have enough water,]” Teal said. “That is part of what makes me wonder if we do have enough. Water projects take time. There is no snapping your fingers and then delivering 10,000 acre-feet of water.”
But Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, who has also accepted campaign contributions from RWR prinicpals, says the county’s water providers are well prepared for the future and there is no need to spend money on a project that has little public support and which may never come to fruition.
“We are secure without it,” Thomas said. “But I think that RWR is doing everything it can to get Douglas County to buy into their scheme.”
Floyd Ciruli, a pollster and veteran observer of Colorado politics who has done extensive work in the past for Douglas County water providers, said the RWR initiative faces an uphill battle.
“They have resistance at both ends,” Ciruli said, referring to opposition in the San Luis Valley and in the metro area. “It’s interesting that [RWR] is contributing to these boards. It’s is a real long shot.”
Parker Water and Sanitation District says it plans to continue its development of the South Platte pipeline project in northeastern Colorado and to craft deals with farmers so that agricultural water won’t be removed from farmlands, helping preserve the rural economy there. Most of Parker’s water rights have already been approved for municipal use, according to Redd.
“We’re concerned because Parker water has no interest in the RWR project and we basically stated that a year ago when Douglas County was looking at their project. It has no clear path to being done. It’s years if not decades before they could even get started,” Redd said.
“We have a clear path. We already have the water. I am not sure what the intent was to try and get people on our board. It is just concerning.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by numerous donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.